John Elkington

Triple Bottom Line → John Elkington: The Recall of a Management Concept (25 Years Later)

John Elkington

John is one of the world’s leading authorities on sustainable development and developed the ‘triple bottom line’ business strategy. He is the author or co-author of 50 published reports, thousands of articles, and 19 books, including the no. 1 bestselling The Green Consumer Guide (1988). 

In this episode, the following topics are discussed:

  • 2019 is the 25th anniversary of the TBL
  • People — Planet — Profit
  • Accounting vs Purpose
  • System change — not the accounting
  • Double entry bookkeeping
  • 6000 companies are engaging in sustainability reporting
  • Branding and advertising — misleading with green
  • HBR says this is first time any management concept has been recalled
  • Social entrepreneurs
  • TBL is not intended to be a mechanism to support tradeoffs
  • Improve on two dimensions, and holding the third constant
  • Tomorrow’s capitalism inquiry — Aviva Investors
  • Crowdsourcing the revamp — using technology to communicate more widely
  • How does shared value link to the TBL
  • Competing language is a glorious alibi to do nothing at all
  • What lies on the horizon for the revamp?We need framework and tools that drives business in ways that we have not seen yet
  • Look at leadership companies, like Unilever, and explore what
  • TBL thinking has delivered in their businesses. (Revamp 1)
  • CEO must be on board
  • The evolution of B2B platforms — Paul Polman — look at B2B platforms and look at what is working and what is not — do we need multiple platforms? (Revamp 2)
  • The role of government and policy makers
  • Financial markets through the lenses of the CFO and the tie to sustainabilty (Revamp 3)
  • Larry Fink at BlackRock, “Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose. To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society.”
  • Avoiding the label of environmentalist
  • John as an agitator —
  • ‘Playfulness’ as an indicator of flexibility and embracing change?
    OECD: 80 -90% of companies know a sustainability commitment is necessary
  • Corporate culture —
  • The term greenwashing — safety and health diversity are easy to claim, but a CEO saying it is different than real results— someone at Board level must be directly responsible for performance
  • Climate change, human rights, communicating TBL to Wall Street → learning journeys
  • The sort of company that does TBL reporting and brand activism
  • Comparing 1970’s corporate leadership to today
  • SDGs
  • The word ’sustainability’ and it being perceived as something bad
  • A pending financial crash
  • Dirty industries proclaiming sustainability — and the need to call out ranking without looking at what goes on behind the scenes
  • The need to disrupt the ranking industry
  • Provoking or calling out bad corporate behavior
  • Incremental change is boring — disruption or civilizational change is more fascinating and engaging
  • When words or phrases first appear they are like membranes — new concepts that engage — the more a term is used it becomes less engaging
  • The forecast that the SDGs will equal 12T in opportunity — dissecting the number — skepticism and forecasts
  • We have moved from looking at sustainability as an impediment and viewing it as an opportunity and instrument for transformation
  • Big brands that disappear
  • Paradigm shifts

John Elkington is the executive chairman of Volans, co-founder of SustainAbility, blogs at, tweets at @volansjohn. 


John’s websites

John Elkington


Other websites

Aviva Investors

B Corp


Business and Sustainability Development Commission — market potential of SDGs


Fast Company



Tech Mahindra 

Unilever sustainability 



Sample of John’s books

The Green Capitalists by John Elkington and Tom Burke

The Green Consumer Guide by John Elkington and Julia Hailes

Cannibals With Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business

The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan

The Zeronauts

The Breakthrough Challenge: 10 Ways To Connect Today’s Profits With Tomorrow’s Bottom Line by John Elkington and Jochen Zeitz, with a foreword from Sir Richard Branson

Other books

Thomas Kuhn — The Structure of Scientific Revolutions


The 6 Ways Business Leaders Talk About Sustainability

John Elkington has lit the fuse to blow up the “Triple Bottom Line” he invented


Philip is host of Corporate Sustainability; the podcast that explores companies and people who inspire innovation, improvement, and sustainable business practices through purpose-driven missions and initiatives. Philip is a longtime marketer, who consults companies on how to use stories and narrative to help build their brands.  He says sustainability stories are one of the most powerful ways companies can manage their reputations.

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