Triple bottom line & sustainability: the science of good business


Hi Alex here. 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 with that the
methods by which companies measure value should include not only a financial
bottom line, profit or loss, but in 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 mainstreams 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 an 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 two
social and three environment for five 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 nor destroyed, while
laws of thermodynamics tell us that everything tends towards dispersal.
That’s the 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 will not occur and entropy would rule the day. So how does
this help us understand the triple bottom line? Plant cells belong to the
environment circle of the triple bottom line. If these 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 byproduct of society. So instead of three overlapping circles, we have three nested circles
where the economy is wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. To achieve sustainability, we need to comply with social and environmental conditions: meeting 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’re 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.
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