Interview with Jonathon Porritt, founder of Forum for the Future, by Tom Idle
He may not like to describe himself as a ‘greenie’ – not least because his work over the past 40 years has been as much about tackling economic and social issues as environmental ones – but Jonathon Porritt
continues to bang the drum for progressive thinking, in politics, in business and beyond.
His work at Forum for the Future
– which he set up in 1996 – has seen him work directly with some of the world’s most progressive companies, like Marks & Spencer, O2 and Unilever. Today, with a focus on bringing companies together to work on a range of projects, he is also helping small, agile and technologically focused companies to flourish too—Tom Idle
TI: How do you describe yourself these days?
JP: I’ve always had a real problem describing myself as an environmentalist because it’s not where the core of my work is. I now call myself a sustainability activist, which keeps my campaigning enthusiasm running. For four days of the work week, I am founder-director of Forum for the Future.
TI: Forum keeps you busy. What projects are getting you excited now?
JP: We have a lot of big, chunky system-changing projects on the go right now. We’re in the middle of our 20th anniversary year, which gives us a good opportunity to look again at the premise of Forum. When we started, it was all about being a sustainability advisor and critical friend to the public sector, nonprofits and for profits in one-to-one relationships. That worked well for the first 15 years. Then came the financial crash of 2008 and our public sector partners disappeared overnight.
TI: So, now it’s all about helping the larger companies?
JP: Yes. We also focus more on innovation and working with younger companies who are demonstrating how their models are working to benefit the triple bottom line. The great thing about small companies is that they can get to the heart of things more quickly.
TI: Based on your long history of helping companies, how do you assess the current progress of companies – beyond the most progressive companies at the vanguard – in addressing sustainability challenges?
JP: Well, given that governments are still, on balance, unhelpful in terms of framing sustainability in the right way and introducing changes to promote more sustainable outcomes, progress has been okay. Businesses are massively dependent on what is happening in terms of government interventions, public policy priorities and how the market is being incentivised – we can’t ignore that. Looking at those at the vanguard, there is no reason why they wouldn’t still be progressing, because they have got very good at what they are doing and they can see how it benefits the company, that there is no downside. When we speak to companies that can’t yet see what that journey looks like for them, we say, ‘Look at what these leading companies are doing – not because they have this evangelical, save-the-planet thing going on, but because it works’.
TI: The criticism is, if it is working so well, why aren’t these companies doing even more?
JP: Yes, and that’s when we come to the nexus – the relationship between large companies and governments.
Take something like nutrition, for example. Lots of companies in the agricultural and food sector have raised their game on nutrition, reducing sugar, fat or salt and building a better balance of products to meet the expectations of consumers. But it is just grindingly slow. That’s because governments refuse to regulate higher standards. They think that the voluntary principle will be sufficient. Even though we have dramatic evidence of over- and under-nutrition from all around the world, the predominant view in government policymaking is to encourage, cajole and nudge – anything but to bring out the regulatory stick.
It drives me completely mad and I despair of this utterly pathetic belief from governments that you can work your way through to a sustainable world operating within a capitalist system which is inherently unsustainable. Crucially, it’s frustrating for business. In our conversations, we often spend time talking to business leaders who say things could be made so much easier by having the right framework that encourages sustainability.
TI: What do you think of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a way of encouraging the right types of behaviour from business?
JP: I welcome the SDGs and the work that went into formulating them was carefully thought through. But business finds them difficult and they often don’t recognise the holistic nature of the goals. If you bang and drum for addressing one of the goals on hunger reduction and don’t think about sustainable production, it is useless.
TI: Do you have to be an optimist to work in the field of sustainability?
JP: I tend to use the word hopeful, which seems to be more grounded in reality. There are plenty of shiny optimists out there – people who get very excited about solar power, for example. I get excited about that too, but I’m not going to pin my expectations of a sustainable world on the next efficiency gain, or price reduction of a photovoltaic array coming out of China. That’s just escapism.