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Founded by John Elkington in the late 1980s, SustainAbility calls itself “a strategy consultancy and independent think tank specialising in the business risks and market opportunities of corporate responsibility and sustainable development.”

SustainAbility tries to bridge both camps between the NGO world and business community, arguing of the need to bring the two together. It is both a business consultancy but also a progressive think-tank. Its critics argue that it just helps big business greenwash its operations.

Raison d’etre

SustainAbility sees itself as having pioneered the CSR and sustainable development debate for thirty years. It has pioneered corporate benchmark reporting and dialogue. However, many of the techniques being advocated by SustainAbility are used by business as PR techniques to greenwash their operations and divide their opposition. SustainAbility is a business strategy consultancy: offering advice to some of the world’s most controversial companies that have huge ecological social and cultural impact.

Re-branding Shell from Corporate Villain to Good Corporate Citizen

In 1995, SustainAbility initially refused to work with Shell following the Brent Spar fiasco and its endemic pollution and collusion with the Nigerian military in human rights abuses in Nigeria. However by 1997, the consultancy was advising Shell on its major new public relations campaign called “Profit and Principles” as well as Shell’s underlying PR strategy. In 1999, Shell even borrowed SustainAbility’s catch-phrase, “People, Planet, Profit” for the subtitle on one of their reports. Tom Delfgaauw former Vice President of Sustainable Development at Shell later joined SustainAbility as its first non-executive director.[1]


Denmark’s Novo Nordisk, a healthcare and pharmaceutical company is one of SustAinability’s oldest clients. It has also worked with other biotech companies such as Aventis, Cargill Dow, DuPont, Monsanto, Novartis and Unilever. Elkington has made much of the fact that SustainAbility resigned its relationship with GM giant Monsanto in the late nineties, because they resisted his advice on societal tensions in Europe with regard to GM technology. Elkington is pro-biotech arguing that “there is a ‘sustainability case’ for many forms of biotechnology.”[2]


In 2002 SustainAbility launched The 21st Century NGO: In the Market for Change report, published with the UN Global Compact. Whilst this report argued that NGOs themselves needed to become more accountable, some have questioned the legitimacy of the Global Compact. CorpWatch in the US argues that the Compact allows companies to “bluewash” (rather than greenwash) their operations. Bluewashing is, according to the New York Times, “allowing some of the largest and richest corporations to wrap themselves in the United Nations’ blue flag without requiring them to do anything new.”

Further criticism

It has drawn criticism from other quarters too: Judith Richter, the author of Holding Corporations Accountable argues “I am very concerned that the Global Compact has endorsed and thus legitimised a corporate study on how public-interest NGOs should behave.” Richter argues that if Sustainability’s “recommendations were heeded, it would put corporations and their lobby associations in a better position to lobby for a cut in funding of corporate watchdog groups and networks … The UN's support, via the Global Compact, for the simplistic analyses presented in this study may damage efforts to hold corporations accountable to the world's citizens."

Best-selling author David Korten is similarly sceptical. He argues “the effort by corporations to discredit the public whistle blowers who are exercising their rights as organized bodies of citizens to draw attention to corporate attacks on democracy, the public interest, and the integrity of the United Nations is an example of cynical corporate PR spin and unmitigated hypocrisy”. Critics argue that is Sustainability’s problem: it promotes engagement between NGOs and companies as the way forward, yet companies use dialogue as a PR technique to outwit their critics. Companies may also change their literature but not their operations. If this is the case, SustainAbility becomes nothing more than just another public relations company –with its “green credentials” providing better cover than most PR companies.

Key People



20-22 Bedford Row London, WC1R 4EB


Since 1987 SustainAbility has worked for more than 150 clients including companies, governments and NGOs worldwide.

Abbott LaboratoriesPharmaceuticalUS
Ahlstrom FibersFinland
American Chemistry CouncilChemicalUS
Aracruz CelulosePulp & PaperBrazil
AWG Plc Water services UK
Association for Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA)FinanceUK
AstraZenecaPharmaceuticalUK / Sweden
Bayer AGHealthcare & NutritionGermany
BC Hydro EnergyHydro EnergyCanada
Ben & Jerry'sFoodUS
BMW GroupAutomotiveGermany
Body ShopRetailUK
Bristol Myers Squibb CompanyPharmaceuticalUS
[[British PetroleumEnergyUK
British Petroleum ChemicalsChemicalUK
British Airports Authority (BAA)AirportsUK
British AirwaysAviationUK
British Telecom/BTTelecommunicationsUK
British GasEnergyUK
Building Design Partnership (BDP)ArchitectUK
Cable & WirelessTelecommunicationsUK
Capital OneFinanceUK
Cable & WirelessTelecommunicationsUK
Cargill DowPolymersUS
Coca-Cola GBBeveragesUS/UK
Commission of the European Communities (CEC)GovernmentEurope
[[Compass GroupFoodservice & HospitalityUK
Co-operative BankFinanceUK
Credit Suisse GroupFinanceSwitzerland
Danish SteelworksSteelDenmark
Department of Trade and Industry (DTI)GovernmentUK
Deutsche PostTelecommunicationsGermany
[[Dow ChemicalChemicalUS
European Environment Agency (EEA)GovernmentEurope
[[ESABWelding & CuttingSweden
Export Credits Guarantee Department (ECGD)
[[Ferrosan Healthcare & Medical devicesHealthcare & MedicalDenmark
[[Ford IndiaAutomotiveIndia
[[Ford Motor CompanyAutomotiveUS
[[Friends, Ivory, SimeFinanceUK
[[General Motors CorporationAutomotiveUS
[[Greenpeace InternationalNGOUK
Hewlett Packard (HP)ITUS
Holcim (formerly Holderbank)CementSwitzerland
[[IBM CorporationITUS
[[ICI PlcChemicalUK
[[Intel CorporationElectronicsUS
International Finance Corporation (IFC)FinanceUS
[[ITT FlygtPumpsSweden
[[MicrosoftIT and SoftwareUS
[[Mistra FoundationSweden
[[Monsanto BiotechnologyBiotechnologyUS
[[National GridEnergyUK
[[National Power PlcEnergyUK
National Provident Institution (NPI)FinanceUK
[[Noranda Mining and MetalsMining and MetalsCanada
[[Norsk Hydro ASAEnergy & AluminumNorway
[[Northumbrian Water PlcWater SerivcesUK
[[Novartis International AGPharmaceutical & HealthcareSwitzerland
[[Novo Nordisk A/SPharmaceutical & HealthcareDenmark
Organisation for Economic Co-operationand Development (OECD)MultilateralMultilateral
[[PG&E National Energy GroupEnergyUS
[[Procter & GambleConsumer ProductsUK
[[Queensland Environmental Protection AgencyGovernmentAustralia
[[Rohm & Haas CompanyChemicalUS
[[Royal Dutch / Shell GroupOilUK / Netherlands
[[SAB MillerBrewingSouth Africa
[[St Luke’sAdvertisingUK
[[SchlumbergerOilfield ServicesUS
[[Scottish Environment Protection Agency(SEPA)GovernmentUK
[[Shell ChemicalsChemicalUK
[[SITAWaste ManagementUK
[[SkanskaConstruction ServicesSweden
[[SolvayChemical & Pharmaceutical
[[SonyConsumer ElectronicsJapan
[[Swedish Airports Authority LuftfartsverketAirportsSweden
[[Swiss ReFinanceSwitzerland
[[Sydney WaterWaterAustralia
[[ToyotaAutomotiveJapan / Belgium
[[TSB BankFinance
[[UnileverConsumer Goods UK / Netherlands
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)Government
[[United Nations Global CompactGovernmentUS
[[Wachovia CorporationFinanceUS
[[Watercare Services LtdWater ServicesNew Zealand
[[Westpac Banking CorporationFinanceAustralia
World Resources Institute (WRI)NGOUS
[[WMCMining & MineralsAustralia
[[World BankFinanceUS
Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF)NGOUK


  1. SustainAbility website, accessed November 2007
  2. John Elkington Biotechnology: the Case for Sustainability, OpenDemocracy, August 19, 2003
  3. [1]
  4. [2]
  5. [3](accessed 1 September 2010)
  6. Sophia Tickell(accessed 1 September 2010)
  7. Green Alliance board members Sophia Tickell (accessed 1 September 2010)
  8. Gary Kendall, (accessed 1 September 2010).