Triple bottom line
Triple bottom line (abbreviated as TBL or 3BL) incorporates the notion of sustainability into business decisions. The TBL is an accounting framework with three dimensions: social, environmental (or ecological) and financial. The TBL dimensions are also commonly called the three Ps: people, planet and profits and are referred to as the "three pillars of sustainability." Interest in triple bottom line accounting has been growing in both for-profit, nonprofit and government sectors. Many organizations have adopted the TBL framework to evaluate their performance in a broader context.
In traditional business accounting and common usage, the "bottom line” refers to either the “profit” or “loss”, which is usually recorded at 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 triple bottom line adds two more "bottom lines”: social and environmental (ecological) concerns. 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. The TBL seems to be fairly widespread in South African media, as found in a 1990-2008 study of worldwide national newspapers.
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 CSR implies a commitment to transparent reporting about the business' material impact for good on the environment and people. Triple bottom line is one framework for reporting this material impact. This is distinct from the more limited changes required to deal only with ecological issues. The triple bottom line has also been extended to encompass four pillars, known as the quadruple bottom line (QBL). The fourth pillar denotes a future-oriented approach (future generations, intergenerational equity, etc.). It is a long-term outlook that sets sustainable development and sustainability concerns a part from previous social, environmental, and economic considerations.
According to Slaper and Hall (2011) The challenges of putting the TBL into practice relate to the measurement of social and ecological categories: Finding applicable data and determining how a project or policy contributes to sustainability. Despite this, the TBL framework enables organizations to take a longer-term perspective and thus evaluate the future consequences of decisions.
Sustainable Development, was defined by the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations in 1987. 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 "triple bottom line" was coined by John Elkington in his 1997 book Cannibals with Forks: the Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business. A Triple Bottom Line Investing group advocating and publicizing these principles was founded in 1998 by Robert J. Rubinstein.
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)
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.
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The triple bottom line consists 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 1994 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.
An enterprise dedicated to the triple bottom line seeks to benefit many constituencies and not to 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.
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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 at risk, and that in order to avoid catastrophic breakdown of climate or ecosystems, there is need for comprehensive reform of global financial institutions similar in scale to what was 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, because it is a corporate-oriented approach, the social—that is, the way in which humans live and relate to each other and the environment—is treated as 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, such as Circles of Sustainability, 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.
- 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.
- Equating ecology with environment : TBL is seen to be undermining ecological sustainability by equating ecological with environmental priorities, where in reality both economic and social viability is dependent on environmental well being. The left sees the root of the issue of environmental degradation to be in the logic of consumerism inherent within the capitalist mode of production. Therefore, adopting 'ethical' business strategy to address the issue will fail as it is still subject to the overarching exploitative logic of capitalism. Further, 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.
- Fragmenting the social: The concept of a triple bottom line, while initially attractive, seems to ignore the reality that if one is not adding value to society it is subtracting value. So creating a third bottom line for the environment often can lead organizations to fragment the societal (or "Mega") bottom line.
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
- Conscious business
- Social entrepreneurship
- Low-profit limited liability company
- Community interest company
- John Elkington (1997). Cannibals with Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of Twenty-First Century Business. Capstone, Oxford.
- Scerri, Andy; James, Paul (2010). "Accounting for sustainability: Combining qualitative and quantitative research in developing ‘indicators’ of sustainability". International Journal of Social Research Methodology 13 (1): 41–53.
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- 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
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- SURF Framework for a Sustainable Economy Marilyn Waite, November 2013.
- Freer Spreckley 1981 Social Audit - A Management Tool for Co-operative Working
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- Kaufman, R. (2011) A Manager’s Pocket Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning. Amherst, MA. HRD Press, Inc.
- Bernardez, M. (2005). "Achieving Business Success by Developing Clients and Community: Lessons from Leading Companies, Emerging Economies and a Nine Year Case Study," Performance Improvement Quarterly 18 (3): 37–55.
- 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
- SURF Framework for a Sustainable Economy by Marilyn Waite Journal of Management and Sustainability
- Explainer: what is the triple bottom line? - The Conversation
- 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