Can Capitalists Live Within Planetary Limits?

A new book introduces the idea of Zeronauts, innovators within companies striving to make a living but with zero impact. Are these the men and women who will make our economy sustainable?

The idea of "Zero Impact Growth" says that companies should operate within planetary limits—that is, work towards doing zero environmental and social harm. It was developed by the British corporate responsibility guru John Elkington, who argues that current sustainability targets lack "context." In other words: They sound good, but don’t account for a world with 9 billion people, where resources are running thin, and our collective impacts are mounting.

"If you look at sustainability reports, you don’t know what the basis is for the reduction," says Ralph Thurm, sustainability director at Deloitte Consulting, who collaborated with Elkington.

"There’s no comparability. Maybe the only thing you can say is that company A is better than company B. But you can’t say what any of these do is good enough, because there are no common denominators."

In his book The Zeronauts: Breaking the Sustainability Barrier, Elkington champions people who promote "wealth creation while driving adverse environmental, social, and economic impacts toward zero"; those who are developing "footprint-shrinking solutions"; and politicians who are creating "regulatory frameworks and incentives … to drive … '1-Earth’ solutions to scale."

But none of the 50 people profiled have actually achieved zero-impact change within their organizations. They are just at various stages of progress. Elkington lays out a five-stage process where companies graduate from "Eureka" (seeing an opportunity), through experimentation, to creating new business models, to collaborating with partners in other industries, to "flipping the economic system to a more sustainable state."

To accompany the book, Deloitte has published a "Zero Impact Growth Monitor." From the 65 companies it considered, only six are most ready to adapt zero growth, according to Thurm: Puma, Nike, Nestlé, Unilever, Natura, and Ricoh.

"The leading companies are much clearer about defining their short and mid-term targets, and they have in mind that they want to be a zero-paradigm company. The others simply say 'we want to reduce our CO2 by 15% by 2020,'" Thurm says.

"These companies also challenge their customers, suppliers, and political authorities, by saying 'if you want to work with this organization, you need to help us get there.'"

Puma, for example, has developed an "Environmental Profit and Loss Account" that attempts to put a monetary figure on its environmental impact.

Several others have started to consider how to square the need to increase revenues with the consequences of hyper-consumption, Thurm says. "They know that they are in a certain dilemma there, because more consumption means more revenues. But they also realize from a long-term perspective there is no sustainability where those patterns continue."

How useful is the zero-impact concept? It depends on your perspective. Elkington and Thurm present it as a challenge, and a reframing of objectives—something that companies should work towards, rather than hope to achieve overnight. The problem is that neither the book, nor the report, actually defines what a company’s fair share of reduction might be. That’s up to them to decide.

Elkington and Thurm’s concept relies a lot on the capacity of individuals—the so-called Zeronauts—to make changes, while saying nothing about economic incentives. Arguably, there’s a limit to the change you can expect without new laws or taxes (e.g. disincentives to produce carbon) and when underlying dynamics are pointing in a different direction.

Add New Comment


  • Marien

    Hi Ben,

    I think the point is that we need to stop using economic incentives as a main KPI when far more important incentives like 'preserving our forests', 'keeping the poles from melting' and 'keeping the temperature increase within the 2%' are inevitable to prevent escalation of global food problems, mass extinction of the majority of species and countless other problems.

    Thanks for the review!

  • Duncan Noble

    Ben, thanks for this great review.

    Good question about how to determine a company's fair share of reduction. Two responses:

    1. If your goal is zero, then your reduction is 100%, which avoids the need to all allocate reductions (fair or otherwise) amongst companies.

    2. One of the few companies to address this is Autodesk, which developed a method to allocate GHG reduction targets amongst companies that would achieve global scientific and policy climate stabilization targets, in proportion to companies’ relative contribution to the economy. Their approach is called C-FACT. Details available here: http://usa.autodesk.com/adsk/s...

    Cheers ... Duncan

  • Mark McElroy

    The fact that neither Elkington nor Thurm prescribe specific thresholds for sustainability is a strength not a weakness.  After all, such thresholds are context-dependent and vary by 1) location, 2) whom an organization's stakeholders are, 3) the kinds of impacts an organization is already having or should be having, and 4) other considerations.  Thresholds cannot be dictated from afar.

    Most important is that an organization take steps to define its own contextually relevant thresholds and that its decisions be defensible.  Perfection, however, is not a requirement.  Better to have debatable thresholds than no thresholds at all!

    In addition to Autodesk, other companies now practicing context-based sustainability include EMC, MARS, Ben & Jerry's (Unilever), Cabot Creamery Cooperative (Agri-Mark, Inc.), and British Telecom.


    Mark McElroy