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Future sustainability leaders: Patrick Elf



What will business look like in the future and who are our future leaders?

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be speaking with a group of young people making waves in sustainability. All 12 are scholars on Forum for the Future’s renowned master’s course in leadership for sustainable development.

First up is Patrick Elf, who is currently on a six-week finance placement with Blue & Green Tomorrow.

Tell us about your experience on the Forum for the Future master’s course. What have your placements involved?

My experience can be described as both diverse and amazing. After I finished my undergraduate studies in international culture and management in Cologne, Germany, I made the big step to come to London and dive into a completely different sector. I had to commit myself to sustainability.

During the past year, I have been exposed to such a wide range of challenges and companies. I started with the Food & Drink Federation (FDF), where I learned lots about how a trade association works and how it can help its members to be more sustainable.

I then moved on to TUI Travel (better known under the name Thomson and FirstChoice here in the UK). Since my studies in Germany had a focus on tourism, it was personally very interesting to see how such a huge company was dealing with sustainability issues and, in particular, how it communicated sustainability to its employees and customers.

After that, I was at the Crown Estate doing a research project around the energy-water nexus. I was based in the energy team, and able to work together with the sustainability team – an amazing experience.

At the moment I am working for Blue & Green Tomorrow and getting to know about how to successfully communicate sustainable investment to both investors and the wider public.

Where does your interest in sustainability come from?

During my studies, I spent half a year in Chile where I had the chance to visit some amazing places. One of them was Patagonia, where I got to know a lot about glaciers. Seeing actively what kind of impact we have on Pachamama, or Mother Earth, made me think. I then decided to focus my studies on sustainable tourism and finally came across the Forum for the Future course, which provides me with the unique chance to gain a broad knowledge about different sustainability issues and let me eventually connect the dots.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given during your course?

During my placement at the Crown Estate, I learned from the head of sustainability just how important it is to empower people so everybody can be a leader and contribute his or her bit to a better future. Unfortunately, most people surrender and go with the flow.  Therefore, it is important to reflect on one’s own performance and to learn from it in the future.

What’s the most important business lesson you’ve learnt?

Oh, tricky question. There are a number of important business lessons I’ve learned. One is probably that a large number of businesses still focus on the fast money instead of shifting their focus on more healthy, long-term strategies. Another is that it is crucial to have a good, resilient and sustainable corporate culture in which everybody is engaged.

To achieve this, but also generally, you have to speak their language. This is perhaps the most important lesson. If you don’t speak their language (and I don’t mean Spanish, Mandarin, etc) you won’t be able to change anything.

What one idea do you think could change the world for the better?

The internet (or technology more generally). It already transformed our lives and will do so even more n the future. I was very sceptical and still oppose the opinion that it is the solution to all our problems. But my hope is that it can encourage people to share their knowledge across sectors and, even more importantly and fascinatingly, across nations and continents. If we use it for the right purposes, it is definitely the invention that could transform our world for the better.

What do you see of the future in terms of sustainability, business and the environment?

I hope that so-called corporate social responsibility or sustainability departments vanish. The ones who want to contribute to sustainable development have a common goal, which is integrating sustainability in every aspect of our lives for a better future.

The business case for sustainability has been made repeatedly. That it can be profit generating is clear. However, most people consider business as the only effective contributor to improving our lives. For decades, consuming stuff and over-consuming resources trumped nature and philanthropy. Today, I see a shift towards more sustainable thinking emerging which will eventually result in a conglomerate of sustainability, business and the environment.

Where will you be in 10 years’ time?

Another tricky question! Especially because I just finished Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Black Swan. This book taught me not to predict the future. But my dearest hope is to have a job that allows me to work for a future in which my children and their children and their children’s children find their place – one where it is normal to live within your needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. We need to achieve that without exploiting our own race and nature.

Further reading:

21st century leadership: from business as usual to business as a force for good

Success means seeing ourselves as part of the bigger system

Has CSR reached its sell-by date?

The business case for sustainability – an exceptional Forum for the Future event

The Guide to Corporate Social Responsibility 2013


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