Search Menu
Member Login
Our Insights 8 Apr 2011

Sir Geoffrey Chandler, 1922-2011

By John Elkington

How do you sum up someone who has played the role of an affectionate, wise, provocative and sometimes disconcerting guardian angel?

Disconcerting first.

Many years ago, in 1996, I asked Geoffrey to become a founding member of the SustainAbility Council, a role he would play with typical zest and fascination for many years. But his eagle eye picked out the one flaw in perhaps a hundred terms and names that we had had painted around the tops of the office walls.

I had asked every team members to name ten things that they thought summed up SustainAbility—and someone had come up with the giant redwood, which they had rendered as Sequoia gigantea, which he insisted should be giganteum. Having checked Wikipedia, it also looks as if he might have been saying Sequoiadendron giganteum.

Geoffrey knew his trees. I promised I would have the text changed almost a decade ago, but the difficulty of getting the original designer back meant that I didn’t—and every time he came through the office I got that same twinkle when he spotted the offending words.

I first met Geoffrey Chandler in 1986, when he was leading Industry Year, hosted by the Royal Society of Arts, which I had joined a few years earlier. I was pretty small fry at the time, whereas he was like some sort of giant, glittering sailfish, swirling among the great and good with immense authority and a very idiosyncratic charm.

It strikes me that I joined the RSA’s Fellowship thanks to the encouragement of Max Nicholson, who had played a key role in the Society’s recent evolution—and with whom I had co-founded Environmental Data Services (ENDS) in 1978.

Max and Geoffrey were two of those people who have a profound influence on your life and thinking, whether or not you recognize the full seismic magnitude of the shifts at the time.

Much will be written about Geoffrey in the coming days and months, but let me try to capture a scintilla (as a Classics scholar, he would have liked that word—and known its derivation) of the essence of the man.

So let’s come to the wise bit. His father was a doctor—and he often insisted, whatever the area we happened to be focusing on, that the relevant professions needed their own version of the Hippocratic Oath, that encourages doctors to do no harm. Imagine if the engineers of the Deepwater Horizon platform or the Fukushima nuclear plant had operated to that code.

Every conversation you had with him, you would learn something—or many things—new. There was often an unexpected twist, though.

Once I asked him whether in his years with Churchill’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) he had met that ultimate travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor. As best I remember Geoffrey’s reply, he said, “The last time I saw Paddy was in Alexandria towards the end of the war, when he and I were loading a Jeep onto a caique, athwartships.”

He relished the ‘athwartships’, I thought, and it was just as well that I had been brought up in Cyprus—and so knew that a caique was a Greek fishing boat. “And the Jeep was full of gold coins,” he added, “to pay off the partisans.” I can’t remember whether they were off to Crete or Yugoslavia, but he was the sort of man who would have fit right in (he wouldn’t have liked that phrase) with shepherds and brigands as well as the lords and ladies.

Much later, Geoffrey would lay one the foundation stones in our field, by leading the work—as a long-time Director at Shell—of that company’s first Statement of General Business Principles. His version of the Hippocratic Oath.

In addition to SustainAbility, it was also my privilege to work with Geoffrey at The Environment Foundation (now The Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development) and at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, whose website has a tribute to Geoffrey from Lord Joffe.

Finally, the affection—in which he so clearly held us and in which he was most certainly held by everyone I knew. In a way this is like losing a much-loved grandfather—though in Geoffrey’s case fate and fortune meant that I would come to know him better than ever I did either of my grandfathers.

But none of us can possibly have had the true measure of Geoffrey that his wife Lucy and their daughters did—and it is to them we now send our love and best wishes, together with our thanks for sharing so much of this extraordinary man with the rest of us.

John Elkington, 8 April 2011

Some facts of Geoffrey’s life, via Amnesty, where he launched the Business Group—which he chaired, if memory serves, for 10 years

During World War II Geoffrey’s war service included working with the Greek resistance in German-occupied Greece. After the war and after graduating from Cambridge University, he began his career as a journalist for the BBC and Financial Times. He subsequently spent 22 years with the Royal Dutch/Shell Group. Geoffrey was a Director of Shell Petroleum, Shell Petroleum NV and Shell International. He initiated Shell’s first Statement of General Business Principles in 1976. His years with Shell were internationally-focused, including work on West Africa and in the Caribbean (based in Trinidad).

In 1978 Sir Geoffrey was appointed by Prime Minister Callaghan to be Director General of the UK National Economic Development Office, a position he held for five years. Geoffrey was Director of Industry Year 1986, leader of the subsequent campaign “Industry Matters”, and Chair of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations from 1989 to 1996. He has written books on Greece and Trinidad and numerous articles on corporate responsibility and human rights.

Besides human rights and business, Sir Geoffrey had diverse interests, including music, the study of butterflies and gardening.

About the author


What's next for
sustainable business?

Stay informed

Our latest news and updates, in your inbox every month.

See how we use your personal data by reading our terms of use and privacy policy.