Triple bottom line
In traditional business accounting, the "bottom line" refers to the sum of revenue minus expenses, which is either "loss" if negative, or "profit" if positive. The term originated because profit is always shown as the very "bottom line" on a statement of revenue and expenses. Over the last 50 years, environmentalists and social justice advocates have struggled to bring a broader definition of "bottom line" into public consciousness, by introducing full cost accounting. For example, if a corporation shows a monetary profit, but their asbestos mine causes thousands of deaths from asbestosis, and their copper mine pollutes a river, and the government ends up spending taxpayer money on health care and river clean-up, how do we perform a full societal cost benefit analysis?
The concept of a triple bottom line (abbreviated as TBL or 3BL) adds two more "bottom lines"; social and environmental concerns. The three together are often paraphrased as "Profit, People, Planet", or referred to as "the three pillars"  With the ratification of the United Nations and ICLEI TBL standard for urban and community accounting in early 2007, this became the dominant approach to public sector full cost accounting. Similar UN standards apply to natural capital and human capital measurement to assist in measurements required by TBL, e.g. the EcoBudget standard for reporting ecological footprint.
An example of an organization seeking a triple bottom line would be a social enterprise run as a non-profit, but earning income by offering opportunities for handicapped people who have been labelled "unemployable", to earn a living recycling. The organization earns a profit, which is controlled by a volunteer Board, and ploughed back into the community. The social benefit is the meaningful employment of disadvantaged citizens, and the reduction in the society's welfare or disability costs. The environmental benefit comes from the recycling accomplished.
In the private sector, a commitment to corporate social responsibility (CSR) implies a commitment to some form of TBL reporting. This is distinct from the more limited changes required to deal only with ecological issues.
For reporting their efforts companies may demonstrate their commitment to CSR through the following:
- Top-level involvement (CEO, Board of Directors)
- Policy Investments
- Signatories to voluntary standards
- Principles (UN Global Compact-Ceres Principles)
- Reporting (Global Reporting Initiative)
Triple bottom line (TBL) accounting expands the traditional reporting framework to take into account social and environmental performance in addition to financial performance. In 1981 Freer Spreckley first articulated the triple bottom line in a publication called 'Social Audit - A Management Tool for Co-operative Working'. In this work, he argued that enterprises should measure and report on social, environmental and financial performance.
The phrase was coined by John Elkington in his 1997 book Cannibals with Forks: the Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business.[unreliable source?] Sustainability, itself, was first defined by the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations in 1987.
1998 also marked the foundation of the Triple Bottom Line Investing group by Robert J. Rubinstein, a group advocating and publicizing these principles.
The concept of TBL demands that a company's responsibility lies with stakeholders rather than shareholders. In this case, "stakeholders" refers to anyone who is influenced, either directly or indirectly, by the actions of the firm. According to the stakeholder theory, the business entity should be used as a vehicle for coordinating stakeholder interests, instead of maximizing shareholder (owner) profit.
A growing number of financial institutions incorporate a triple bottom line approach in their work. It is at the core of the business of banks in the Global Alliance for Banking on Values, for example.
The triple bottom line is made up of "social equity, economic, and environmental" factors.
"People, planet and profit" succinctly describes the triple bottom lines and the goal of sustainability. The phrase, "people, planet, profit", was coined by John Elkington in 1995 while at SustainAbility, and was later adopted as the title of the Anglo-Dutch oil company Shell's first sustainability report in 1997. As a result, one country in which the 3P concept took deep root was The Netherlands.
"People" pertains to fair and beneficial business practices toward labour and the community and region in which a corporation conducts its business. A TBL company conceives a reciprocal social structure in which the well-being of corporate, labour and other stakeholder interests are interdependent.
A triple bottom line enterprise seeks to benefit many constituencies, not exploit or endanger any group of them. The "upstreaming" of a portion of profit from the marketing of finished goods back to the original producer of raw materials, for example, a farmer in fair trade agricultural practice, is a common feature. In concrete terms, a TBL business would not use child labour and monitor all contracted companies for child labour exploitation, would pay fair salaries to its workers, would maintain a safe work environment and tolerable working hours, and would not otherwise exploit a community or its labour force. A TBL business also typically seeks to "give back" by contributing to the strength and growth of its community with such things as health care and education. Quantifying this bottom line is relatively new, problematic and often subjective. The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) has developed guidelines to enable corporations and NGOs alike to comparably report on the social impact of a business.
"Planet" (natural capital) refers to sustainable environmental practices. A TBL company endeavors to benefit the natural order as much as possible or at the least do no harm and minimise environmental impact. A TBL endeavour reduces its ecological footprint by, among other things, carefully managing its consumption of energy and non-renewables and reducing manufacturing waste as well as rendering waste less toxic before disposing of it in a safe and legal manner. "Cradle to grave" is uppermost in the thoughts of TBL manufacturing businesses, which typically conduct a life cycle assessment of products to determine what the true environmental cost is from the growth and harvesting of raw materials to manufacture to distribution to eventual disposal by the end user. A triple bottom line company does not produce harmful or destructive products such as weapons, toxic chemicals or batteries containing dangerous heavy metals, for example.
Currently, the cost of disposing of non-degradable or toxic products is borne financially by governments and environmentally by the residents near the disposal site and elsewhere. In TBL thinking, an enterprise which produces and markets a product which will create a waste problem should not be given a free ride by society. It would be more equitable for the business which manufactures and sells a problematic product to bear part of the cost of its ultimate disposal.
Ecologically destructive practices, such as overfishing or other endangering depletions of resources are avoided by TBL companies. Often environmental sustainability is the more profitable course for a business in the long run. Arguments that it costs more to be environmentally sound are often specious when the course of the business is analyzed over a period of time. Generally, sustainability reporting metrics are better quantified and standardized for environmental issues than for social ones. A number of respected reporting institutes and registries exist including the Global Reporting Initiative, CERES, Institute 4 Sustainability and others.
"Profit" is the economic value created by the organization after deducting the cost of all inputs, including the cost of the capital tied up. It therefore differs from traditional accounting definitions of profit. In the original concept, within a sustainability framework, the "profit" aspect needs to be seen as the real economic benefit enjoyed by the host society. It is the real economic impact the organization has on its economic environment. This is often confused to be limited to the internal profit made by a company or organization (which nevertheless remains an essential starting point for the computation). Therefore, an original TBL approach cannot be interpreted as simply traditional corporate accounting profit plus social and environmental impacts unless the "profits" of other entities are included as a social benefit.
The following business-based arguments support the concept of TBL:
- Reaching untapped market potential: TBL companies can find financially profitable niches which were missed when money alone was the driving factor. Examples include:
- Adding ecotourism or geotourism to an already rich tourism market such as the Dominican Republic
- Developing profitable methods to assist existing NGOs with their missions such as fundraising, reaching clients, or creating networking opportunities with multiple NGOs
- Providing products or services which benefit underserved populations and/or the environment which are also financially profitable.
- Adapting to new business sectors: Since many business opportunities are developing in the realm of social entrepreneurialism, businesses hoping to reach this expanding market must design themselves to be financially profitable, socially beneficial and ecologically sustainable or fail to compete with those companies who do design themselves as such. For example, Fair Trade and Ethical Trade companies require ethical and sustainable practices from all of their suppliers and service providers. A business which is planning to work with Fair Trade or Ethical Trade companies must design their business model to be TBL.
Fiscal policy of governments usually claims to be concerned with identifying social and natural deficits on a less formal basis. However, such choices may be guided more by ideology than by economics. The primary benefit of embedding one approach to measurement of these deficits would be first to direct monetary policy to reduce them, and eventually achieve a global monetary reform by which they could be systematically and globally reduced in some uniform way.
The argument is that the Earth's carrying capacity is itself at risk, and that in order to avoid catastrophic breakdown of climate or ecosystem, there is a need for a comprehensive reform in global financial institutions similar in scale to that undertaken at Bretton Woods in 1944. Marilyn Waring has been a major proponent of this reform.
With the emergence of an externally consistent green economics and agreement on definitions of potentially contentious terms such as full-cost accounting, natural capital and social capital, the prospect of formal metrics for ecological and social loss or risk has grown less remote through the 1990s.
In the United Kingdom in particular, the London Health Observatory has undertaken a formal programme to address social deficits via a fuller understanding of what "social capital" is, how it functions in a real community (that being the City of London), and how losses of it tend to require both financial capital and significant political and social attention from volunteers and professionals to help resolve. The data they rely on is extensive, building on decades of statistics of the Greater London Council since World War II. Similar studies have been undertaken in North America.
Studies of the value of Earth have tried to determine what might constitute an ecological or natural life deficit. The Kyoto Protocol relies on some measures of this sort, and actually relies on some value of life calculations that, among other things, are explicit about the ratio of the price of a human life between developed and developing nations (about 15 to 1). While the motive of this number was to simply assign responsibility for a cleanup, such stark honesty opens not just an economic but political door to some kind of negotiation — presumably to reduce that ratio in time to something seen as more equitable. As it is, people in developed nations can be said to benefit 15 times more from ecological devastation than in developing nations, in pure financial terms. According to the IPCC, they are thus obliged to pay 15 times more per life to avoid a loss of each such life to climate change — the Kyoto Protocol seeks to implement exactly this formula, and is therefore sometimes cited as a first step towards getting nations to accept formal liability for damage inflicted on ecosystems shared globally.
Advocacy for triple bottom line reforms is common in Green Parties. Some of the measures undertaken in the European Union towards the Euro currency integration standardize the reporting of ecological and social losses in such a way as to seem to endorse in principle the notion of unified accounts, or unit of account, for these deficits.
While many people agree with the importance of good social conditions and preservation of the environment, there are also many who disagree with the triple bottom line as the way to enhance these conditions. The main arguments against it are summarised below.
- Reductive method: In the triple bottom line, a corporate-oriented approach, the social—that is, the way in which humans live and relate to each other and the environment—is secondary. The economic as a domain is given an independent status which is ideologically assumed rather than analytically argued. In the most problematic versions, the economic is elevated to the master category and defined in terms that assume the dominance of a singular, historically specific, economic configuration—modern globalizing capitalism. Concurrently the environment comes to be treated as an externality or background feature, an externality that tends not to have the human dimension build into its definition. Thus, in many writings, even in those critical of the triple-bottom-line approach, the social becomes a congeries of miscellaneous considerations left over from the other two prime categories. Alternative approaches that treat the economic as a social domain, alongside and in relation to the ecological, the political and the cultural are now being considered as more appropriate for understanding institutions, cities and regions.
- Division of labour is characteristic of rich societies and a major contributor to their wealth. This leads to the view that organisations contribute most to the welfare of society in all respects when they focus on what they do best: the baker exchanges his loaves with the shoemaker rather than making his own shoes - to the benefit of both and by extension the whole of society. In the case of business the expertise is in satisfying the needs of society and generating a value added surplus. Thus the triple bottom line is thought to be harmful by diverting business attention away from its core competency. Just as charitable organizations like the Red Cross would not be expected to attend to environmental issues or pay a cash dividend, and Greenpeace would not be expected to make a profit or succor the homeless, business should not be expected to take on concerns outside its core expertise, provided the business doesn't do obvious harm to people or the planet.
- Effectiveness: It is observed that concern for social and environmental matters is rare in poor societies (a hungry person would rather eat the whale than photograph it). As a society becomes richer its citizens develop an increasing desire for a clean environment and protected wildlife, and both the willingness and financial ability to contribute to this and to a compassionate society. Support for the concept of the triple bottom line itself is said to be an example of the choices available to the citizens of a society made wealthy by businesses attending to business. Thus by unencumbered attention to business alone, Adam Smith's Invisible Hand will ensure that business contributes most effectively to the improvement of all areas of society, social and environmental as well as economic.
- Nationalism: Some countries adopt the view that they must look after their own citizens first. This view is not confined to one sector of society, having support from elements of business, labour unions, and politicians.
- Libertarian: As it is possible for a socially responsible person to sincerely believe that the triple bottom line is harmful to society, the libertarian view is that it would be arrogant to force them to support a mechanism for the improvement of society that may, or may not, be the best available. That is, those who would not force Greenpeace and the Salvation Army to generate a profit should not force businesses to take responsibilities outside their area of expertise. At least in areas where a business doesn't do obvious harm to people or the planet.
- Inertia: The difficulty of achieving global agreement on simultaneous policy may render such measures at best advisory, and thus unenforceable. For example, people may be unwilling to undergo a depression or even sustained recession to replenish lost ecosystems.
- Application: According to Fred Robins' The Challenge of TBL: A Responsibility to Whom? one of the major weaknesses of the TBL framework is its ability to be applied in a monetary-based economic system. Because there is no single way in monetary terms to measure the benefits to the society and environment as there is with profit, it does not allow for businesses to sum across all three bottom lines. In this regard, it makes it difficult for businesses to recognize the benefits of using TBL for the company, itself.
- Criticism from the Left: TBL is viewed as an attempt by otherwise exploitative corporations to avoid legislation and taxation and generate a fictitious people-friendly & eco-friendly image for PR purposes.
Some businesses have voluntarily adopted a triple bottom line as part of their articles of incorporation or bylaws, and some have advocated for state laws creating a "Sustainable Corporation" that would grant triple bottom line businesses benefits such as tax breaks.[unreliable source]
The triple bottom line was adopted as a part of the State Sustainability Strategy, and accepted by the Government of Western Australia but its status was increasingly marginalised by subsequent premiers Alan Carpenter and Colin Barnett and is in doubt.
- Circles of Sustainability, an alternative four-domain model
- Double bottom line, a similar concept predating the UN standard
- EC3 Global
- Grassroots Business Fund
- Institute for Sustainable Communication
- Value network
- Value network analysis
- Social entrepreneurship
- Low-profit limited liability company
- Community interest company
- Sustainability – From Principle To Practice Goethe-Institut, March 2008.
- Enhancing the role of industry through for example, private-public partnerships, May 2011. United Nations Environment Programme
- Freer Spreckley 1981 Social Audit - A Management Tool for Co-operative Working
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- Filler, S. (2007-01-26). "A Legally Enforceable Triple Bottom Line -- Nau!". Green Counsel.
- Government of Western Australia. (2003, September). "Hope for the Future: The Western Australia State Sustainability Strategy." Accessed: August 30, 2013.
- Social Audit - A Management Tool for Co-operative Working 1981 by Freer Spreckley Local Livelihoods Publications
- The Gaia Atlas of Green Economics (Gaia Future Series) [Paperback], by Paul Ekins, Anchor Books
- Harvard Business Review on Corporate Responsibility by Harvard Business School Press
- The Soul of a Business: Managing for Profit and the Common Good by Tom Chappell
- Capitalism at the Crossroads: The Unlimited Business Opportunities in Solving the World's Most Difficult Problems by Professor Stuart L. Hart
- The Triple Bottom Line: How Today's Best-Run Companies Are Achieving Economic, Social and Environmental Success—and How You Can Too by Andrew W. Savitz and Karl Weber
- The Sustainability Advantage: Seven Business Case Benefits of a Triple Bottom Line (Conscientious Commerce) by Bob Willard, New Society Publishers ISBN 978-0-86571-451-9
- The Triple Bottom Line: What Is It and How Does It Work? - Indiana Business Review
- Balancing Act - A Triple Bottom Line Analysis of the Australian Economy
- Citizens for Corporate Redesign (Minnesota)
- Triple Pundit - Blog on Triple Bottom Line (United States)
- Corporate Responsibility (United Kingdom)
- TBL Accounting without boundaries - Australian corporate and government experiences