Triple and triple play. Triplets. The Atlantic tripletail. Triple sec (for you margarita fans in the crowd). The Triple Crown. Triple double and the triple-threat position (both basketball terms, if you weren’t familiar). Triple net lease. Triple jump. Triple bogey (a.k.a. “my nemesis”).
Is the word “triple” starting to look weird to you yet? It is to me. Hang on, I have just one last triple for you – the triple bottom line.
If you are reading this particular blog (and a grateful writer thanks you!), then you likely are familiar with the term. It’s been in the sustainability movement’s lingo for a while now, referring to businesses pursuing environmental and social wellbeing in addition to commercial profit. Whether the 3-Es (economy, environment, and equity) or the 3-Ps (people, planet, and profit), the triple bottom line is well-understood and broadly accepted.
You might expect that I, an environmentalist who celebrates business and its capacity for good, would be the last person to quibble with the triple bottom line. Well buckle up, cause I’m going to quibble like you’ve never seen a quibbler quibble before (and now “quibble” looks weird – you’re welcome).
At the outset, I want to celebrate the intent behind the triple bottom line. I wholeheartedly agree that businesses should not and cannot have a myopic focus on profitability. Any business that purposefully pursues a triple bottom line is ahead, in my book at least, of a business pursuing a single bottom line.
That said, a triple bottom line approach can cause a business to fall into one of two traps. The first is a false-equivalence. Simply put, human wellbeing is a goal unto itself, perhaps the noblest one we have. A healthy functioning environment is also a goal unto itself. Profits, however, are merely a means to an end. Ray often said that business can’t exist to make a profit, but rather it makes a profit to exist. There must be a higher purpose.
Second, and perhaps more important, this framework suggests that there are three separate goals that are independent. If a company does some environmental good over here and some social good over there, it’s permitted to make whatever profitable product or service it wants, so long as it’s legal. Right?
I say nay. If a company wants to do a side project or charitable initiative to support an environmental or social cause, that is all well and good. There’s no penance in sustainability though. Those efforts don’t give companies a hall pass to make products that themselves harm people or the planet.
True, authentic sustainability requires businesses to transform their entire operations towards a triple bottom line goal. We don’t want businesses to do three separate things to satisfy the three bottom lines. We want them doing one thing that generates positive results in all respects. Such a full integration of sustainability is necessary for a business to evolve into the prototypical company of the 21st century, which Ray conceptualized in Mid-Course Correction.
Ultimately, I want the triple bottom line to be a high bar for business and industry, and too often it’s set low. So let’s raise the bar!