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Shifting from the Single to the Triple Bottom Line

06/22/10 by John Wear

John Wear

Day after day, night after night, the massive oil spill in the Gulf dominates headlines. We learn about the impact it is having on wildlife, on the shoreline, on the fishing industry.  We look for ways to stop it as we would a bleeding wound, but in truth stopping the bleeding is only treating the symptoms. We need to do more: We need to treat the cause.

In businesses we focus on the bottom line – a one dimensional scale that focuses solely on economics.  Perhaps it’s time to look at our organizations in another way, to view our business strategies through the lens of the triple bottom line, which encompasses economic performance, social responsibility and environmental stewardship.

The oil spill is a dramatic reminder that if we don’t take these other factors into consideration, if we don’t integrate all of them into our organizational structures, the problems we’re facing now will continue unabated.  One hundred years ago when resources were bountiful, this wasn’t as big an issue. But with the growth in the number of consumers throughout the world, we are facing greater competition to meet our needs for scarce resources while at the same time seeing a greater impact of the worldwide cumulative effects of human actions.  

Thomas Friedman in his book, Hot, Flat and Crowded, did a good job of explaining why this is vital in today’s world. He talks about the convergence of technology and events that allowed India, China and other countries to become part of the global supply chain, creating an explosion of wealth in the world’s middle classes. This he calls “the flattening of the world.”

When the crowding of the world and the flattening of the world converged around the year 2000, Friedman says, the world went onto a track where global demand for energy, natural resources, and food all started to grow at a much accelerated pace.  We are under pressure to seek oil and other resources in places we have not gone before. With those pressures come not only financial costs but potentially greater costs to our whole civilization. 

The oil spill is effectively demonstrating the enormous impact of such actions. We can now look down from a satellite view of the earth and see the volume of oil that is escaping. And it’s not going away. It is going to be in our marine sediment and in our ecosystems, and  it will have long-term effects in ways we cannot predict. It is going to affect the health of our economies. It is going to impact people in ways that damage their capacity to meet their own needs.

This is an object lesson in why we need to shift toward sustainability in the way we operate our businesses and communities. So, how do we make that shift? In fact, what is sustainability?  It refers to meeting our own needs without compromising the capacity of future generations to meet their needs. 

In truth, while it is not something that is easily achievable, it is something that we should all go well beyond.   It would be nice if we really lived and ran our businesses in a way that was regenerative — that actually made the world a healthier and better place to live.  But Step 1 is to get businesses, organizations and communities to make that shift to more sustainable approaches to the way we exist on this earth.  

Our industrial revolution propelled us in ways that brought about many things we all enjoy and appreciate.  But, it has come at a cost – a cost that future generations are going to have to deal with.

So where do you start?  Well, often, we start at the wrong level.  We start at the level dealing with waste and recycling rather than at the top where management decisions are actually made.  We need to begin at a level where it is integrated into every decision we make.   

OK, so you read this and the first thing you think is, “This is fine and good, but what’s the cost?”  
Many think that during these difficult economic times we simply cannot make these kinds of shifts.  But wait.  This is exactly the time to do it.  The reason is this:  The first step in moving a business, organization or community toward sustainability is to think strategically.  

Thinking strategically means incorporating things like resource use directly into our planning efforts.  By understanding our relationship to the world around us, we can begin to see where we fit into this picture. 

A number of Fortune 500 companies have now hired sustainability coordinators, often at top levels, to integrate a new kind of thinking into their businesses. They publish sustainability reports, and they do it because they know that by paying attention to all these issues, they are more competitive, more profitable and in a better position in the future to adapt to a rapidly changing world. You may be interested to know that we are beginning to see this in local government and area businesses.  For example, Food Lion recently hired a sustainability coordinator.

On our own Catawba College campus in Salisbury, we instituted our Sustainable Business and Community Development degree a few years ago because we knew this was the wave of the future. It is designed for students who want to be business professionals who take a “green” approach in business practices. It offers both training in business management and an understanding of the mechanisms of organizational change needed to make businesses function in ways that focus on that triple bottom line.

As sustainability expert Darcy Hitchcock noted in the workshop we helped organize at the Center for the Environment at Catawba College on June 9 and at the Cabarrus Regional Chamber of Commerce office June 10, embracing sustainable business practices can help organizations prosper. Shifting from the single to the triple bottom line is not about sacrifice. It’s about competing and succeeding in a fast-changing world.

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