Triple Bottom Line: Script
You’ve probably heard about the triple bottom line: a concept that is used a lot when speaking about sustainability, and particularly sustainability and business. John Elkington, a global authority on corporate responsibility and sustainability coined the phrase in a book in 1997. His argument was that the methods by which companies measure value should include not only a financial bottom line (profit or loss), but a social and environmental one as well. The concept has evolved into one that’s often described as three overlapping circles. You’ve probably seen this image before. Sustainability is typically defined as the place where economy, social realities and environmental health overlap.
The concept of the triple bottom line mainstreamed the idea of sustainability as including people, planet AND profit. It helped business to understand that long-term sustainability of an organization required more than just financial equity. It also helped to clarify that when businesses were considering what sustainability meant for them, it didn’t mean they had to give up the notion of financial success.
But this overlapping circles image of the triple bottom line can convey a lot more. The circles are all the same size. Does this indicate that the economy is the same relative size, or value, as the other two circles, which deal with society and the environment? Can we trade say “2 social and 3 environment for 5 economy” as long as we stay in the overlapping bit in the middle (sustainability)?
Let’s see if science can help us understand this better. For more details about this, check out earlier videos…
Science tells us that, left to its own devices, the planet operates in a balanced way. We call this the cycles of nature and they are powered by energy from the sun. Science also tells us that matter is not created or destroyed, while laws of thermodynamics tell us that everything tends toward dispersal (principle of entropy). Because plant cells are, for all intents and purposes, the only cells that can produce structure from energy, photosynthesis is the process by which matter is structured on our planet. This is why we say that photosynthesis pays the bills. Without it, creation of structure from energy would not occur, and entropy could rule the day.
How does this help us understand the triple bottom line?
Plant cells belong to the environment circle of the triple bottom line. If plant cells are the original creators of structure, then this is the circle on which everything else depends, or in which everything is embedded. Everything comes from nature at some point. Society, which is related to the social circle of the triple bottom line, exists within the environment. And economy is a by-product of society. Instead of three overlapping circles, we have three nested circles, where the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment.
To achieve sustainability, we need to comply with social and environmental conditions: meet human needs within ecological constraints. Does this mean that business has to put financial gain last? Of course not! But economic decisions are part of a strategy to make more money while getting closer to social and ecological sustainability. The economy is a means to an end. Not the end itself. It’s important to remember that ‘paying the bills’ happens on multiple levels, and ultimately we are all dependent on photosynthesis. This is helpful for business, because it provides new perspective on the rationale for integrating sustainability into who and how they are in the world.
There you have it! A new look at the triple bottom line, viewed through the lens of science.