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Founded in 1987, SustainAbility has helped
define and evolve the sustainable development
agenda and the role of business within it.

Throughout our history, we have worked with business and its stakeholders to foster trust – a fundamental enabler of a more just and sustainable economy, leadership – the courage and ability to go first and farthest, to rally others to do what’s required; and innovation – new ideas, new tools, and whole new ways of creating and delivering value.


1987 - 1999Risk and Engagement

SustainAbility was founded by activists John Elkington and Julia Hailes in 1987, the same year that the Brundtland Commission published Our Common Future and its foundational definition of sustainable development as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

In 1988 John and Julie wrote the Green Consumer Guide which sold over 1 million copies worldwide.

John Elkington - A cartoon from a Marketing Week article in 1989

Our first decade saw business awaken to the strategic implications of the Brundtland Report in a world of growing economic and political integration and complexity. The World Business Council on Sustainable Development, Business for Social Responsibility, the ISO 14001 environmental management system, Brazil’s Ethos Institute and the Dow Jones Sustainability Index entered the landscape, while controversies surrounding companies like Shell, Nike and Monsanto signaled strategic evolution of the agenda.

SustainAbility’s early work on green consumerism soon expanded to emerging issues from genetic modification to human rights, and evolving the concept of the “triple bottom line,” coined by John Elkington in 1994’s Cannibals with Forks.

These efforts took us around the world and saw us working with a growing range of multinational corporations and NGOs, challenging and – sometimes – provoking along the way. We also played a key role in shaping the emerging processes of stakeholder engagement and sustainability reporting through our pioneering Global Reporters and Engaging Stakeholders programs, in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

2000 - 2009Value and Collaboration

The first decade of the new millennium brought fresh economic, political and social dynamics. The 9/11 attacks and the resulting “war on terror” heightened global tensions, while the deepening penetration of the Internet and social media forever changed the nature of business, collaboration and accountability.

Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth brought the dangers of climate change to mainstream audiences, while worldwide food price spikes called attention to the fragility of global supply chains and their sometimes devastating impact on the most vulnerable.

Sustainability awareness accelerated, and with it came a growing emphasis on business solutions and opportunities for value creation. Companies from Dupont to Unilever to Walmart established ambitious company- and portfolio-wide sustainability targets. More than 230,000 megawatts of non-fossil fuel-based energy was installed worldwide. Net Impact, the business student and professional network for sustainable business, grew to 200 chapters around the world.

In this decade, we joined debates at the World Economic Forum and the World Social Forum and began enduring partnerships with companies such as Starbucks, Nestlé and Ford. We helped our clients to identify and prioritize issues across their value chains, to develop and roll out strategies to address them, and to partner with stakeholders, supporting them to set and achieve ever-more ambitious goals.

Meanwhile, our research and thinking helped define and shape corporate sustainability concepts and frameworks that have now become standard in the field, including the role of the C-suite and boards (The Power to Change), the business case for sustainability (Buried Treasure, Developing Value and Market Movers, with the International Finance Corporation), the role of NGOs and international organisations (The 21st Century NGO and Gearing Up, with the UN Global Compact), social entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship (Growing Opportunity and The Social Intrapreneur with the Skoll Foundation), and business within environmental limits (One Planet Business with WWF-UK).

2010 - 2015Mainstreaming and Complexity

Amidst the slow, uneven recovery from the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-08; political turmoil ranging from the Arab Spring to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, from the grinding conflict in Syria and the resulting migrant crisis in Europe; and the profound disruption of markets by energy and other commodity price fluctuations, as well as the pervasive impact of technology, the world began to recognize uncertainty and volatility as the new normal.

Meanwhile, record temperatures, deepening droughts and other extreme weather events, and worsening inequality in many regions of the world underscored the linkages among all these challenges, bringing sustainability further into the mainstream and encouraging wider adoption of systems-thinking and other ambitious approaches to accelerating progress.

In this period, we intensified our focus on the most powerful ways for business to lead on the sustainability agenda. The Regeneration Roadmap, a major research program which marked the 25th anniversaries of SustainAbility and our research partner GlobeScan, looked at what it means for the private sector to lead – by thinking big, by evolving its own strategies and by using its influence to stimulate and support shifts in policy, capital markets and consumption. Citystates, in collaboration with Ford and with Greenbiz, was an early contributor to the vibrant conversation on the role of cities in sustainable development and the implications for business. And Model Behavior, our series on business model innovation, became a reference for leaders who recognize the growing need to fundamentally change the way in which businesses create value.

We also continued to understand and challenge evolving practice in the sustainability sector, such as with ratings and rankings (the Rate the Raters series), corporate transparency (See Change) and certification and labeling (Signed, Sealed… Delivered?).

And we continued working side-by-side with business and sustainability leaders in an increasingly global range of companies, helping them to earn and maintain trust through convening diverse stakeholder groups, understanding key risks and opportunities, setting ambitious goals, and developing and implementing high-quality strategies and programs to meet them.

2016 AND ONWARDSIntegration and Transformation

Following adoption of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Agreement in late 2015, global companies and other key actors are more committed than ever to the urgent, generational challenge of sustainability, and to the large-scale social, political and economic transformations it requires. In response, SustainAbility is increasingly focused on driving deep integration of business and sustainability imperatives, both within individual companies and industries, and in the systems that support and govern them.

The Journey Continues

We are more determined than ever to push ourselves and our partners to uncover what’s next on this journey, and to evolve from current best-in-class approaches to entirely new and sustainable business models and systems. Such a transformation will ensure the long-term competitiveness of our businesses and our economies – and a just and sustainable world for us all.

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