Why We Should Amend “People, Planet, Profit”

By: Zachary Hirschfeld
The phrase “People, Planet, Profit” – coined by author John Elkington – promotes the idea that businesses must consider their environmental and social impact in addition to the traditional ‘bottom line.’ Elkington’s Triple Bottom Line brought on a reluctant swell of Corporate Social Responsibility – the idea that corporations should embrace the TBL to benefit themselves, as well as the greater planet. However, as all swells do, CSR and the TBL is sure to dissipate.

Why, do you ask, would CSR die? I thought it was just gaining momentum.

While some intentions may be good, CSR has an achilles’ heel – a tragic flaw – because it is tied to public relations.

Since the advent of ‘responsible’ business over the past decade and a half, thousands of companies have spent millions of dollars on ‘sustainable’ practices, through self-imposed audits and consultations.

However, the companies that are able to hire consultants to shift business practices are large corporations – the likes of Walmart, Coca-Cola, for example. What’s more, these corporations have the budgets to promote these changes in the media. As a result, we’ve seen a ‘sustainable’ gold rush – a ‘green’ rush – where corporations must show some type of commitment to the “People, Planet, Profit” mantra. However, this peer pressure has given way to pure PR stunts and empty promises. Greenwashing has become an epidemic in the CSR world, unfortunately.

So why does this happen?

“People, Planet, Profit,” CSR, Corporate Sustainability, whatever you want to call it, cannot, and should not exist as a viable strategy for large corporations. The deregulated and ultra-consumer driven socioeconomic systems they prey on cannot be sustained if we want to change our planet for the better.

Look at Dasani Water (owned by Coca-Cola): You have probably seen the water bottles that tout a green “plant bottle” symbol. While this may catch the eye as a “green” product, there are a number of things to consider.

First of all, ‘plant bottles’ are only made with 30 percent ‘renewable’ material. This material is actually sugarcane. Where Coca-Cola gets this sugarcane it does not publicize (or at least I can’t find it), which means it probably comes from farms that use heavy pesticides, a lot of water and fossil fuels, and are sold in a highly-saturated marketplace, driving down the profit of sugarcane producers for the benefit of corporations like Coca-Cola – all facets which perpetuate unsustainable farming practices (much like the hidden costs for farming corn used for ethanol).

Apart from the sugarcane itself, the other 70 percent of the bottle is NOT plant-based, which means its same-old petrochemical plastic. So, Dasani’s batting .300 – a good average in baseball but not for helping the planet.

Even still, Dasani’s bottle is still a plastic bottle! Regardless of whether the bottle recycles or not, plastics take tons of fossil fuel to produce, and end up with minimal uses after the recycling process (which takes enormous amounts of energy, as well). What’s more, plastic bottles are only recycled 27% of the time, with the rest ending up in landfills.

Ideally, from a pure recycling standpoint, Dasani should use glass bottles, which can be either reused or fully recycled. From a consumer perspective, use a reusable canteen or cup! That’s just one example of “greenwashing” for you… There are countless others that show the cunning of big corporations that pull the wool over the eyes of the casually mindful consumer.

Corporations are not going to change their entire business models to improve the world because, well, they’d be entirely different businesses! In this age of constantly fluctuating stock prices and economic uncertainty, CEOs and shareholders deem it unacceptable to do anything that would potentially lower a corporation’s stock valuation – even if it could potentially benefit them in the long term. Big money takes time, effort, and more money to shift its model, and it’s dependent on government, subsidies, and a complex infrastructure to survive. It becomes increasingly evident that harmful big business looks like a 95 year old – inflexible, slow-moving, dependent and nearing the end of a long life.

Solution: Our time is just beginning

I propose a slight amendment to Elkington’s phrase: “Local People, Local Planet, Local Profit.”

The future of economy, with ever-increasing energy costs both at the pump and in our atmosphere, is becoming increasingly local – not global. We must conceive of business models and systems to benefit local businesses, which take to heart Elkington’s principles. With the emphasis on local, we will be able to see immediate and long-lasting improvements within our own communities – equitably, environmentally, and economically.

By starting a business that creates well-paying local jobs, you will find local markets emerging through a revitalized local economy that will, in turn, support your business over the short and long term.

By starting a business that not only refrains from pollution but helps clean the environment, we will live in a healthier, more pleasant community.

By starting a business that taps into local infrastructure and serves the community with a high quality product for a competitive price, you will carve a niche big-box business could only dream of exploiting. Take advantage of startup venture capitalists that share your values, as well as local, state, and federal grants.

The movements of urbanism, #Occupy, credit unions, energy conservation and renewable energy, all point to a paradigm shift towards local, dense environments, where we can build communities and businesses that promote the true calling of “People, Planet, Profit”. And, if achieved locally, these business models and initiatives can be replicated across multiple locales, especially with the ease of modern information sharing and collaboration. Local is the new global – get on board – it’s timeless.

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4 responses

  1. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve noticed this trend increasing in previous year: a greater corporate focus on presenting businesses as environmentally-friendly, and a lesser focus on actually being environmentally-friendly. I’ve said it before: we can’t afford to wait and see if companies will decide that respecting people and the planet is in line with the short-term, profit-oriented goals that dominate the corporate paradigm. We all need to serve as the vigilant watchdogs, and seek to govern the corporations just as they have sought to govern us.

  2. Dear Zach,

    Thank you for especially providing a good concrete example of your main point. I do wonder sometimes, however, if a mere adjustment toward the “local” is feasible, given that industry domination in most countries occurs through international and not local firms. Also, to the extent that you advocate new companies ideally starting with a certain set of conditions (local, responsible, etc.), this is arguably already happening more than previously.

    The issue is less about a lack of will than the actual pace of change. While I sympathize with the need for new entrepreneurs to be more inclusive in their endeavors, I pragmatically have to point towards the fact that they will not catch up anytime soon to challenge the hegemony of existing corporate leaders – many of whom you justly accuse of calling themselves sustainable without technically being that.

    What do you think about the role of consumers also taking responsibility for, well, considering consuming and demanding less, since companies would not be busy producing (and polluting) if there were no profitable market for it. I tend to favor recently a demand-side response more than the usual supply-side argument, even if I have no short-term solution how it can be easily accomplished.

    Back though to your Dasani example, I generalized in a previous article that corporations engaged in sustainability usually can claim that they do “less bad”, but it is a stretch in many cases to say they are “doing good”.

    You can check it out here if  interested:



  3. Sorry, but ill-informed.   The plant bottle sugarcane comes from Brazil where it is farmed on degraded land not suitable for just about anything.  A bit more research would show that this is Phase I (~30% renewable content), but they hope to get to 100% in the next 3-5 years.    Glass is terrible as well — very high embedded carbon (glass factories run 24/365 at about 1500C) — and due to colour sensitivity, not ideal for recycling (but could be improved by things like deposit requirements).   The next generation of biopolymers is very promising —- and will not come at the expense of land use change or water.

    More generally, your very pessimistic view of what big business is doing to reduce impact is not supported by practice.   Hundreds of huge global multinationals have changed their sourcing policies, invested in sustainability initiatives, launched new packaging sschemes, devleoped cleaning materials for lwo temp use, deleted phospahtes, signed-up to certification standards, committed to 100% renewable energy sourcing, etc.    The mountain is till very tall, but to call it all greenwash is a bit simplistic.

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