The Triple Bottom Line
– Gain a strong understanding of the “triple bottom line” and its context in a business environment
– Understand how the “triple bottom line” was a factor in the movie “A Class Action”
– Gain an overview of the triple bottom line in the video by its founder Elkington
– Introduction to economic, social and environmental sustainability
The triple bottom line is a form of corporate social responsibility dictating that corporate leaders tabulate bottom-line results not only in economic terms (costs versus revenue) but also in terms of company effects in the social realm, and with respect to the environment. There are two keys to this idea. First, the three columns of reponsibility must be kept separate, with results reported independently for each. Second, in all three of these areas, the company should obtain sustainable results.
The notion of sustainability is very specific. At the intersection of ethics and economics, sustainability means the long-term maintenance of balance. As elaborated by theorists including John Elkington, here’s how the balance is defined and achieved economically, socially, and environmentally:
Economic sustainability values long-term financial solidity over more volatile, short-term profits, no matter how high. According to the triple-bottom-line model, large corporations have a responsibility to create business plans allowing stable and prolonged action. That bias in favor of duration should make companies hesitant about investing in things like dot-coms. While it’s true that speculative ventures may lead to windfalls, they may also lead to collapse. Silicon Valley, California, for example, is full of small, start-up companies. A few will convert into the next Google, Apple, and Microsoft. What gets left out, however, of the newspaper reports hailing the accomplishments of a Steve Jobs or a Bill Gates are all those other people who never made it—all those who invested family savings in a project that ended up bankrupt. Sustainability as a virtue means valuing business plans that may not lead to quick riches but that also avoid calamitous losses.
The Triple Bottom Line in the movie A Class Action
Moving this reasoning over to the case of W. R. Grace dumping toxins into the ground soil, there’s a possible economic-sustainability argument against that kind of action. Corporations trying to get away with polluting the environment or other kinds of objectionable actions may, it’s true, increase their bottom line in the short term. Money is saved on disposal costs. Looking further out, however, there’s a risk that a later discovery of the action could lead to catastrophic economic consequences (like personal injury lawyers filing huge lawsuits). This possibility leads immediately to the conclusion that concern for corporate sustainability in financial terms argues against the dumping.
Social sustainability values balance in people’s lives and the way we live. A world in which a few Fortune 500 executives are hauling down millions a year, while millions of people elsewhere in the world are living on pennies a day can’t go on forever. As the imbalances grow, as the rich get richer and the poor get both poorer and more numerous, the chances that society itself will collapse in anger and revolution increase. The threat of governmental overthrow from below sounds remote—almost absurd—to Americans who are accustomed to a solid middle class and minimal resentment of the wealthy. In world history, however, such revolutions are quite common. That doesn’t mean revolution is coming to our time’s developed nations. It may indicate, however, that for a business to be stable over the long term, opportunities and subsequently wealth need to be spread out to cover as many people as possible.
The fair trade movement fits this ethical imperative to shared opportunity and wealth. Developed and refined as an idea in Europe in the 1960s, organizations promoting fair trade ask businesses—especially large producers in the richest countries—to guarantee that suppliers in impoverished nations receive reasonable payment for their goods and services even when the raw economic laws of supply and demand don’t require it. An array of ethical arguments may be arranged to support fair trade, but on the front of sustainability, the lead argument is that peace and order in the world depend on the world’s resources being divided up in ways that limit envy, resentment, and anger.
Social sustainability doesn’t end with dollars; it also requires human respect. All work, the logic of stability dictates, contains dignity, and no workers deserve to be treated like machines or as expendable tools on a production line. In today’s capitalism, many see—and the perception is especially strong in Europe—a world in which dignity has been stripped away from a large number of trades and professions. They see minimum wage workers who’ll be fired as soon as the next economic downturn arrives. They see bosses hiring from temporary agencies, turning them over fast, not even bothering to learn their names. It’s certainly possible that these kinds of attitudes, this contempt visible in so many workplaces where the McJob reigns, can’t continue. Just as people won’t stand for pennies in wages while their bosses get millions, so too they ultimately will refuse to accept being treated as less dignified than the boss.
Finally, social sustainability requires that corporations as citizens in a specific community of people maintain a healthy relationship with those people. Fitting this obligation into the case of W. R. Grace in Woburn, it’s immediately clear that any corporation spilling toxins that later appear as birth defects in area children isn’t going to be able to sustain anything with those living nearby. Any hope for cooperation in the name of mutual benefit will be drowned by justified hatred.
Environmental sustainability begins from the affirmation that natural resources—especially the oil fueling our engines, the clean air we breathe, and the water we drink—are limited. If those things deteriorate significantly, our children won’t be able to enjoy the same quality of life most of us experience. Conservation of resources, therefore, becomes tremendously important, as does the development of new sources of energy that may substitute those we’re currently using.
Further, the case of an industrial chemical company pouring toxins into the ground that erupt years later with horrific consequences evidences this: not only are resources finite, but our earth is limited in its ability to naturally regenerate clean air and water from the smokestacks and runoff of our industries. There are, clearly, good faith debates that thoughtful people can have about where those limits are. For example, have we released greenhouse gases into the air so heavily that the earth’s temperature is rising? No one knows for sure, but it’s certain that somewhere there’s a limit; at some point carbon-burning pollution will do to the planet what toxic runoff did in Woburn: make the place unlivable. Sustainability, finally, on this environmental front means actions must be taken to facilitate our natural world’s renewal. Recycling or cleaning up contamination that already exists is important here, as is limiting the pollution emitted from factories, cars, and consumer products in the first place. All these are actions that corporations must support, not because they’re legally required to do so, but because the preservation of a livable planet is a direct obligation within the triple-bottom-line model of business responsibility.
Together, these three notions of sustainability—economic, social, and environmental—guide businesses toward actions fitted to the conception of the corporation as a participating citizen in the community and not just as a money machine.
One deep difference between corporate social responsibility and the triple bottom line is cultural. The first is more American, the second European. Americans, accustomed to economic progress, tend to be more comfortable with, and optimistic about, change. Collectively, Americans want business to transform the world, and ethical thinking is there (hopefully) to help the transformations maximize improvement across society. Europeans, accustomed to general economic decline with respect to the United States, view change much less favorably. Their inclination is to slow development down, and to keep things the same as far as possible. This outlook is naturally suited to sustainability as a guiding value.
It’s important to note that while sustainability as a business goal puts the breaks on the economic world, and is very conservative in the (nonpolitical) sense that it favors the current situation over a changed one, that doesn’t mean recommending a pure freeze. Sustainability isn’t the same as Ludditism, which is a flat resistance to all technological change.
The Luddites were a band of textile workers in Britain in the 1800s who saw (correctly) that mechanized looms would soon rob them not only of their livelihood but also of their way of life. To stop the change, they invaded a few factories and broke everything in sight. Their brute strategy succeeded very briefly and then failed totally. Today, Ludditism is the general opposition to new technologies in any industry on the grounds that they tear the existing social fabric: they force people to change in the workplace and then everyplace, whether they like it or not. There’s an element of (perhaps justifiable) fear of the future in both Ludditism and the business ethics of sustainability, but there are differences between the two also. For example, sustainability concerns don’t always stand against technological advances. Actually, innovation is favored as long as advances are made in the name of maintaining the status quo. For example, advances in wind power generation may allow our society to continue using energy as we do, even as oil reserves dwindle, and with the further benefit of limiting air pollution.