It’s Time For Exponential Thinking About Corporate Responsibility

John Elkington invented the idea of the triple bottom line. Now he’s focusing on how we can move past incrementalism and toward fast, breakthrough change.

It’s Time For Exponential Thinking About Corporate Responsibility
[Photo: SAKDAWUT14/iStock]

In the more than 30 years that John Elkington has been advising companies about corporate responsibility, there’s been a lot of change in how people view the topic. Many companies now endorse the notion of triple bottom line–Elkington’s most famous idea. We have indexes of corporate behavior, as well as indexes of profit. And there’s a whole industry devoted to accounting for the “people” and “planet” aspects of his three “P” trifecta.


Last year, the Harvard Business Review shifted how it assesses its “100 best-performing CEOs,” including for the first time a variety of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) metrics. In the new reckoning, Jeff Bezos fell from first place to 87th, and Netflix’s Reed Hastings didn’t even make the list. That HBR, hardly a flag-waver for the Socialist International, now sees performance this way is solid evidence that Elkington’s ideas have finally reached mainstream.

But Elkington, a Brit, is far from happy with this rate of progress. There are still too few companies adopting true 3P thinking, he says, and, measured against global limits–as opposed to the quarterly targets set by Wall Street–we’re still miles behind where we need to be. There’s still lots of hunger, environmental problems, and failing infrastructure, and, in many cases, corporations aren’t really helping.

“I think we’ve got the language of sustainability better understood and used than 30 years ago, no question,” Elkington, now 67, says. “I think we’ve got all sorts of people enthused about this sort of area, signing up to charters and principles, and the rest of it. But the total number of people who’ve gone the General Electric route, or who are thinking like Elon Musk . . . These are still the exceptions.”

These days, Elkington is preaching a new magnitude of change. He no longer thinks the incrementalism of CSR, with its careful measuring and reporting of “impacts,” is sufficient. We need something more exponential and far-reaching, he says: less accountancy, more Silicon Valley moonshot.

“We have to jump to a very different way of thinking about all of this,” he says. “I’m not saying the Silicon Valley folk have the answers waiting on a plate. But the way these people think and the way they move beyond incrementalism, that’s something that has to be adopted by the sustainability movement.”

Elkington’s new initiative is called Project Breakthrough. A partnership between the UN Global Compact and Volans, Elkington’s consultancy group, it aims to bring together corporations with “next generation innovators and entrepreneurs” and generally spur more dynamic thinking about the world’s sustainability challenges.


The Project Breakthrough website features interviews with several moonshot personalities, including Peter Diamandis, of Singularity University and the X Prize Foundation; Josh Tetrick, CEO of food startup Hampton Creek; Robin Chase, cofounder of Zipcar; and Patrick Thomas, CEO of advanced materials company Covestro. At the same time, Volans has published a report with the Business & Sustainable Development Commission looking at breakthrough business models. These include companies that deliver social impact as well as financial value, and “circular” companies that recycle natural resources and incorporate closed-loop value systems.

The report calls on companies to track their performance according to the Sustainable Development Goals and to take on an “exponential mind-set” that matches the size of today’s health, environmental, and food challenges. It argues we’re now entering a sixth historical cycle where technology–from artificial intelligence to the blockchain–has potential to create abundance rather than scarcity, and where businesses can meet unmet global needs, rather than simply measure their philanthropy and limit their harm.

“Our earlier obsession with demonstrating the business case for action [on sustainability] is about to shift irretrievably to a new focus on business models–and breakthrough business models in particular,” the report says.

It’s not exactly clear whether the shift from incremental to exponential action is happening already, or whether Elkington just wants it to happen. But it’s a near certainty that the expectations around corporate responsibility will continue to evolve in the future, as they have in the last 30 years. Given all the big technology now emerging, and the challenges still ahead, it would be a surprise if reporting-and-measuring-type CSR will be enough going forward. Society is likely to demand more.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.