Rehabbing the crippled triple bottom line

Remember “economics”?

The “triple bottom line” has been around for decades. It served its purpose.  It opened up our thinking. The core concept – that we need to think about economic, social and environmental issues in the same time and space – is crucial.

But the current popular version of the triple bottom line helps people avoid a critical issue: economic sustainability. The comprehensive “social, environmental and economic impacts” has been simplified down to the catchier “People, Planet and Profit.” That certainly scans better, but alliteration is no substitute for analysis.  Substituting “profit” for “economic impacts” is a huge mistake. It moves us away from thinking about companies’ real impacts on communities, suppliers and other business partners.  It allows companies to be complacent, viewing their own (often short-term) profitability as a substitute for the more difficult issue of long-term economic impacts.

Some sustainability professionals are enablers of this simplification.  Some of the biggest environmental issues are easier to deal with if you don’t worry about economics.  “Sustainable consumption” is an important concept.  Unfortunately, some of that work similarly ignores the economic leg of sustainability.  At a conference earlier this year, I heard two corporate experts congratulate each other on the disintermediation and dematerialization in their businesses and daily lives.  One boasted of how his neighbor had booked his entire vacation on his iPhone, without ever having to talk to a hotel, airline or travel agent.  That’s great, and certainly beats trying to get an answer from the airlines on some days.  But what about the people who used to have jobs answering those calls and making those plans? (After all, disintermediation is great – unless your job is to be the intermediary.) I stood up and asked whether there was thought to “when dematerialization becomes dehumanization.”  I got applause – but no answers.

There’s hope.  Some companies are doing very thoughtful work on truly sustainable development.  They are looking at their long-term economic impacts on their commercial ecosystem of suppliers, partners, communities, customers and others.  They are beginning to see interesting connections, and how their economic impacts in turn may affect the sustainability of their supply base, labor base and markets – in other words, the sustainability of their business.  Maybe there’s hope for that crippled third leg after all.

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