The Fourth Bottom Line of Sustainability: Perspective

sunshine-imageBy Steven Kenney

Concern for the triple bottom line — it’s what pushes companies to shrink their environmental footprint and make restitution for past negative impacts.  And yet, as progressive as this ideal seems, its time has already passed.  It’s time to put a fourth P alongside people, planet, and profit: perspective.

Adopting a truly future-focused perspective is the next step in sustainability.  The goal is more than securing present conditions or making amends for missteps — it’s working today to make businesses, communities, and the environment stronger with respect to tomorrow’s conditions.  The key to future sustainability is understanding the forces causing change and taking advantage of them to equip our businesses, communities and ecosystems for the future.

The importance of perspective is illustrated through different approaches to increasing profitability.  One approach is reducing costs, but this path has a logical and finite end point — eventually we run out of things to cut and profit plateaus.  The only long-term sustainable approach is strengthening the company’s production and competitive position.

That same logic applies to the “planet” and “people” elements of the triple bottom line.  Reducing carbon emissions, for instance, is important and necessary, but it only takes us so far.  Beyond simply reducing harmful outputs, organizations must improve and strengthen the resiliency of the environment, helping ensure it can withstand and thrive in the face of the threats that accelerating change creates.  Resiliency must be the ability to not only recover from stress but also anticipate and thrive in the face of it. And it is vital for any company that seeks to be truly sustainable in a changing world.

Increasingly, global leaders are using perspective in their decision making.

  • GE – Through its Ecomagination strategy, GE is making its business more profitable by doing the R&D and product development that will actually strengthen the ecosystem.  The project is demonstrating significant progress already on all fronts.
  • Department of Defense – The Army and Air Force have begun “operationalizing” sustainability.  They’ve implemented a range of initiatives, emphasizing that energy use reduction, ecosystem protection and similar measures actually enhance their future ability to perform missions for the nation.  The concept is inherently future-focused because it acknowledges that tomorrow’s missions will be different than today’s.

Importantly, these organizations aren’t working in isolation to create a sustainable future.  Many others are mining their own respective brain trusts and also reaching out to take advantage of perspectives, ideas and tools from other experts and organizations worldwide.

Historically, organizations have looked inside themselves for new ideas about how to sustain and improve competitiveness and their ability to execute their mission.  In today’s and tomorrow’s society, we can’t afford to be so narrow or timid — and we needn’t be.  Every organization can create for itself an “innovation ecosystem” to leverage the brilliance of others and keep the pace of creativity closer to the pace of change.  Businesses following this model are finding themselves ahead of competitors in a variety of ways.  When applied to sustainability, in the private or public sectors, this approach is improving the resiliency, security and economic strength of all the enterprises that embrace it.  And it’s these organizations that are becoming the exemplars of the future-focused notion of sustainability.

Steven Kenney is a Partner at Toffler Associates, where he leads the firm’s portfolio of consulting services on sustainability.  He has advised the director of strategic planning for the U.S. Air Force since 1998 and counsels senior executives in a range of industries to develop sustainable growth strategies and identify and seize new market opportunities.  Kenney can be contacted at

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