Employing Triple Bottom Line Sustainability

How can we solve today’s problems in a way that continues to provide for a better tomorrow and years to come? Triple Bottom Line sustainable business practices were originally proposed as a complete system change to the way we measure success in business. Throwing out the numbers-only driven approach of capitalism, TBL embraces three core elements to measure a successful business: Social, Environment, and Economic Impact. This is popularly known as People, Planet, and Profit.

This model does not rule-out profitability; it does, however, challenge the single bottom line approach, an approach that emphasizes short-term profits at the cost of long-term damage to the environment and society. The key here is that social and environmental impacts are measured to understand the entire cost of doing business. Businesses are encouraged to think about their decisions on a longer timeline—years and decades—rather than quarters.

Triple Bottom Line is not new; in fact, the term was coined over 25 years ago by John Elkington, a leading authority on corporate responsibility. In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Elkington explained, “The TBL wasn’t designed to be just an accounting tool. It was supposed to provoke deeper thinking about capitalism and its future.”


Putting these principles into practice

Nonprofits and governments have also found value in TBL practices. For example, in 2005, Grand Rapids, Michigan, launched a “Community Sustainability Partnership” that uses several major indicators to drive the region toward sustainability. The partnership was the first of its kind nationwide and has grown from the original five partner organizations to now more than 280 organizations.

The key to any change, however, is knowing how to measure its outcomes. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to measuring an organization’s environmental and social impact. Key indicators of success ought to be adapted to each industry, organization, and project. This flexibility allows each organization to think critically about their business and how they can measure success. For example, here are some of the key indicators employed by the Grand Rapids CSP:


    • Waste – Recycling, Elimination of toxins
    • Energy – Conservation, Renewable energy use
    • Water – Quality, Stormwater/wastewater, Management, Conservation
    • Air – Greenhouse gas emissions, Quality, Noise abatement
    • Built Environment – LEED building guidelines, Facilities efficiency
    • Land Use/Preservation and Restoration – Open space/greenspace, Natural habitat, Urban sprawl, Biodiversity, Charrette design
    • Transportation – Fleet vehicles/use and efficiency, Alternative modes, Alternative fuels
    • Agriculture – Local food crops, Land erosion

Equity (Social)

    • Education – Training, Knowledgebase/skill sets, Intellectual capital, Voter participation
    • Health and Wellness – Human health, Recreation
    • Quality of Life – Housing/rental affordability, Access to services, Poverty reduction, Community well-being, Great neighborhoods
    • Cultural Competence – Diversity, Cultural awareness, Arts and heritage
    • Safety and Security – Crime rates, Disaster planning
    • Spirituality – Faith-based initiatives
    • Philanthropy – Charitable contributions, Volunteerism


    • Fiscal Management – Expenditures, Revenues, Capitalization
    • Economic Development – Employment, Smart growth, Business sustainability, Brownfield redevelopment, New Businesses
    • Purchasing – Green Purchasing, Policies and procedures, Minority purchasing, Local purchasing, Aggregate purchasing
    • Utilization of Assets – LEAN principles, Shared services
    • Innovation – Applied clean technologies


Changing Perspectives

All too often, when challenged to see the world from a different perspective, we become skeptical and wonder whether the new perspective is even real. We ask ourselves, “Is this possible?” This is certainly the case when it comes to the Triple Bottom Line model. Many of us ask if it’s even possible to run a business that creates TBL – people, planet, profit – value.

The American Sustainable Business Council has published a white paper that explains “high road” business practices and how they lead to improved business performance. High road business practices create or lead to, TBL value. The paper, “The High-Road Workplace: Route to a Sustainable Economy,” includes a number of case studies from real businesses that demonstrate the practicability of the TBL.

Looking to meet business leaders in the region who are currently practicing TBL? Come to one of SMSBF’s upcoming events to learn more and meet local organizations.

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