“Our species may have backed itself into the mother of all evolutionary corners, but sometimes such moments are when our best work is done.” These are the words of John Elkington in his 20th book, Green Swans, The Coming Boom in Regenerative Capitalism, published this week by Fast Company Press.
One of the world’s leading sustainability thinkers and a firm believer in the resourcefulness of humanity, John Elkington delivers a hopeful and imaginative new business book designed to lift the reader from uncertainty (climate change, economic downturns and a global health pandemic) into optimism and hopefully, affirmative action.
Elkington argues that if we act quickly with intelligence and integrity, we can reimagine and redesign markets to be regenerative. The resulting Green Swans will emerge from the “ashes” of today’s near-societal collapse to create a radically different future, creating a version of capitalism that can exist in harmony with the planet’s resources and more balanced societies.
The book’s title riffs off the metaphor of the economic ‘Black Swan’ event, introduced by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2007 book, referring to unpredicted—and generally unpredictable—events in whose wake nothing is the same.
Green Swans are defined as systemic and largely currently unimaginable solutions to the ‘wicked’ global challenges we currently face. The idea of Green Swans is a key output of the Tomorrow’s Capitalism Inquiry, an initiative of the organisation Elkington co-founded, Volans, which helps businesses prepare for the emergent future.
Changing the system
The Tomorrow’s Capitalism Inquiry launched in 2018, with the backing of Aviva Investors, The Body Shop International, Covestro, Unilever and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, to explore the role of business as an agent of systemic change. The starting point was a ‘recall’ of a concept Elkington coined in 1994 – the Triple Bottom Line (People, Planet, Profit) – on the basis that, though widely adopted by businesses, it has failed to trigger the kind of system change required to make capitalism truly sustainable.
The Inquiry, now in its second phase, focuses on how best to accelerate the emergence of Green Swan trajectories in response to systemic crises such as the coronavirus pandemic and climate breakdown.
Elkington notes, “The world is headed into a deep ‘u-bend’ recession, where the established orders and ideologies of capitalism, democracy, and even sustainability will be fundamentally disrupted.”
Paul Polman in his Foreword to the book comments, “John Elkington’s prescription for a new way of doing business—one that nurtures the “Green Swans” of the future—could not come at a more crucial time. As we race towards a doomsday scenario where we do irreversible damage to our planet, we have to urgently hit the reset button.”
The book’s accessible definitions for Black, Gray and finally the eponymous Green Swans concludes that business, society and the planet need the uniquely regenerative business innovations catalysed by Green Swans urgently if our systems are to adapt and thrive.