John Elkington: Talking Water and SustainAbility at the World Economic Forum

John Elkington: Talking Water and SustainAbility at the World Economic Forum

John Elkington, founder and chief entrepreneur of SustainAbility, the London-based think tank, and co-author, The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets that Change the World. Elkington puts water into the business context at the World Economic Forum, Davos, Switzerland

J. Carl Ganter – Circle of Blue: With last count nine sessions touching on water at Davos, water has taken the center stage. Can you frame what’s happened over the past several years to bring that level of corporate interest?

John Elkington: I think water has very much been on the agenda this year, but one of the problems that we face is that climate change is on the ascendant, and people are not always making the links to water as they perhaps should. I think that’s coming and over the next two to three years water will progressivly build into a really central component of the Davos agenda.

JCG: At Davos we’ve heard talk from the major bottles, the major corporate stakeholders. Why are they so interested now in water from a corporate sustainability perspective?

John Elkington: I think the major users of water have a number of different reasons for being interested, in some cases concerned. We’ve see in countries like India companies like Coca-Cola being whacked around the head because of water supply issues. We’ve seen companies like Intel coming up against major water access problems in New Mexico, Israel, elsewhere. These issues in terms of the supply agenda are becoming increasingly important for companies. At the same time, they equally recognize that as the water issues start to be actively engaged — not just by activists and non governmental organizations, but by governments, by communities, by business — there is a huge potential for being seen to be part of this new in a sense movement. But also as being a provider of some of the technological, logistical and financial solutions that will be needed.

JCG: You write about disruptive people in your new book, The Power of Unreasonable People. What’s causing this disruption now?

John Elkington: I think the water agenda is increasingly on people’s agendas for a range of different reasons. In addition to the access and supply issues there are quality issues that are building very rapidly. The spread of megacities and slums — that’s dramatizing the urgency of the water issue. We’ve just done a book called The Power of Unreasonable People and what we’re looking at there is entrepreneurs who describe themselves as social entrepreneurs, environmental entrepreneurs or whatever term they use who are basically trying to address areas of extreme — in many cases — market failure. Mohammed Yunis in Bangladesh would be perhaps the most notable example of these sorts of entrepreneurs. Here in Davos this week we’ve had somebody who’s just won the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship Award in the UK for the leading social entrepreneur in that country. His name is Reid Padget and his company is called Belu. And what they do is they create a range of bottled water products that are stocked by supermarkets, but all the profits go to water development projects in the developing world. Now that’s a relatively small scale solution to date, but the potential for application and leverage through the retailers and supermarkets and others is very substantial indeed. There’s a spectrum of initiatives here. I think some of the entrepreneurial ones, the smaller ones, are probably more likely to be truly disruptive. And I think we really need to disrupt the kind of ways we process and supply water, worldwide.

JCG: Coming back to Davos next year, or over the next several years, where do you think we’ll be with water? Is this going to take a long time to gel and implement, or something that’s going to pick up steam?

John Elkington: I think the way the Davos community responds to big issues is to pick them up and play with them for a while. But longer term, the ideal is that the new perspectives and priorities are shot through everything that happens here. So last year for example, climate change was a very big issue. It is this time too. But the real thinking and action is tending to happen in some of the parallel and side events. My hope would be over the next 18 months to a year water comes center stage at Davos. But within a very short period after that it’s shot through everything the World Economic Forum and its partners do.

JCG: What role does SustainAbility play in the water sector?

John Elkington: Our organization, SustainAbility, is 21 years old. We mainly work with business, quite a number of those companies are huge users of water. So increasingly that issue is surfacing for them. We work with Coca-Cola in India just as one example. I think for most of them it’s still relatively low down on the agenda. One of the other things I do is I’m on the council of ambassadors for the World Wildlife Fund for Nature. They have an emerging campaign around embedded water. But I think a range of initiatives are still needed to capture the minds, the hearts and minds of policy makers, business leaders, and the financial institutions as well. So I think there’s probably a three to five year challenge here.

JCG: What drives your passion in the sustainability world? What grabs your heart?

John Elkington: What grabs me? I don’t have any choice in the matter. When I was about seven in the mid 1950s I lived in Northern Ireland. One night I went out into a field, in pitch dark, coming home from supper with a farm laborer. Why my parents let me out in those conditions, I have no idea. But I suddenly found myself surrounded by baby eels moving in a great elastic sheet across this field. They may have been going from a river or a pond. It was an astonishing moment of connection because I knew what these things were after a moment of complete surprise. I knew the sort of linkages out to and including the Sargasso Sea. At that moment something snapped in my brain, some switch went over so you could say that water’s been a part of how I see this challenge (of sustainability) from the very outset. These days I’m in it because I think a world of 9 to 10 billion people, which is what the demographers say we’re headed toward, simply isn’t sustainable on the current economic models, business models, technologies we use. We need a profound set of solutions in order to make the 21st century manageable, sustainable, livable. And again I think the Circle of Blue messaging, and the networking of media people is a profoundly important potential contribution to all of that.

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