John Elkington is a leading thinker in business sustainability. He is likely best known for advancing the idea of the Triple Bottom Line, see here. He has a somewhat positive take on where humanity is going regarding sustainability. He sees profound market shifts towards sustainability coming. He calls these Green Swans.
Green Swans, Black Swans, And Gray Swans
A Green Swan is a profound market shift, generally catalysed by some combination of Black or Grey Swan challenges and changing paradigms, values, mindsets, politics, policies, technologies, business models, and other key factors.Elkington, 2020, page 8
Many will know what a Black Swan is from the work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, see here. A Black Swan is a massive, surprising change in how we see the world. After the event, we might claim we saw it coming but we didn’t. In Elkington’s thinking Black Swans are a sort of major negative jolt out of the blue. Gray Swans are a bit more predictable in advance — but they still have the capacity for major impact. A Gray Swan shouldn’t be a total surprise though. Climate change is hardly an unknown threat but most of us are not especially focused on the problem before we feel the consequences.
While Green Swans are the positive type of swans they can have tints of problems and any major change is likely to leave some people facing challenges.
Dramatic Progress In Business Operations
Green Swans have the potential to transform the way the world runs. Technological Green Swans can help fight pollution and/or climate change. Renewables have challenges to solve, e.g., storage, but if these issues can be tackled the potential exists for dramatic progress. This can truly be a change in the way the world works.
Elkington is keen to emphasize the need for dramatic improvement — and Green Swans represent that potential. He is a man who believes dramatic progress is possible.
While much of capitalism is becoming more responsible and less restrictive per unit of production or profit, it must become radically more economically inclusive, socially just, and –crucially– environmentally restorative.Elkington, 2020, page 32
He is not naive though. Dramatic progress can bring its own new issues. He talks of how plastics replaced ivory — a boon for endangered elephants but which brought new challenges with waste. Our modern diets bring plenty of calories for most. Thankfully this relieves the pressure of worrying about finding enough food — an incredible achievement — but nothing is perfect. Available food opens us up to the challenge of managing what we eat. He describes how adding lead to petrol was a major advance. It was even green as it improved the fuel efficiency of vehicles. Yet, the lead that was spewed into the air caused innumerable problems.
[Adding lead to petrol was a] Green Swan, sprouting black feathers, even wings, before turning as dark as night.Elkington, 2020, page 172
Even when we see breakthroughs we need to keep our eyes out for potentially negative consequences.
Radical changes in business can lead to stranded assets. These are assets that had value under the old way of doing business but lost their value in the new approach. A lot of the debate around fossil fuels concerns stranded assets. If a firm or country has access to fossil fuels that are very valuable they generally don’t want them to be stranded, i.e., people to stop using them, as their assets would no longer have value. A major challenge with radical change is how to get on board those with the most to lose.
The idea of Green Swans is a positive one. Hopefully, we can see profound market shifts towards sustainability.
For more on sustainable business see here.
Read: John Elington, 2000 ,Green Swans: The Coming Boom in Regenerative Capitalism, Fast Company Pr, https://volans.com/project/green-swans/