The Triple Bottom Line: Catching a Wave
Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship
By Philip H. Mirvis • January 2007
Philosopher of Science Gunther Stent, after studying centuries of discoveries and inventions, observed that "many ideas are premature, but few are unique." One such idea is that business is responsible for and needs to take an accounting of the full range of its social, economic, and environmental outputs — what John Elkington terms the "triple bottom line."
Ben & Jerry's was ahead of its time in the 1980s when it devised its three-part financial, social, and product (quality-and-manufacturing) mission and later issued, with Elkington's help, its first public accountings of same.
Throughout the '90s, there was rapid development, in parallel, of concepts of corporate responsibility, environmental sustainability, and the "new" corporate citizenship; plus the field of social and environmental reporting emerged. Triple bottom line (TBL) — or 3BL as some term it — entered into big business thinking mid-decade with Shell's publication of its felicitously phrased People, Profits & Planet campaign and annual public report.
Now, it appears, its time has really come. A search on Google shows that from 2002 to early 2005 the number of hits on "triple bottom line" rose 15,600 to 187,000. The hit rate today: 700,000.
Impressive, but if you really want to see action, surf over to sustainability — which today concerns both the natural and social environment. There you will find more than 51 million sites.
In their interesting and engaging volume, The Triple Bottom Line: How Today's Best-Run Companies are Achieving Economic, Social, and Environmental Success — and How You Can Too (Jossey-Bass, 2006), Andrew Savitz, with business writer Karl Weber, have caught the wave drawing a link between TBL and sustainability.
They note, importantly, that most of the work on sustainability to date has concerned its relevance to and benefits for society. This book "turns that lens around" and examines that case for sustainability for business. They argue, in essence, that corporate sustainability hinges on socially, environmentally, and economically sustainable business practices or, in other words, on managing the triple-bottom line. For those who still don't get it, they also say it simply: "Companies can become more profitable by doing the right thing."
Various blurbs praise the book as "timely" (already noted), "well-written," and "jargon-free," and promise that it offers a "clear, practical framework."
I couldn't agree more. Savitz, a former partner in this arena for PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP and legal counsel on related matters in Massachusetts and the U.S. House of Representatives, knows his stuff and with his co-author says it well. Congenial stories about the decline of the whaling industry, the misguided sale of the Hershey Candy Company, and the rescue of the Penebscot River in Maine through multi-sector collaboration provide the kinds of cautionary tales and inspirational examples that make for instructive reading. And a series of example-filled "how to do it" chapters guide the reader sensibly through at least the main steps to bringing the TBL to life in their business.
Fashioned, like so many business books, on the Good to Great formula, readers will find informative graphics and hands-on chapters about assessing where you are today on TBL, shaping your sustainability strategy, launching the program, managing stakeholders, measuring progress, and so on.
The authors, to their credit, don't pretend that progress is easy or success achievable in the short term. They warn, too, against face-saving half-measures and against "green-" or "blue-washing" where PR substitutes for real environmental and social performance. Through their tested experience and supportive coaching, they convey hope to readers who are taking their first steps toward sustainability and instill confidence in those who are already making progress in and with their companies.
What's here for more informed and experienced readers? The blurbs portend "insights" and I found several contenders here. One, of course, is the notion of a "sustainability sweet spot," where profits overlap the common good. This illustrates, for example, why GE wants to address climate change through its eco-imagination campaign or why PepsiCo is responding to public health concerns through more nutritious and less sugary offerings. This is nicely packaged through a good-to-great hedge-hog visual (overlapping circles). Thankfully, it gains sweetness in a later chapter on how companies can aim variously to minimize the bad or optimize the good through their investments and growth strategies, and gets some tang in a brief on pursuing optimization through process and product innovation and through untapped market prospecting.
What's missing is any real insight into how companies might contemplate multiple sweet spots, sort through and calibrate minimization/optimization choices, and how (and whether) to orchestrate efforts to optimize along global/regional/local lines and category/market/business dimensions. This is the state-of-play in shaping a sustainability strategy in GE, PepsiCo, and other companies they discuss. On these counts, Savitz and Weber just get you on the playing field.
Their best insights concern "sustainability jujitsu." Starting with Nike's dealings with protests about its supply chain, they introduce the idea of turning stakeholder's energy and interests back on to them in the form of partnering, e.g., jujitsu. Then they offer sensible advice on how to categorize stakeholders, assess their potential impact, and prioritize a response to them. They also offer seasoned counsel on how to work with a heterogeneous network of stakeholders, forge multiple partnerships, and even develop your own stakeholder group. Here Savitz and Weber seem to be speaking from deep personal experience and take readers inside the game. They illustrate the moves that turn risks into opportunities and transform sometime enemies into at least partial friends.
Naturally, depending on personal interests and experience, readers will find their own lessons from a book that offers so many of them. My views: Get it as a either a starter manual or a reminder of why you're moving toward sustainability; get a copy for your spouse, friends, and kids to let them what you're doing and why; and by all means get a copy for your boss or CEO if they too wonder what you are up to or, better still, to get them moving faster and farther toward the triple bottom line.
Philip H. Mirvis, Ph.D. is a Senior Research Fellow at the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship, and an organizational psychologist.