What is the Triple Bottom Line?
Historically, businesses operated in service solely to their financial bottom line. In 1994, author and entrepreneur, John Elkington, introduced the concept of the triple bottom line (TBL) with hopes of transforming the financial accounting-focused business system to a comprehensive approach that measures impact and success. As a result of the triple bottom line theory and application, some businesses began to recognize the connection among environmental health, social well-being, and an organization’s financial success and resilience. To get an accurate perspective of their operations, beyond what is reflected in their profit and loss statements, organizations must fully account for all costs associated with doing business.
“The triple bottom line wasn’t designed to be just an accounting tool. It was supposed to provoke deeper thinking about capitalism and its future.” —John Elkington in his Harvard Business Review article
Fast facts about the triple bottom line:
- It is a transformation framework to help businesses and organizations move toward a regenerative and more sustainable future.
- TBL offers tools that help an organization measure, benchmark, set goals, and eventually evolve toward more sustainable systems and models.
- It illustrates that if an organization is only focused on profit, while ignoring people and the planet, it cannot account for the full cost of doing business and thus will not succeed long term.
Triple bottom line theory expands conventional business success metrics to include an organization’s contributions to social well-being, environmental health, and a just economy. These bottom line categories are often referred to as the three “P’s”: people, planet, and prosperity. While there are three categories that make up the triple bottom line, it is important to remember they are not siloed. Through a systems theory lens, the three “P’s” are all interconnected. Given that the foundation of sustainability is systems thinking, a single initiative that falls under people, planet or prosperity will also create an impact in the others.
“The SMGT 230 Triple Bottom Line Accounting for Managers course provides the necessary tools to understand accounting in any company along with its sustainability measures and outcomes.” —Ann, Sustainable Management bachelor’s student
People considers all stakeholders (versus solely shareholders) including employees, communities within which an organization operates, individuals throughout the supply chain, future generations, and customers—just to name a few.
The connection with corporate social responsibility (CSR) is central to this segment of the triple bottom line. CSR is defined as a responsibility among organizations to meet the needs of their stakeholders and a responsibility among stakeholders to hold organizations accountable for their actions. A few initiatives that an organization may consider as part of its CSR goals include: advancing human rights; ending poverty and hunger; diversity, equity and inclusion; gender equity; ensuring a healthy and safe work environment; and community engagement and volunteerism. Not only are CSR initiatives beneficial for stakeholders, but an organization integrating CSR into their business strategy is also good for business. As part of the commitment to advance CSR initiatives, it’s common to see businesses sharing best practices with other businesses and organizations.
Planet considers the relationship between an organization or business and the natural environment and its ecological systems.
Public opinion, consumer purchasing power, the speed and transparency of information sharing via social media, and even industry-led activism (for example, Patagonia 1 percent for the Planet) has made it easier for stakeholders to hold organizations accountable for their actions. This is seen in stakeholders rewarding an organization’s positive impacts and reprimanding the negative. When that sentiment gains public attention, chances are high that it will impact who consumers buy from and who they ultimately support. Stakeholders are increasingly aware of not only the consequences business activity can have on the environment, community, and economy, but also of the importance of global issues, such as climate change and social justice. In fact, a 2020 Climate Change in the American Mind survey shows that “Nearly six in 10 (roughly 58 percent) of Americans are now either ‘Alarmed’ or ‘Concerned’ about global warming. From 2014 to 2019, the proportion of ‘Alarmed’ nearly tripled.”
Over the past several decades, businesses have increasingly adopted practices that help minimize environmental impact. More recently, large organizations like AT&T, DELL, EASTON, Hewlett Packard, Kohler Co., Levi Strauss & Co., and Target, to name a few, have taken a step further down the sustainability path by creating a net-positive or regenerative impact on the environment and society.
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Prosperity considers the economic indicators over which an organization or business has influence—for example, paying livable wages, ethical sourcing, and workplace health and safety.
Triple bottom line theory is systemic in nature through its view of people, planet, and prosperity. With this connectivity in mind, the United Nations (UN) created Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that “ensure all human beings can enjoy prosperous and fulfilling lives and that economic, social, and technological progress occurs in harmony with nature.” Many of the UN SDGs aim to improve a wide range of areas related to environment, people, and economic opportunities. One of the many prosperity-focused goals aims to provide decent work (safe working conditions, living wages, compassionate leadership) and economic growth for those in specific communities.
Examples from the UN’s SDGs of how businesses can help support the prosperity of their stakeholders include:
- By 2025, take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labor, end modern slavery, and human trafficking. Additionally, prohibit and eliminate all forms of child labor, including recruitment and use of child soldiers.
- By 2030, devise and implement policies to promote sustainable tourism that creates jobs and promotes local culture and products.
Some companies, like Kohler Co., have taken a systemic approach to integrating prosperity into its business:
“As a global company, we understand that how we do business impacts the communities in which we live and work… We believe that in order to grow our business responsibly, we must have programs in place that positively impact the environment and society at scale.” —Laura Kohler, Senior Vice President, Human Resources, Stewardship & Sustainability.
“I have gained enormously in improving my horizon of vision to identify that until and unless there is any societal improvement, economic and environmental improvements cannot go too far. To have real improvement of the humankind, all three components of the TBL must be satisfied.” —Molla, Sustainable Management master’s student
SMGT 720 Applied Research and the Triple Bottom Line is a course in the Master of Science in Sustainable Management.
The Definition of “Business Success” is Evolving
The saying “business as usual” now holds a new meaning. It is no longer sufficient in the eyes of consumers, employees, and other stakeholders to only meet compliance standards. Understanding and operating through a triple bottom line framework offers opportunities for optimization, innovation, and improvement across sectors and industries. Engaging a business model that considers the three “P’s” of people, planet, and prosperity will ultimately lead to increased resilience and cost savings, decreased organizational risk (i.e. supply chain and public relations), a decrease in unforeseen costs, and overall success for all stakeholders involved.
“To protect the planet, we must show others that impossible can be business as usual.” —Lisa Jackson, Vice President, Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives at Apple
Certified B Corporations bring the triple bottom line, as John Elkington designed it, to life. B Corporations are a relatively new type of business, legally required to consider impacts on all stakeholders including employees, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment. Their mission is to become a community of leaders who drive a global movement of people using business as a force for good.
While new business models continue to evolve, there is still much work for sustainability professionals within every organization, no matter the sector, industry, or role. Through triple bottom line theory, sustainability changemakers have the opportunity to strategically engage colleagues and leadership. As a result, we can make measurable, sustainability-focused progress in virtually everything we do.
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Interested in becoming a sustainability changemaker? In the University of Wisconsin bachelor’s, master’s, and certificate programs in sustainability you’ll learn about the triple bottom line in a flexible, online format that is an ideal choice for students balancing work and personal responsibilities, and offers easy access to academic advising and student support services.