Verging on the Sustainable?

By John Elkington of

When I recently had dinner in San Francisco with Joel Makower of GreenBiz, he blamed me for pulling him into the sustainability space over 20 years ago. (In the late 1980s, he translated our best-selling Green Consumer Guide into the American version.) Having just attended the London version of Joel’s brainchild VERGE, a rolling, invitation-only roundtable forum that kicked off in Shanghai and ended in San Francisco the following day, I feel quite proud. This was one of the most interesting events I have been to in a while — spotlighting key trends and opportunities at the intersection between energy, information, buildings and vehicles.

Early in the history of the sustainability movement, we tended to focus on the risks associated with individual products, technologies, companies and sectors. But now, as the focus shifts to solutions, the spotlight is on emerging areas of overlap between on-the-face-of-it-unrelated sectors.

The London VERGE event brought together companies like Atkins, Autodesk, BT, Cisco, IBM and SAP. Held at the Royal Society, founded in 1660 and with an impressive oil painting of Sir Isaac Newton staring down on the proceedings with what looked like interest, around 40 CEOs, COOs, CIOs and leaders from the world of government and civil society explored the accelerating convergence between sustainability-oriented sectors.

I found myself sitting next to Mike Barry, award-winning Chief Sustainability Officer of UK retail giant Marks & Spencer, whose Plan A (“because there is no Plan B”) has garnered much praise and several awards. More importantly, as Mike told the gathering as one of half-a-dozen ‘Firestarters’, Plan A made a net profit for M&S of £100 million in 2010. All part of the transition from an era when five CSR professionals “tried to ensure the group did less bad” to a future when every employee is an agent of change.

“Does the VERGE concept resonate?” Mike asked later in the morning. “Absolutely! Convergence is our No. 1 challenge.” The new technologies and business models being given a run around the track that morning will be key to shifting mainstream companies towards sustainability. M&S, for example, aims to achieve zero carbon targets in the decade 2020-2030, but is acutely aware of how much there still is to do. “We are perhaps 10 percent along the metaphorical journey to sustainability,” Mike concluded.

One interesting technology I was briefed on while in San Francisco is the latest version of the GoodGuideapp, potentially providing consumers with a huge flow of tailored information on the performance of products, brands and the companies behind them in key areas of interest—whether that be animal welfare, obesity or climate change. There now seems to be a good chance that Amazon will adopt the approach, so we can opt to see the relevant data for everything we buy online, alongside the performance of competing products, brands or suppliers.

But the focus of VERGE was on the convergence of IT with infrastructure, underscoring the messaging we have seen recently from IBM’s Smarter Planet campaign and companies like GE and Siemens. But there remain real challenges here. One participant recalled going up the world’s tallest skyscraper and finding that all performance data were recorded by hand! Even where Amazon-like flows of data are now generated, IBM ‘Master Inventor’ Jim Fletcher noted they are being very narrowly used. “The buildings are talking” he said,” but no-one is listening.”

If sustainable cities are to be anything like a reality, and if regions like Europe are to reach their decarbonization targets, we must learn to listen, understand and act. If I heard it right, one key message of VERGE was that, with trillion-dollar markets and our ecological future now at stake, we will.

Don’t expect most politicians to take the lead, yet. They are still in the “What can I open today? What can I announce today?” frame of mind, noted one leading figure who works very close in to government.

But one factor that will give them little choice in the matter as to whether or not to think longer term is that the time-scales involved in these new infrastructures are dramatically more extended than those we used during the New Economy. It may be a while before copies of the Clock of the Long Now are installed in the White House or No. 10 Downing Street, but chances are we are all going to have to play a longer game.

John Elkington is Executive Chairman of Volans and Non-Executive Director atSustainAbility. He is considered a world authority on corporate responsibility and sustainable development.

Article originally appeared on CSRwire.