Brundtland and sustainability: history's balance-sheet

About the author
John Elkington is founder and chief entrepreneur at SustainAbility. He blogs at www.johnelkington.com.

"The further backward you look, the further forward you can see", Winston Churchill famously observed. But the older you get, as I am sure he discovered, the more sobering it is to read through the acknowledgements of publications dating back twenty years or more - as the Brundtland commission's landmark report Our Common Future now does. True, the paperback version, published late in 1987, indirectly warned readers of the risk on its cover: "Most of today's decision makers will be dead before the planet suffers the full consequences of acid rain, global warming, ozone depletion, widespread desertification, and species loss." Nor have they been alone in succumbing. In rereading the report ahead of a recent - lacklustre - Chatham House conference on today's sustainability agenda, I was struck by how many of the pioneers are dead or long-since-retired. Still, if you recall one of history's key lessons, maybe that's our first reason to be optimistic.

Revolutions in thought don't simply depend on the energy and novel paradigms of young people better attuned to tomorrow; they also rely on death scything away many of those hard-wired with yesterday's assumptions and agendas. While I was among those acknowledged in the Brundtland report, I currently find myself among the undead and unretired. And, inevitably, people like me are often asked: what persuaded us to do what we have done? In addition to childhood travels and David Attenborough, I tend to blame two publications (Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962 and Our Common Future) and an image sent back by Apollo astronauts, which became the centrepiece of the Earth flag in 1969.

For those whose memories don't reach back so far, the Brundtland commission - more formally, the World Commission on Environment and Development, chaired by Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland - was created late in 1983. Its members came from no less than twenty-one countries. In addition to mainstreaming the concept of sustainable development, the commission's key contributions included the unusually open process it adopted, with hearings and site visits in places as diverse as Canada, Japan and Norway, on the one hand, and Brazil, Indonesia, the Soviet Union (still existent at the time) and Zimbabwe on the other.

A series of catastrophes occurred during the short lifetime of the commission and helped crystallise its agenda, including the Bhopal, Chernobyl and Rhine disasters. All, in different ways, turned the spotlight on what was then called "industry". If you check through the paperback's index you'll find plenty of mentions of industry, but none of the term we have since come to use of the corporate world, business. There are many reasons for this shift in terminology, one being that - while the impact of manufacturing industry remains critical in areas like climate change - there has been an accelerating recognition of the significance of the service and finance sectors.

John Elkington is founder and chief entrepreneur at SustainAbility. He blogs at www.johnelkington.com

Also by John Elkington in openDemocracy:

"Why I'm going to Davos"
(16 January 2003)

"Biotechnology: the case for sustainability"
(20 August 2003)

"It's the system, stupid!"
(5 February 2004)

"Globalisation's reality check" (7 September 2004)

"After Stern: let's get technical"
(2 November 2006)

"Climate change's right and wrong fixes" (2 February 2007) – with Geoff Lye

The capitalist ascendancy

Something else that changed profoundly after the Brundtland commission reported is that the world entered a new era of capitalist ascendancy, fuelled by market liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation.

SustainAbility - after celebrating our own twentieth anniversary - is grappling with its challenges by working on the final stages of a study of the future of globalisation and the implications for corporate responsibility. This parallels another major investigation I have been involved in, the Tomorrow's Global Company Inquiry. The lesson of these exercises is that it's a tough time to consider either the globalisation or sustainability agendas, since each is refusing to stand still and indeed morphing energetically.

This is part of the reason why, when asked where things are headed next, I echo Churchill by looking backward in the hope of finding underlying patterns and trends that point to where the future may be taking us. In the process, I tend to linger over 1994, when SustainAbility began mapping the giant societal pressure-waves that have driven and shaped the business agenda since 1960. And, as I recently explained in the Guardian, this series of waves has successively - and powerfully - impacted on politicians, regulators, businesses and, increasingly, the financial markets (see "Rising to the challenge?" 28 March 2007).

The first wave built from the early 1960s, in the wake of Silent Spring. The WWF, founded in 1961 by Max Nicholson and Peter Scott, helped push nature conservation up the agenda. Then came Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. In Britain, this was the campaigning heyday of people such as Tom Burke and the late Richard Sandbrook, of Friends of the Earth, Pete Wilkinson of Greenpeace, and Charles Medawar of Social Audit.

That first-wave peak roared through from 1969 and culminated in the first United Nations environmental conference in 1972, in Stockholm. Through the subsequent downwave, a raft of environment ministries surfaced worldwide, followed by a secondary wave of regulation. Industry, on the defensive, was forced to comply with a floodtide of new laws. And that is where many companies remain, including many based in the emerging economies.

The second wave, peaking between 1988 and 1991, was very different, with market drivers playing a growing role. The launch of the Brundtland report was a key milestone. But having registered SustainAbility a month earlier with Julia Hailes, we went on to launch The Green Consumer Guide in 1988. It caught the Zeitgeist, selling a million copies. Spooked by issues such as ozone depletion, growing numbers of ordinary citizens were voting for change with their purses or wallets. New faces appeared in the green spotlight, among them Jonathon Porritt and Sara Parkin, who went on to found Forum for the Future with Sandbrook and others. Political leaders such as Margaret Thatcher, George Bush Snr and Mikhail Gorbachev made their first green speeches - as Green parties surged in Germany and even, briefly around the 1989 European Union elections, Britain.

Industry was off balance, the challenges even tougher. Previously, companies could lobby to slow down or gut new laws. Now retailers became market gatekeepers. Under pressure from NGOs and consumers, they began to change their product specifications - often leaving manufacturers and growers only months or weeks to change their product formulations. Lead went from petrol, mercury from batteries, phosphates from detergents, chlorine from paper. Companies scrambled to audit suppliers and, for a time, the game became competitive. Now we are seeing a similar cycle as retailers like Wal-Mart, Marks & Spencer and Tesco switch on to a new generation of green issues.

Unhappily, that period of the second wave era petered out - in the absence of sustained consumer and customer demand - and many companies defaulted to corporate citizenship. The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro helped, but the pressure wave was already falling away. The focus shifted to stakeholder engagement and corporate sustainability reporting. True, globalisation drove things along, with controversies igniting around such companies as Shell, Nike and Monsanto. But, at least in retrospect, one unfortunate feature of the business responses was that the sustainability agenda was often booted into touch with corporate social responsibility (CSR) departments, rather than appearing as a recurrent agenda item for boards. Sustainable development came to be seen by many as the same as corporate social responsibility - a travesty of reality.

Then from 1999, the rules of the game morphed once again as the third wave peak kicked off in the streets of Seattle with the protests against the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and, soon after, such organisations as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Economic Forum. This time, though, unless their jobs were being offshored, the issues seemed more remote to most people. The 9/11 attacks in the United States savagely chopped back that third wave. Emerging concerns around environmental security were sluiced away in the race to win the misbegotten and ill-conceived "war on terror".

Also on "sustainable development" in openDemocracy:

Felix Dodds, "In the balance: the future of sustainable development"
(26 June 2002)

James Goodman, "Communication: the missing link in sustainable development"
(11 December 2003)

Jonathon Porritt, "'As if the world matters': reconciling sustainable development and capitalism"
(30 November 2005)

Camilla Toulmin, Tom Burke, Tim Worstall, et al., "Capitalism, the environment, and sustainable development: replies to Jonathon Porritt"
(6 December 2005)

Ehsan Masood, "A German vision: greening globalisation"
(28 March 2007)

Michael Hopkins, "Sustainable development: from word to policy"
(11 April 2007)

A fourth wave

But now a new wave is building, with climate change a key driver of citizen, political and market responses. (It's worth noting that Our Common Future, apart from passing references, devoted just four pages to climate change. The sort of analysis offered by the Stern report on the economics of climate change, published ion October 2006, was conspicuously absent. Today, by contrast, climate change routinely tops the annual issue rankings at the World Economic Forum's Davos summits, alongside the three other horsemen of the apocalypse: terrorism, poverty and the growing risk of pandemics.

Climate, in particular, seems to have gone beyond the political tipping-point, with local, national and international politicians embracing the cause. In Britain, senior politicians - London mayor Ken Livingstone, Conservative leader David Cameron and Labour's Gordon Brown (who commissioned the Stern review) are among the leading figures who have recently seized the green torch, or tried to do so. Their counterparts in the United States include the mayors of Seattle, San Francisco and Chicago (as well, more prominently, as former vice-president Al Gore). California's governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has gone further with his market-shaping initiatives. On 27 September 2006, he signed into law the Global Warming Solutions Act better known in California by its assembly bill number, AB 32. This is likely to become a model for similar legislation in states across the US, and will likely put pressure on the federal government to adopt a uniform programme to bring the country into closer alignment with other developed countries that have signed up to the Kyoto protocol.

For business, the fourth-wave agenda is going to be less about compliance and citizenship than about creativity, innovation and entrepreneurial solutions. And business, as the Brundtland commission foresaw, is still where much of the action is. Companies and NGOs are combining forces in groundbreaking alliances such as the Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change and the US Climate Action Partnership - lobbying politicians for action. (An interesting illustrative cameo came in mid-March 2007 when the chief executives of America's biggest car companies withstood pressure during a Congressional hearing to belittle the significance of manmade carbon emissions.) As these trends build, corporate lobbying is likely to come under scrutiny as never before.

So where is the sustainability agenda headed? The answer is either beyond sustainability, or towards very different definitions of the term, much closer to Joseph Schumpeter's idea of creative destruction. A few years ago, a researcher ran a word-search for sustainability in Our Common Future and didn't find it. Whether or not the Brundtland commission used the term, we had a fair old struggle with it in the early years of using it as our name, having to spell it for just about everyone who called - and then, later, having to help business leaders pick their way through the minefields created by multiple competing definitions. Our own "triple bottom line" formulation (dating from 1994) was designed to remind business that there was a social agenda to be addressed alongside the eco-efficiency approach favoured by organisations such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD).

It has been instructive - amusing at times - to see some such business-led organisations cling to less dynamic language like the "three pillars of sustainability" or the "three legs of the sustainability stool", rather than adopting business language that would help mainstream the agenda. Still, it would be churlish to deny that the WBCSD and other similar organisations - among them the World Economic Forum, the Clinton Global Initiative and the Tällberg Forum - have made surprising progress in some key areas of the sustainable-development agenda.

That said, there is in increasingly concern that even the best-intentioned and professionally-run corporate-responsibility initiatives cannot deliver sustainable development on the scale needed. When Brundtland reported, there were some 5 billion people in the world, whereas we now have 6.5 billion - and seem set to hit 9 billion some time around 2050. In terms of the breakthrough technology and business models that will be needed, many of the answers to our problems are as likely to come from people we have never heard of as from the big incumbent companies the CSR movement has concentrated on during the post-Brundtland period.

Happily, markets are on the move. The growing interest of venture capital outfits such as Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in the "cleantech" field - with billions of dollars pouring into biofuels, wind energy and solar photovoltaics - is encouraging. Key actors in the field include the Cleantech Venture Network, which is bringing its latest event to Frankfurt in May 2007. But even the Kleiner Perkins people admit that if the Greenland ice-cap melts, the ensuing sea-level rises will drown many of the world's most populous cities.

The case for optimism

So, finally, to the question that most interviewers get to eventually: given all of this, are you optimistic or pessimistic? This is a question we answer in a new report launched at the Skoll World Forum, held at the Saïd Business School in Oxford on 27-29 March 2007. Growing Opportunity: Entrepreneurial Solutions to Insoluble Problems surveys the emerging fields of social and environmental entrepreneurship. It concludes that the emerging challenges are collectively greater than those faced in the cold war, but that the success of the entrepreneurs supported by the likes of Ashoka and the Schwab Foundation and Skoll Foundation offers some hope that they can be overcome, eventually. Encouragingly, and overwhelmingly, the 100-plus entrepreneurs we surveyed around the world are deeply interested in working together with business.

In a related trend unforeseen by the Brundtland commission, a growing number of people who made their fortunes during the heady "new economy" days are investing a significant proportion of their money and time in entrepreneurial solutions to sustainability challenges. They include Bill and Melinda Gates, eBay founders Pierre Omidyar and Jeff Skoll, and Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. As the latest Skoll World Forum built to its climax, Larry Brilliant - who runs Google's new foundation Google.org - took the stage and presented his thoughts along the lines of "reasons to be optimistic". Given that he started with a visual tour de force showing how Bangladesh will be squeezed between worsening flooding of the Ganges system and rising sea levels, we wondered whether he might have got his isms confused. But then he went on to spotlight the process by which smallpox was eradicated to show what humankind can do once it gets its act together.

The biggest shift now needed was foreseen by Brundtland and involves fundamental changes in politics, government and public policy - as well as changes in our definitions of security. In 1987, Brundtland spoke of a $13 trillion global economy, with a global military budget of $1 trillion. With leading western governments, not least the British, seeing security through post-9/11 lenses, this is an issue that is as urgent as ever. Meanwhile, the scale of current funding of social and environmental entrepreneurship remains relatively small. If total US philanthropy adds up to around $240 billion a year, for example, and cleantech funding runs at around $2 billion, major foundation funding for social entrepreneurship is only now pushing towards $200 million.

To ensure we make the political, social, economic and technological shifts that sustainability requires, politicians and governments can no longer sit back and leave things to voluntary initiatives by business. Instead, the challenge now is to actively shape markets - something the likes of Ken Livingstone and Arnold Schwarzenegger are pioneering. And it's interesting that Our Common Future specifically mentions export credits as a sector that needed greening way back then. It still does. As chairman of the advisory council of Britain's export-credits guarantee department (ECGD) I was far from happy to see ECGD come bottom of the Sustainable Development Commission's most recent survey, alongside Gordon Brown's treasury. But at least government is now beginning to come under sustained pressure. And, as a long-time politician, Gro Harlem Brundtland would presumably be the first to admit that political toes will need to be held to the fire for some time before truly transformative actions are attempted.