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The Limitations of the Triple Bottom Line

3p Contributor | Wednesday March 28th, 2012 | 1 Comment

By: Ben Vivian

Following a hectic day in London at Ecobuild and in a stakeholder workshop on research into a construction product framework, my thoughts centre on the triple bottom line (3BL). At the workshop, which had 25 or so people well versed in sustainability, we were asked to chose whether 3BL was split with equally weighted parts (environment, economics and society) or if there was a priority order. The resultant orgy of coloured stickers on a flip chart sheet showed very clearly we didn’t really have any consensus. And surely that’s the very point. But one participant seemed slightly annoyed that others had got it ‘wrong’.
Triple bottom line was coined by John Elkington in 1997 and suggests that we must treat economic, social and environmental issues together (often represented as equal thirds). It has formed the framework for many a policy, strategy and sustainability report for the past 15 years.

Triple bottom line is a balancing act. 3BL is a state of thinking not an outcome. 3BL is a plastic model and expecting it to be set in one form everywhere, forever is simply wrong. To be meaningful, 3BL and its application is closely related to materiality and maybe that’s what makes it difficult to comprehend. Issues that we face cross over and move between each part of 3BL.
So we must forget 3BL as a rigid box with three compartments and use it as an elastic tool that we use to keep us thinking about the interconnections between the environment, society and economy. I have seen 3BL shown as a Venn diagram with overlapping circles, as a pie chart (the template we were provided in the workshop yesterday) and I have seen it as target with economy as the bulls-eye, surrounded by society and then the environment surrounding everything. Depending on your perspective, education and cultural values one of these images will suit your views and agenda best. In fact, each part of 3BL is a human construct. Predetermining the shape of 3BL will strongly influence how people will interpret sustainability.

So what is it about 3BL that makes it an attractive model? I suppose it is that we do need to consider each of the parts and their interaction to come up with a more sustainable path to the future. The problem comes with how we set up the framework and then apply it. As today is World Water Day, how we prioritise an issue like water will depend on how much we need it (social), how scarce it is (environment) and how expensive it is (economic). Depending on where you are and how much money you have, one or other of the parts of the 3BL is more important today; tomorrow the priority may change.

Our challenge as sustainability professionals is to provide a flexible, intelligent and responsive conceptual framework that involves 3BL elements but is not tied up in a visual illusion that the relationship between the parts is fixed – in time and space. The power of the visual image to influence (I might even go as far as suggest it actually controls) our interpretation of the situation and therefore the plans and strategies we make to move towards a more sustainable future.

If we remain fixed in our minds as to the shape of 3BL, then we remain in a state of mind that won’t help us progress. While we look at a flip chart page and are required to come to a simple and singular solution to the 3BL conundrum, we are failing to see that its conceptual value is huge. So to answer: is triple bottom line misguided – answer, no it isn’t, however a fixed visual representation of the 3BL is misguided. This worthy attempt to engage and simplify creates confusion and argument that isn’t helpful in describing solutions and paths for future development.

[Image Credit: dbarronoss, Flickr]

Ben Vivian is Co-Founder and Director of Vivian Partnership Ltd. You can follow him on Twitter at @sustainpath


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  • Tracy Puett

    Thanks Ben. Very well stated. I agree that TBL is a way for us to finally “consider the interrelatedness of economic, social and environmental components and outputs of organizations and communities”. It never was meant to be static nor to suggest that all 3 components are “equal” or that that would even be the ideal. Rather, the model is meant to engage us in continuous consideration and collaborative (re)design of our human systems such that life continues for human and other forms of life. Thanks for this clarification!