The Triple Bottom Line in Context

The Triple Bottom Line

Sustainability guru John Elkington’s concept of a Triple Bottom Line provides the most used framework for discussing Sustainability. Elkington proposed that businesses should measure and report Return on Assets Deployed information for natural (ecological) assets deployed and for social assets deployed, as well as the usual financial assets (capital) deployed figures. The three “bottom lines” represent the business’s net effects on planet, people and profit. This is obviously a more comprehensive view. Perhaps more significant is the implication that the business should show positive results which indicate enhancement to the environment and society, beyond doing no harm.

Triple Bottom LineAndrew Savitz and Karl Weber’s book, The Triple Bottom Line, extends Elkington’s idea by representing the three “bottom lines” as intersecting circles. The areas of intersection are termed “sweet spots”, meaning synergistic opportunities. For example, when power utilization efficiency is improved, profits are improved due to lower power cost, while the environment and humanity benefit through reduced carbon dioxide emissions. So, improvements in the planet and people “bottom lines” are not necessarily at the expense of the profit “bottom line”. [1]

A Systematic Approach

Approaching the Triple Bottom Line through systematic business planning appears to me to be a clearer, more pragmatic approach. By “systematic business planning” I mean integrating all three aspects of the Triple Bottom Line: in definition of the business (mission statement, vision statement, values statement), in formulating goals and objectives, and in establishing and executing the business processes necessary to successfully pursue those goals and objectives. The sequence is clear enough:

Values to Results

In this sense, Triple Bottom Line involves an increased scope of management awareness that includes attention to the natural world and humanity, in lock step with attention to financial realities.

The rub lies in setting (and achieving) sufficiently aggressive goals and objectives that express timely progress toward achievement of the mission, vision and values that define your business. Those goals and objectives are unique to each organization, in context of the organization and the business climate that exists as they are set and pursued. Accordingly, there is no ready package of goals and objectives – you have to figure them out for yourself. However, you can look at the efforts of others to help you find your own way.

Here are a few starting places:

Fetzer Winery – Fetzer is a medium sized California winery that has Triple Bottom Line Sustainability in its DNA. Start with Fetzer’s website.[2]

Ben & Jerry’s – Yep. The Vermont – based premium ice cream company founded by two hippies. Try Ben & Jerry’s website [3], especially the tabs on values.  Also, Ben & Jerry’s – A Case Study in Sustainability [4],an earlier post to this blog, may be useful.

Hershey Company – The maker of Hershey Bars began as a fair example of an early 20th century mill town, and then morphed into an extraordinary example of what a successful business can do for its employees and their neighbors. Today, more than 70 years after the death of Hershey’s extraordinary founder, Hershey’s continues as a successful multi-billion dollar company that still focuses on its roots. Start with the Wikipedia wiki on The Hershey Company.

Interface Corporation – Interface makes carpets, primarily for commercial buildings. Interface provides an example of what can happen when a manufacturing company thoroughly embraces Sustainability, from its expressed mission and vision all the way through business results. Start with Whither Sustainability? [5], a recent post to this blog.

Waste Management – Waste Management changed its business model from a business based on collecting refuse and carrying it to landfill, to one based on profiting from the refuse it collects. Both Waste Management and Interface are examples of firms that fundamentally changed the basis of their business to embrace Sustainability. See Waste Management Corporation – A Case Study in Sustainability,[6] this blog.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals – The UN recently established a set of 17 goals for the world to achieve by 2030. The UN’s set of goals provides insight as to just how broad Sustainability is. Aligning your Triple Bottom Line goals and objectives with the UN goals may be a good idea. Start with The Age of Sustainable Development – Part 3 [7] this blog . Alternatively, just google “UN Sustainable Development Goals”.


Again, your goals and objectives are unique to your business and the business context within which it exists. The examples cited above are extreme cases which may be useful to stimulate your thinking.

Chuck in FranceThoughtful comments and experience reports are always appreciated.

…  Chuck Harrington (Chuck@JeraSustainableDevelopment.com)

This blog and associated website (www.JeraSustainableDevelopment.com) are intended as a resource for smaller manufacturers in the pursuit of Sustainability. While editorial focus is on smaller manufacturers, all interested readers are welcome.

Triple Bottom Line graphic credit – creative commons via Wikipedia


[1] The preceding two paragraphs are borrowed from Double Take on the Triple Bottom Line, an earlier post to this blog. http://jerasustainabledevelopment.com/2012/10/04/double-take-on-the-triple-bottom-line/

[2] www.fetzer.com

[3] www.benjerry.com

[4] http://jerasustainabledevelopment.com/2014/11/01/ben-jerrys-a-case-study-in-sustainability/

[5] http://jerasustainabledevelopment.com/2016/06/20/whither-sustainability/

[6] http://jerasustainabledevelopment.com/2015/01/30/waste-management-corp-a-case-study-in-sustainability/

[7] http://jerasustainabledevelopment.com/2015/12/19/the-age-of-sustainable-development-part-3/