Voluntary Simplicity and the Triple Bottom Line: An Interview with Duane Elgin

Author Duane Elgin challenges his readers to give up the trappings of modern life (snuggies, melon ballers and all the other gadgets we can’t live without) in favor of a deeper form of satisfaction. His book Voluntary Simplicity has been much loved by those who find solace in the simpler path and much maligned by those who call followers mildly cultish and obsessive in their asceticism. First published in 1981, the book has recently been re-vamped with the modern sustainability movement in mind.

Elgin sums up the societal shifts of the last 30 years with the simplest of anecdotes: he’s gone from being introduced as the “MBA who has gone bad” to being introduced as “the MBA who has gone green.” MBAs no longer have to be singly focused on money to utilize their learning. We know all about that here at 3p, so we checked in with Elgin to ask him a few questions about the voluntary simplicity movement and how it relates to the triple bottom line

3p: How did your business education influence your development of  the theory of voluntary simplicity?

DE: In my business education (at the Wharton Business School in the late 60s), I saw the single-minded focus on materialism and money.  This was so pervasive that it conflicted with other learning (a second Master’s degree in “economic history”) which showed that current levels and patterns of growth were unsustainable

3p: Can the principles of voluntary simplicity by applied to business operations as well? If so, how?

DE: A core principle of simplicity discussed in my book is “ephemeralization” which means to progressively lighten the impact of our lives on the ecology and, at the same time, to progressively do ever more with ever less.  Instead of the heavy handed approach of gross materialism, this is an approach that celebrates an aesthetic simplicity.

3p: Is it possible to believe in capitalism and/or GDP and voluntary simplicity at the same time?

DE: The problem is not with economic growth per se.  We have at least four billion persons living in poverty on this planet.  What is needed is consciously planned growth that provides billions with the basics and, simultaneously, lightens the ecological load or footprint upon the Earth by people living in developed nations.  What is required is to seek our enlightened self-interest which is to work for a healthy Earth that can sustain humanity for the long-range future.

3p: What’s missing from the triple bottom line?

DE: In addition to the triple bottom line (people, planet, profit), I suggest we add a fourth factor: “purpose.”  To have a strong relationship among the factors of “people, planet, and profit,” requires a larger context of purpose within which they relate.  What is the purpose of economic growth?  Are we no more than consumers seeking to be entertained and comforted?  Or are we also citizens of the Earth and the cosmos on a much larger journey of discovery and awakening than is expressed by shallow consumerism?

Jen Boynton

Jen is editor in chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and lives in Oakland with her husband and normally happy baby. 
Hit her up at on twitter @jenboynton to discuss diapering strategies or sustainability reporting methodology.