Meaning and relevance of the Triple Bottom Line

The idea behind the triple bottom line can form the foundation for a sustainable business. Sometimes it only takes three words to change things.

With so many concepts for business sustainability out there, it's hard to decide which ones are good for your business... and which ones you can happily manage without. The triple bottom line is a one size fits all. Its basic idea: to measure the success of your business not only by its profits, but also by what impact your business activities have on the planet and its people.

Concepts with big names

You have probably heard many big names lately for environmentally friendly, socially conscious concepts. They all cover slightly different aspects of business. They're called corporate social responsibility, sustainability, corporate citizenship, corporate governance, ethical business, green business... just to name a few!

What they all have in common: they seem hard to grasp, theoretical, and academic. Some of them even leave a bad taste in your mouth, right? Whatever the sound of their names, there is lots of value in all of these concepts. And the link to applying these principles to your business is

the triple bottom line: people - planet - profit.


A bit of history

The term "triple bottom line" got famous thanks to John Elkington and his 1994 book “Cannibals with Forks...”. In his book, he introduced two new dimensions to measure business success besides profits. He suggested measuring and reporting on social and environmental implications of a company's business activities, too. Elkington wanted to see these three dimensions applied across all organizations: governmental and non-governmental organizations as well as private companies of all shapes and sizes.

Just to make sure we are on the same page: Elkington did not mean “ignore your business's profitability, and start planting trees”! He wanted companies to put equal weight on people, the planet and their profit. And then report on all three of them.

Impacts of your business decisions

The decisions you make every day for your business affect

  • Your profit - no need to explain this one, is there?
  • and people - your team of employees, your clients and customers, your suppliers and their suppliers, the community your business is based in
  • and the planet - the environment that is. Think about it: 
    you buy a new computer,
    you find a new supplier that is closer to you or further away but cheaper or
    you get that three-year project you were hoping for, and now you have to travel a lot more

It's impossible to weigh these three areas equally. What is important is to find a proper balance between them.

So what's in it for your business?

This basic idea is a one size fits all! No matter what you think about sustainability reporting, whether or not it's important to your business right now. Take the triple bottom line as a guide for all things business. How does that next step affect people, the planet and your profit? Find the balance between the three – one that your grandchildren will be fine with, too.

More Big Picture content:

The extensive review of the ISO 26000 international standard for Guidance on Social Responsibility is divided into:

Find out how the "Plan Do Check Act" cycle will ensure a high quality of your sustainability projects.

In business sustainability, everything is connected. No wonder that you will find familiar aspects that are relevant to your business when you read about international labor standards.

Here's why a business code of ethics may be just right for your business, and how you implement it.

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