Jonathon Porritt, one of the co-founders of Forum for the Future, steps down after almost 30 years with the international sustainability non-profit.

Here, he reflects on those three decades, and why we need to start thinking very differently about the role of business in accelerating the transition to a just and sustainable world. Jonathon also shares what inspired him to take action for environmental issues right at the start, at a time when few people were talking about it.

Who or what was your impetus for getting involved in sustainability issues and challenges? Can you name any defining moments that led you to dedicating such a huge part of your life’s work to environmental issues?

There weren’t many people talking about these things back in the early 1970s, so I depended very much on the books that I could get my hands on. Three in particular: Small is Beautiful by Fritz Schumacher, which was enlightening in all sorts of ways; Limits to Growth, from a bunch of people at MIT, by which I was entirely persuaded intellectually; and Blueprint for Survival, which was the one which really excited me, and persuaded me to take action – in the first instance, by joining the Ecology Party (as the Green Party was then known).

Small is Beautiful, Limits to Growth and Blueprint for Survival – books that Jonathon credits as inspiring him to take action in sustainability.

You sat down with Sara Parkin and Paul Ekins back in the 1990s with an idea to create a non-profit dedicated to working alongside business on sustainability solutions. Where did that idea come from, and almost 30 years later, what are you most proud of from your time at Forum for the Future?

Few people remember just how upbeat things felt after the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio di Janeiro: two new global treaties (on climate and biodiversity), an agenda for cross-sectoral action (Agenda 21), and a host of other agreements and new initiatives. I came back from Rio convinced that more could be done to seize hold of this positive energy, particularly by bringing business into the fold to leverage their resources and influence.

That’s where the conversation began with Forum’s co-founders (Paul Ekins and Sara Parkin), with all three of us convinced that our involvement in the Green Party would be seen as a plus rather than a problem – though many doubted that at the time! The Forum was then set up as a not-for-profit in 1994, and launched in 1996, once we’d got some money in the bank and the first couple of Partners to get to work with!’

From your perspective, how has the mainstream understanding of sustainability changed since three—or even four—decades ago?

I guess it’s important to remember that there was really zero understanding of sustainability back in the 70s or even in the 80s. There was a nascent appreciation of the importance of environmental issues in the 1970s, with a critical UN Conference in 1972, but there was no understanding of the connections between environmental concerns and social justice concerns. No focus on the governance of sustainability, and climate change really wasn’t a thing in those days.

So it all looks very different these days, not least because of the integration of all these different concerns, underpinned by increasingly authoritative science – of which there was remarkably little back in the 1970s!

Forum–and yourself–is known for its belief that businesses can be a force for good.  What is it about corporate sustainability specifically that you think makes it particularly well-placed to challenge the status quo? Who, if not businesses, do you think is in the best position to make the greatest positive impact?

I wouldn’t put it like that: I don’t really think businesses are ‘particularly well placed to challenge the status quo’. And I’ve not seen much of that over all these years!

Essentially, companies are very much part of the status quo, and rarely see it as part of their task to challenge that. What they focus on is optimising business behaviours, reducing negative externalities (environmental and social), and, wherever possible, focusing on generating more societally positive outcomes.

But the truth of it is that they’re still very constrained by the ‘rules of the game’, and those rules are of course established by governments and international organisations.

Within those limits, we’ve undoubtedly seen very significant progress on the part of the business contribution to a more sustainable world, and we would be in a much more problematic place if that hadn’t been a critical part of the last 30 years. 

What do you find hard to accept about the state of the world right now, that you feel could have been avoided early? What could have been done to prevent it?

Practically everything! We’re all beginning to reflect now on the “wasted 30 years”, with so little progress made since the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro back in 1992, which created so much of the framework that underpins international governance.

This is not so much a question of the issues themselves, but of the degree to which the dominant paradigm (year-on-year economic growth) remains the sole determinant of what we call progress today. Which means, five decades on from the Limits to Growth report, pretty much the only thing that matters for politicians is to generate more of that growth, even though it is now absolutely clear just how much damage that kind of growth is doing. We haven’t even done a very good job decoupling the growth from its environmental externalities, which would at least be a start.

And instead of recognising the fundamental incompatibility between growth of that kind and sustainability, most politicians around the world seem to be doubling down on that status quo – with today’s worsening environmental damage still seen as an acceptable price to pay for progress.

Why do you think progress towards Net Zero has not been as fast as it should be?

This is an easy one: we’re up against a massively powerful cohort of fossil fuel companies which have absolutely zero intention of helping any kind of transition to a world free of fossil fuels. And those incumbency players still wield enormous political influence, especially in countries like the USA where the majority of US politicians are entirely beholden to them for political contributions and so on.

And that situation is even worse in non-democratic petrostates, which, if anything, are even more resolute in their determination to go on producing fossil fuels for just as long as it is possible.

The truth of it is that politicians today still have a foot in both camps – in the dominant economic paradigm that dominated our lives for the last 50 years or so, and now in the world of the next 50 years – a solar age, driving a very different kind of socially just and inclusive prosperity. And having a foot in two such different camps is increasingly uncomfortable! 

What, if anything, do you think people need to let go of in their approach to sustainability as we enter the midpoint of this decisive decade?

This is important – we’ve now had enough time to reflect on what people describe as ‘corporate sustainability’, both to remind ourselves of all the good things that have been achieved through this, but at the same time to avoid some of the illusory make-believe that has been part of the deal until now.

By which I mean, primarily, the reliance on a ‘win-win’ form of corporate sustainability – with an assumption that if companies do the right thing they themselves will be able to prosper, even as things improve from an environmental, climate and social point of view. But as we all know, things continue to get worse, rather than better, so it baffles me that we think that this model is any longer fit for purpose – we’ve simply got to find a different way of doing this.

And I guess the other thing that I would emphasise is just how political a story this all is. I still meet people who suggest to me that it is wrong to ‘make sustainability a political football’, which really demonstrates how little they understand the titanic ideological battle in which we are now engaged. 

What gives you hope?

Above all, the sheer weight of authority behind the science of climate change and biodiversity makes it harder and harder for politicians to go on ignoring this incontrovertible evidence base. As we saw with climate change, to go on denying this physical reality just got harder and harder – as it made them look more and more stupid. And that science will, eventually, translate into effective policymaking – though whether that is ‘in time’ or not is another matter.

Beyond that, I have a lot of hope in young people. Not the kind of hope that looks to young people to do what we have failed to do (which is both insulting and hypocritical), but hope in the inevitability that as more and more young people see the reality of the world that we are leaving to them, in all its grim reality, they will be more and more minded to rise up and force today’s politicians to move much further and much faster. We’re going to be hearing a lot more about the reality of intergenerational justice.

Youth protestors in a climate strike. Photo from Shutterstock.

And lastly—what’s next for you?

I’ll be continuing to do some corporate sustainability work, with Unilever (one of Forum’s oldest partners!) and with Drax, the big energy company, one of the Forum’s newest partners!

But that will be nothing like on the same level as it’s been on the last couple of decades – and for most of my time I’ll be focussing on my campaigning activities, with the Green Party, various anti-nuclear organisations, electoral reform, population and family planning, supporting young climate campaigners (including those involved in Just Stop Oil), and a few more thrown in for good measure!

Leaving, hopefully, some time for more writing!