Can we move beyond incrementalism to the pursuit of zero?

The Gunther Report

Can we move beyond incrementalism to the pursuit of zero?

“The time has come to tear down the old order and begin to create the new.”

John Elkington sounds like a Wall Street occupier, or a Bolshevik. He is neither. He is, instead, a 63-year-old consultant who has advised executives of global corporations, including Ford, Shell, BP, Toyota, HP, Nike, Nestle and Bayer, over the course of a long career at the crossroads of business and the environment. Along with such thinkers as Paul Hawken and Amory Lovins, Elkington all but invented the discipline of corporate sustainability. He’s got a new book out called The Zeronauts, so I paid him a visit a week or so ago when I was in London.

The book’s very good. It celebrates a new breed of innovators, called Zeronauts, who set out to create wealth while driving negative outputs -- greenhouse gas emissions, toxics, waste, pollution and poverty — to zero.

The idea of zero is intended to be a wake-up call. It’s a reminder (not that we should need one) that incremental change won’t get us where we need to go.

“It helps reframe things,” Elkington told me. “It’s a catalyst.”

Elkington has a knack for coming up with language that gets people’s attention. He called his consultancy SustainAbility in 1987 when the idea of a sustainable business was brand new. He wrote the first book about the “green consumer” in 1986. (My friend Joel Makower co-authored the US edition). He coined the term “triple bottom line” (profits, people, planet) in 1994. His thinking has always been bold, but he has a gentle sense of humor and low-key manner that allows him to whisper radical ideas into the ears of CEOs without unsettling them.

Most CEOs, though, still don’t get it. They tinker around the edges of their companies (if they do anything at all), either because they don’t see, or don’t want to see, where business as usual is taking us. As Elkington writes in The Zeronauts, the idea of “sustainability” has over time been drained of its original meaning:

In a survey of 766 CEOs carried out for the UN Global Compact by the consultancy Accenture, for example, no less than 81 percent insisted that they had already "embedded" the concept (of sustainability) in their businesses. With the greatest respect, I think not.

But can we move beyond incrementalism to the pursuit of zero?

Elkington is an optimist, saying: “People are in the process of waking up to the nature and scale of the challenges we face.” Climate change is hard to ignore, and it will make itself felt in the form of extreme weather. The discovery of a hole in the ozone layer, he noted, led to the global Montreal Protocol, and governments passed clean air laws with smog and soot got really bad. “What drives these system-level responses is a signal, almost, from the heavens,” he says.

Business leaders, he said, will be the first to recognize the challenge. Dozens of big companies, for example, have embraced the goal of zero waste, which often requires redesigning the way products are made. Walmart, GM, Toyota, Subaru, P&G, Kraft and Caterpillar have all embarked on zero-waste initiatives. (See my blogpost, Zero Waste: Exciting, radical and real). Frito Lay operates a manufacturing plant in Arizona that aims to drive waste and greenhouse gas emissions to “near net zero.” Architects and energies are excited by the prospect of zero-net energy buildings.

Countries and consumers have been slower to awaken. Long-term thinking is required, but politicians operate on short-term time scales. “The state of global governance on issues bearing on the interests of future generations is generally abominable,” Elkington says.

Consumers, too, seem to have a difficult time taking the future into account. Elkington writes:

I was shocked to learn that 64 percent of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings…If you can’t (or won’t) take care of your own future, what chance is there that you will do so for the future of others?”

Deferred gratification is not our strong suit.

Still, Elkington sees green shoots springing up everywhere. He writes about cradle-to-cradle design at Herman Miller and Desso, Janine Benyus and the evolving science of biomimicry, the Carbon Tracker Initiative and its efforts to expose a “carbon bubble” in the world’s stock markets, and Allen Savory and his work on soil restoration in Africa.  He has put together a list of 50 Zeronauts that you can find at thezeronauts.com.

In the years ahead, he told me, clean technology, renewable energy, materials science, biomimicry, genetic engineering and synthetic biology “will start to hybridize in ways that are completely unpredictable. There’s a massive tsunami of experimentation that’s just started to break loose.”

This experimentation will bring failure as well as success. Already, some of the Zeronauts in the book (Shai Agassi of Better Place, Martha Johnson of the GSA, Shi Zhengrong of Sun Tech) have lost their jobs. Other ventures he admires (Vestas, the Chicago Climate Exchange) have fallen on hard times.

Says Elkington: “One thing history just continually underscores is that as a species in the end we broadly get it right but, by God, we stumble along the way.” Being a rational optimist myself, I share John’s view that we will get sustainability right. But there’s not a lot of time to waste.

Illustration of nine different styles of zero by Filip Bjorkman via Shutterstock.