Are you confused about the triple bottom line and it’s relationship to sustainability? We’ve redefined it to make better sense.
A few days ago we were making a presentation to a group of business students. They were learning about the triple bottom line in sustainability. The running definition of the triple bottom line centres around the original theory of Elkington from the ’90s: equal consideration of the environment, society and economics. These are the three pillars of sustainability.
We asked the students if each pillar is equal and should be treated as such. The general consensus was a resounding yes. We disagree.
Sustainability and the Triple Bottom Line
Many definitions of sustainability refer to the triple bottom line like a stool with three legs. Each leg represents the environment, social concerns and economic actions. We asked, if one of these legs is removed, the stool won’t stand, right?
We say: it depends on the leg.
The real definition of the triple bottom line
So what is the actual definition of the triple bottom line?
If there was no environment, could you trade in the market? Nope, there would be nothing to trade. The market wholly relies on the environment to provide natural resources.
In contrast, if there was no market to trade in, would the environment remain? It sure will. The environment and our planet will exist long after we’re gone. So why would we treat these elements as equal?
Similarly, if there were no businesses, our society would continue. We’d be pretty upset without our Long Black’s from our local coffee shop, but it would continue nonetheless. And, if our society were to officially collapse, the environment would still exist. So what’s the common factor?
The environment. If we start to explain sustainability this way, we would get something like this:
The sustainability egg
Our economy, businesses and markets are within both our society and the environment. It is the smallest factor contributing to the overall scheme of things. It completely relies on a healthy environment to remain significant.
Our society, the people around us and how we communicate has created the economy. It exists only within us. We are completely powerless when it comes to nature’s control. We do not control the tides or when the sun rises. We live within the natural environment.
Our planet. Mother earth. Our provider of food, water, shelter and life. It provides every necessary element to both sustain our society and our economy.
The three pillars of sustainability are in fact layers within an encompassing egg. Not individual legs of a stool, but intertwined elements.
The mass balance equation
This connectedness reflects the first law of thermodynamics. Energy can be transformed, but can neither be created nor destroyed. The inputs into our economy, which are from the environment, must be equal to the outputs. If it falls out of balance, we risk destroying the habitat in which we survive.
This can be thought of like an endless loop. There needs to be significant management of our waste, to maintain the quality of inputs.
This is how the circular economy theory has arisen. An economy that only uses materials which can be recycled. This will minimise the physical inputs from the environment, and reduce outputs.
The definition of the triple bottom line is not wrong. Yet, the defined relationship between the three pillars of sustainability is incomplete. The economy acts as a connector to bring the environment in a useful form to the people. Without the economy, both people and the planet would still survive.
The students were murmuring amongst themselves. Most of them hadn’t ever considered living off the land. I understood their concerns, I too lived off of two-minute-noodles in university. Trying to grasp our reliance on the environment (and not money!) is a pretty abstract way of thinking.
The definition of the triple bottom line will continue to develop over time. As our reliance on the environment is constant, so is change. The triple bottom line provides a deeper understanding of the necessity of the environment for our continued survival. Do you see the full picture?