There is something about the sustainability pioneer John Elkington’s new book, Green Swans; The Coming Boom in Regenerative Capitalismthat brings joy as one scans the contents pages. The title unapologetically riffs off the idea of Black Swans – the extreme, the unknown, and very improbable events – described in a book of that name published just before the global financial crisis of 2008.
The twitch at the corners of the mouth when you read is less to do with the subject matter – though this is ultimately an inherently optimistic read – and more because of the fun that John has obviously had with the analogy. Halfway into the book, there’s a section called ‘New Pecking Orders’ – he’s really in his stride now – with sections called ‘Incubating Ugly Ducklings’ and ‘Exponential Migrations’.
All levity aside, Green Swansputs our current challenges into context by setting out the very serious ‘Black Swans’ that we currently face including: Plastic in the oceans, killer calories and climate change. Despite the complexity of the issues, it is not all bad news, mostly because the book is packed with John’s anecdotes and his clever aggregation and framing of ideas about how and where remedies are likely to appear.
The book draws from themes derived from the work carried out by Volans, the future-business consultancy which John co-founded, in its inquiry series: Tomorrow’s Capitalism. The Inquiry kicked off with a recall of the Triple Bottom Line mid-2018, the first ever ‘product recall’ of a management theory. In a blog on Harvard Business Review, John called for re-think and withdrew People, Profit, Planet, concluding it was longer fit for purpose. Together with his colleagues at Volans, he sought to reboot the concept identifying the ‘3Rs’ as its worthy successor: Resilience, Responsibility, and Regeneration are the vital characteristics, Volans argues, of the business systems of the future.
Despite the gravity of the issues, John manages to keep the text from getting too weighed down. He talks about how during his long career as an advisor to CEOs and embattled leaders, he has often used humour in Boardrooms as an unexpected tactic that gets people to drop their guard and focus on unpalatable truths.
The book is packed full of references that resonate reassuringly for businesses grappling with formulating their own response to the emergent future. And while the Covid-19 pandemic rages all around us, there is something strangely calming in thinking that this Black Swan event could end up giving flight to some very welcome and significant Green Swans.
As the book notes, “For the foreseeable future, this will be by far the biggest opportunity for adventure, growth, and evolution in the tightly coupled stories of humankind, capitalism, and our home planet, Earth.”
Green Swans, The Coming Boom in Regenerative Capitalism, was published on 9 April by Fast Company Press and is available to buy on Amazon or direct from the Volans website.