Triple Bottom Line or TBL for short was first coined by John Elkington as a principle used in business and politics which takes into account the decisions a business or government makes. Giving exceptional attention to the greater environmental good and social justice. It is an evolution of our traditional business values which considers the bottom line, that solely considered the profit gained from our decision making.
It's clear from first glance that TBL is quite an attractive approach, in the theoretical sense at least. Building upon the current Triple Bottom Line approach would surely provide strong grounding for a business looking to improve upon its CSR, however it is a flawed and incomplete system. In this post I'd like to address some of my own concerns and concerns of the public involved in this debate, along with suggestions, recommendations and remedies to the problems that we face currently with this model.
Psychological Weaknesses of the System
Ask any new business owner why they decided to launch their particular business.
Ask any person why they go to work or ask any investor why they take the risks they do.
After attempting this among my class and among my friends we found that unanimously the response would be "To make money." From that it would be quite easy to suppose that Profit is instinctively the most desirable foundation for a business to be built upon. What then of the Planet and People?
To that question most will form one of two different answers.
The first is that all 3 principles are to be treated in unison, for example a lack of attention to the environmental impact of a decision will also harm the reputation and the eventual profit of a business; and thus all choices are decisions regarding the same foundational value of profit.
The second being that it should be a natural desire for businesses to consider their environmental and social impact, and that it simply needs to be trained.
However I believe that neither of those answers are sufficient, if the aim is to attempt to make businesses more humane in its dealings, then why try to justify popular ideals with a single principle of profit?
Why not simply look into our current understanding of what is humane, to determine those fundamental truths from which we can build our understanding and framework of sustainable business practices? This is part of the reasoning for the current TBL model.
As it stands however, the current model is only capable of exploring the principles of profitability, then to a lesser extent the social need of people and its parallel in business. And exactly as this encompasses our perceived impact on others in social settings, it also pushes us to consider our environmental impact.
To put it into a visual perspective, consider the following human needs, and explore how each of the 3 P's fills those needs:
PHYSIOLOGICAL - SPIRITUAL / INTELLECTUAL - SOCIAL / EMOTIONAL
Profit People, Planet
With this we assume that humans have a need for physical well being, that they have a need for emotional well being which stems from humans being social in nature. And finally that humans have a need for spiritual and intellectual well being, these are our beliefs, which drive curiosity and innovation.
Unfortunately the latter is unaccounted for and houses no parallel in the current TBL model.
Whereas the social and emotional considerations almost seem to be over-represented when considering sustainable decision making.
Now while it would be irresponsible to disregard the influence that our decisions have on societal constructs, ideals and beliefs, surely it would also be irresponsible for businesses to base two thirds of their decisions primarily on the social or emotional impact that their desired outcomes have.
Ideological Weaknesses of the System
Although an argument can be made that the environmental impact of decision making, is unrelated to the social. It is very difficult to argue that the concern aspect for the environment is anything other than socially influenced.
For this reason it is also very difficult to argue that the measurable impact on the environment itself should actually be included directly within the scope of TBL, while being reported outside of the scope of social impact.
The issue posed by attempting to consider the environmental or social impact as important as either of the others is that it causes an over dependence on public opinion.
If I could speak from my own experience; I do not believe that the public opinion on many topics are necessarily always ethically or morally safe, at least by my own standards. I would even say that every person reading this could remember at least one instance where their ethical position has differed from the social standard.
Now consider a business being forced to make a decision for "the greater social good" despite it clashing with their own moral standards.
As such, I believe that TBL fails to assist businesses in becoming ethically sustainable; by encouraging a deep-seated corporate level personal conviction.
Instead of encouraging the in-building of ethically sustainable ideals, it only stresses the importance of meeting social demands.
Instead of taking genuine responsibility for the outcomes of their decisions.
It simply encourages businesses to use smoke screens and convoluted paper trails to mask the sincere ideals and beliefs that they have; in this way discouraging true transparency and encouraging discrutable practices.
So, whos to blame the next time your favourite business is busted for greenwashing? Is it really a surprise to see companies going through cycles of good and bad decision making while having a spotless records in their report making?
The solution in my sight is a restructuring of the current reporting system, which not only takes into account the impact that a decision has on the business itself and the impact that it has on its external environment. But also the impact that a decision has internally within the business.
By creating an internal check for businesses to ensure they are postured not only toward profit and doing the greater good, but also that they are looking after their own moral beliefs, their staff and the working environment. I propose a that the environmental and social impact be compressed into a single report while adding another report which measures the internal impact of business decisions.
This reporting methodology considers the traditional virtues of Corporate Social Responsibility and that of Profitability, but it also considers Personal Responsibility. Measuring the internal health of a business should in my view, be precisely as important as adhering to social demands and meeting target profits. This because it not only impacts workplace culture, but it also impacts the the other parts of TBL as each works co-dependently.
Here is just one example of how Moral Duty impacts Profitability and CSR by boosting worker motivation:
A study revealed the impact that internal pressures like workplace environment and fair treatment has on worker performance. This academic research paper showed that 94% of employees strongly agreed that fair treatment in the workplace accounts heavily for worker motivation. It also showed that 100% of employees surveyed strongly agreed that the effects of worker/supervisor relationships had a considerable role on worker motivation.
In the current model of TBL, there is no consideration for the impact of various dynamics such as worker motivation and company's internal culture. While it is true that CSR demands from us things like codes of conduct and green taxes. It still only considers the product of the implementation of these systems, which can make it impossible to truely know what the climate of a business is at the ground level.
Hill, T. (2009). The Blackwell guide to Kant's ethics (p. 229). Chichester [England]: Wiley-Blackwell.