Journey to a Sustainable Economy: The Triple Bottom Line

(Hey there. I’m in Hawaii and am officially disconnecting for about a week and a half. In the meantime, here’s a great post from Lynn Fang at Upcycled Love. Thanks so much, Lynn! If you haven’t checked out Lynn’s blog, you totally should.)

How will we really create a sustainable society? It’s a question that most people would prefer to hide from. But why is that? Is it because we feel we have little power to change things?

What if we could see a way forward? Would it seem less daunting? Most of us can see that business and government are the ones to blame for this mess, so we feel powerless in their control. Businesses exist to make money – profit is their bottom line, and as one policy student explained to me, governments exist to take power and control over its people. It seems like the average person can do very little to change this state of affairs, when the very definition of business and government do not operate in our favor.

But what if we changed the operating definition of business and government? What if the purpose of business was to create better livelihoods, to support our basic needs and fulfill our personal dreams? What if the purpose of government wasn’t to take power, and was instead to support and nurture its people?

Of course, it would be difficult to change any mind deeply entrenched in the antequated establishment. It is up to a new generation of businesspeople and policymakers to create a new system.

What if businesses supported the health of people and planet with equal fervor as its goal to maximize profits? This is the triple bottom line: businesses supporting people, planet, and profit. There are many companies who now support this view, as evidenced by a burgeoning market for sustainably sourced products.

Interface is the world’s largest manufacturer of modular carpet tiles and is also a leader in sustainable industry. Its founder and former CEO, Ray Anderson, read Paul Hawken’s book, The Ecology of Commerce, and felt so guilty for extracting natural resources, that he changed the course of his business. Now, Interface embraces the triple bottom line, using sustainably sourced materials whenever possible, and respecting workers’ rights at the same time. They have reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by 70%, their waste by 66%, and are on track towards zero waste. They call this Mission Zero, a journey towards zero ecological footprint. They have consulted with biomimicry experts and studied geckos‘ feet for a more eco-friendly glue. They even want to become petroleum-independent, a daunting feat for a carpet company that depends on synthetic nylon for yarn.

Ray Anderson now speaks to people all over the world about sustainable industry, and has inspired many companies to begin considering their social and environmental impact. Interface also has a consulting arm, InterfaceRAISE, that works with other corporations to improve their efforts in sustainability while enhancing their competitiveness.

Business gives us energy, computers, food, clothing, homes, transportation, and everything else we need to live comfortable lives. They are the greatest source of social and environmental damage, and so it seems they should also be the solution. Businesses that choose to faithfully embrace the triple bottom line are the ones that can lead us to the sustainable society of our future.

Inspiration: Confessions of a Radical Industrialist, by Ray Anderson

What do you think? Do you believe businesses could possibly embrace the triple bottom line? Do you believe this is enough to move us forward?

Lynn_thumb.jpgAuthor bio: Lynn Fang is an eco-conscious writer who likes to wonder about how we can really create the sustainable society of the future. She writes about conscious living, sustainability, and social change at Upcycled Love. Follow her on Twitter at @UpcycledLove


9 responses to this post.

  1. “Do you believe businesses could possibly embrace the triple bottom line?”

    Yes, but many claims of “sustainability” are really not triple-bottom-lined in perspective. This problem has now been addressed by delivering the “holy grail of sustainable decision making” – a universal geometrical algorithm that balances the needs of people, planet and profit – The SLDI Code™

    Sustainable Land Development Initiative


    • That is an interesting idea, and I have read about other metrics to measure sustainability. I don’t think there is any one, all-encompassing algorithm to measure sustainability. But that metric certainly looks good. We would need the government to step in and utilize such metrics, or else promote its label among businesses.


      • “I don’t think there is any one, all-encompassing algorithm to measure sustainability. But that metric certainly looks good.”

        Thanks Lynn. The SLDI Code is the “holy grail of sustainable decision making” – a universal geometrical algorithm that balances the needs of people, planet and profit – because it is based on natural laws and is descriptive and not prescriptive.

        Sustainable Land Development Initiative
        Designing a ‘Big Wheel’ for Civilization


  2. Great post, Lynn!

    I think businesses can embrace the triple bottom line, and it’s too bad we’re not already forcing them to do so. When you think about it, protecting our natural environment, providing safe and fair work for all, and making enough money to keep companies going are all really integral to sustainability – not just eco-sustainability, but our sustainability as a species. It’s not fair that we’re destroying the earth. It’s not fair that people are unemployed, underemployed, or employed in terrible conditions. It’s also not fair that small companies doing great work can’t make ends meet because they can’t compete with giant corporations. We need to address all of this.


  3. Thanks, Andrea! Yes, you’re totally right about addressing all of those. If we’re not providing safe and fair work for all, then those workers won’t work as long or as effectively as those who have safe and fair work. Their working conditions are not sustainable. Money is necessary for a company’s survival. It’s necessary to buy everyday needs, and so money still has a big role to play in sustainability.


  4. Posted by Emily on 05/11/2011 at 06:59

    I’ve read commentaries from various environmentally-minded folks who also work in the corporate world that a sustainable economy is in the hands of the consumers. In other words, businesses will do anything to make a dollar. If consumers demand more environmentally-friendly products, then the corporations will change their production methods to give the consumers what they want. The ‘green’ corporate workers encourage change by “voting with your dollar.”

    While I understand that this is how economics works, I think that this system is backwards. I think that corporations should be putting the environment ahead of the dollar, even ahead of the consumer. Government agencies should be responsible for regulating production methods that are both sustainable to the planet and fair to the workers. The “vote with your dollar” ideology is flawed because people innately like to “get something for the nothing” even if it’s at the expense of your neighbors, animal species, environmental health, etc. Consumers can’t be trusted to provoke corporate change by purchasing sustainable products that are most likely a little bit more expensive. Consumers “want it all” and in order to afford “it all,” the products must as cheap as possible.

    If corporations were mandated to practice sustainable production methods, the consumers would not have to choose between a cheap product and a sustainable product. The decision would already be made for them.


    • I do believe consumers have more power than they think, but you’re right too that it shouldn’t be our burden to carry. Also, corporate media is constantly trying to persuade and convince consumers to live a certain way and buy certain things, so it seems like we have to do extra work to fight through the lies in order to find out the truth. And voting with your dollar is also unfair to the poor. Thanks for your insights.


  5. In an ideal world businesses would embrace the triple bottom line, but that isn’t the case. Thankfully there are a few corporations that do so. The reality is that most businesses are solely motivated by money. I do think consumer demand is ultimately what makes a company tick-money talks. Since most businesses are not choosing to embrace the triple bottom line they must be required to do so. This shouldn’t be a choice-it should be mandatory. If and when more corporations are following this protocol then yes, it will move us in the right direction. Right now things are a mess.


    • You’re right it should be mandatory. Unfortunately that’s not the case right now. Should we be talking to businesses and asking them to change?


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