Triple bottom line

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Graphic describing the three types of bottom lines

In traditional business accounting, the "bottom line" refers to the sum of revenue minus expenses, which is either "loss" if negative, or "profit" if positive. The term originated because profit is always shown as the very "bottom line" on a statement of revenue and expenses. Over the last 50 years, environmentalists and social justice advocates have struggled to bring a broader definition of "bottom line" into public consciousness, by introducing full cost accounting. For example, if a corporation shows a monetary profit, but their asbestos mine causes thousands of deaths from asbestosis, and their copper mine pollutes a river, and the government ends up spending taxpayer money on health care and river clean-up, how do we perform a full societal cost benefit analysis?

The concept of a triple bottom line (abbreviated as TBL or 3BL) adds two more "bottom lines"; social and environmental concerns. The three together are often paraphrased as "Profit, People, Planet", or referred to as "the three pillars" [1] With the ratification of the United Nations and ICLEI TBL standard for urban and community accounting in early 2007,[2] this became the dominant approach to public sector full cost accounting. Similar UN standards apply to natural capital and human capital measurement to assist in measurements required by TBL, e.g. the EcoBudget standard for reporting ecological footprint.

An example of an organization seeking a triple bottom line would be a social enterprise run as a non-profit, but earning income by offering opportunities for handicapped people who have been labelled "unemployable", to earn a living recycling. The organization earns a profit, which is controlled by a volunteer Board, and ploughed back into the community. The social benefit is the meaningful employment of disadvantaged citizens, and the reduction in the society's welfare or disability costs. The environmental benefit comes from the recycling accomplished.

In the private sector, a commitment to corporate social responsibility (CSR) implies a commitment to some form of TBL reporting. This is distinct from the more limited changes required to deal only with ecological issues.

Definition[edit]

For reporting their efforts companies may demonstrate their commitment to CSR through the following:

Triple bottom line (TBL) accounting expands the traditional reporting framework to take into account social and environmental performance in addition to financial performance. In 1981 Freer Spreckley first articulated the triple bottom line in a publication called 'Social Audit - A Management Tool for Co-operative Working'.[3] In this work, he argued that enterprises should measure and report on social, environmental and financial performance.

The phrase was coined by John Elkington in his 1997 book Cannibals with Forks: the Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business.[4][5][unreliable source?] Sustainability, itself, was first defined by the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations in 1987.

1998 also marked the foundation of the Triple Bottom Line Investing group by Robert J. Rubinstein, a group advocating and publicizing these principles.

The concept of TBL demands that a company's responsibility lies with stakeholders rather than shareholders. In this case, "stakeholders" refers to anyone who is influenced, either directly or indirectly, by the actions of the firm. According to the stakeholder theory, the business entity should be used as a vehicle for coordinating stakeholder interests, instead of maximizing shareholder (owner) profit.

Bottom lines[edit]

The triple bottom line is made up of "social equity, economic, and environmental" factors.

"People, planet and profit" succinctly describes the triple bottom lines and the goal of sustainability. The phrase, "people, planet, profit", was coined by John Elkington in 1995 while at SustainAbility, and was later adopted as the title of the Anglo-Dutch oil company Shell's first sustainability report in 1997. As a result, one country in which the 3P concept took deep root was The Netherlands.

"People" pertains to fair and beneficial business practices toward labour and the community and region in which a corporation conducts its business. A TBL company conceives a reciprocal social structure in which the well-being of corporate, labour and other stakeholder interests are interdependent.

A triple bottom line enterprise seeks to benefit many constituencies, not exploit or endanger any group of them. The "upstreaming" of a portion of profit from the marketing of finished goods back to the original producer of raw materials, for example, a farmer in fair trade agricultural practice, is a common feature. In concrete terms, a TBL business would not use child labour and monitor all contracted companies for child labour exploitation, would pay fair salaries to its workers, would maintain a safe work environment and tolerable working hours, and would not otherwise exploit a community or its labour force. A TBL business also typically seeks to "give back" by contributing to the strength and growth of its community with such things as health care and education. Quantifying this bottom line is relatively new, problematic and often subjective. The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) has developed guidelines to enable corporations and NGOs alike to comparably report on the social impact of a business.

"Planet" (natural capital) refers to sustainable environmental practices. A TBL company endeavors to benefit the natural order as much as possible or at the least do no harm and minimise environmental impact. A TBL endeavour reduces its ecological footprint by, among other things, carefully managing its consumption of energy and non-renewables and reducing manufacturing waste as well as rendering waste less toxic before disposing of it in a safe and legal manner. "Cradle to grave" is uppermost in the thoughts of TBL manufacturing businesses, which typically conduct a life cycle assessment of products to determine what the true environmental cost is from the growth and harvesting of raw materials to manufacture to distribution to eventual disposal by the end user. A triple bottom line company does not produce harmful or destructive products such as weapons, toxic chemicals or batteries containing dangerous heavy metals, for example.

Currently, the cost of disposing of non-degradable or toxic products is borne financially by governments and environmentally by the residents near the disposal site and elsewhere. In TBL thinking, an enterprise which produces and markets a product which will create a waste problem should not be given a free ride by society. It would be more equitable for the business which manufactures and sells a problematic product to bear part of the cost of its ultimate disposal.

Ecologically destructive practices, such as overfishing or other endangering depletions of resources are avoided by TBL companies. Often environmental sustainability is the more profitable course for a business in the long run. Arguments that it costs more to be environmentally sound are often specious when the course of the business is analyzed over a period of time. Generally, sustainability reporting metrics are better quantified and standardized for environmental issues than for social ones. A number of respected reporting institutes and registries exist including the Global Reporting Initiative, CERES, Institute 4 Sustainability and others.

The eco bottom line is akin to the concept of Eco-capitalism.[6]

"Profit" is the economic value created by the organization after deducting the cost of all inputs, including the cost of the capital tied up. It therefore differs from traditional accounting definitions of profit. In the original concept, within a sustainability framework, the "profit" aspect needs to be seen as the real economic benefit enjoyed by the host society. It is the real economic impact the organization has on its economic environment. This is often confused to be limited to the internal profit made by a company or organization (which nevertheless remains an essential starting point for the computation). Therefore, an original TBL approach cannot be interpreted as simply traditional corporate accounting profit plus social and environmental impacts unless the "profits" of other entities are included as a social benefit.

Supporting arguments[edit]

The following business-based arguments support the concept of TBL:

  1. Adding ecotourism or geotourism to an already rich tourism market such as the Dominican Republic
  2. Developing profitable methods to assist existing NGOs with their missions such as fundraising, reaching clients, or creating networking opportunities with multiple NGOs
  3. Providing products or services which benefit underserved populations and/or the environment which are also financially profitable.

Fiscal policy of governments usually claims to be concerned with identifying social and natural deficits on a less formal basis. However, such choices may be guided more by ideology than by economics. The primary benefit of embedding one approach to measurement of these deficits would be first to direct monetary policy to reduce them, and eventually achieve a global monetary reform by which they could be systematically and globally reduced in some uniform way.

The argument is that the Earth's carrying capacity is itself at risk, and that in order to avoid catastrophic breakdown of climate or ecosystem, there is a need for a comprehensive reform in global financial institutions similar in scale to that undertaken at Bretton Woods in 1944. Marilyn Waring has been a major proponent of this reform.

With the emergence of an externally consistent green economics and agreement on definitions of potentially contentious terms such as full-cost accounting, natural capital and social capital, the prospect of formal metrics for ecological and social loss or risk has grown less remote through the 1990s.

In the United Kingdom in particular, the London Health Observatory has undertaken a formal programme to address social deficits via a fuller understanding of what "social capital" is, how it functions in a real community (that being the City of London), and how losses of it tend to require both financial capital and significant political and social attention from volunteers and professionals to help resolve. The data they rely on is extensive, building on decades of statistics of the Greater London Council since World War II. Similar studies have been undertaken in North America.

Studies of the value of Earth have tried to determine what might constitute an ecological or natural life deficit. The Kyoto Protocol relies on some measures of this sort, and actually relies on some value of life calculations that, among other things, are explicit about the ratio of the price of a human life between developed and developing nations (about 15 to 1). While the motive of this number was to simply assign responsibility for a cleanup, such stark honesty opens not just an economic but political door to some kind of negotiation — presumably to reduce that ratio in time to something seen as more equitable. As it is, people in developed nations can be said to benefit 15 times more from ecological devastation than in developing nations, in pure financial terms. According to the IPCC, they are thus obliged to pay 15 times more per life to avoid a loss of each such life to climate change — the Kyoto Protocol seeks to implement exactly this formula, and is therefore sometimes cited as a first step towards getting nations to accept formal liability for damage inflicted on ecosystems shared globally.

Advocacy for triple bottom line reforms is common in Green Parties. Some of the measures undertaken in the European Union towards the Euro currency integration standardize the reporting of ecological and social losses in such a way as to seem to endorse in principle the notion of unified accounts, or unit of account, for these deficits.

Criticism[edit]

While many people agree with the importance of good social conditions and preservation of the environment, there are also many who disagree with the triple bottom line as the way to enhance these conditions. The main arguments against it are summarised below.

Legislation[edit]

Legislation permitting corporations to adopt a triple bottom line is under consideration in some jurisdictions, including Minnesota and Oregon.[citation needed]

Some businesses have voluntarily adopted a triple bottom line as part of their articles of incorporation or bylaws, and some have advocated for state laws creating a "Sustainable Corporation" that would grant triple bottom line businesses benefits such as tax breaks.[12][unreliable source]

The triple bottom line was adopted as a part of the State Sustainability Strategy,[13] and accepted by the Government of Western Australia but its status was increasingly marginalised by subsequent premiers Alan Carpenter and Colin Barnett and is in doubt.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Sustainability – From Principle To Practice Goethe-Institut, March 2008.
  2. ^ Enhancing the role of industry through for example, private-public partnerships, May 2011. United Nations Environment Programme
  3. ^ Freer Spreckley 1981 Social Audit - A Management Tool for Co-operative Working
  4. ^ Brown, D., J. Dillard and R.S. Marshall. (2006) "Triple Bottom Line: A business metaphor for a social construct." Portland State University, School of Business Administration. Retrieved on: 2007-07-18.
  5. ^ International Institute for Sustainable Development (2011). "The triple bottom line". Business and Sustainable Development: A Global Guide. Bsdglobal.com. Retrieved 2013-04-04. 
  6. ^ Ekins, Paul (1992). The Gaia Atlas of Green Economics. Anchor Books. p. 191. ISBN 0-385-41914-7. 
  7. ^ Paul James and Andy Scerri, ‘Auditing Cities through Circles of Sustainability’, Mark Amen, Noah J. Toly, Patricia L. Carney and Klaus Segbers, eds, Cities and Global Governance, Ashgate, Farnham, 2011, pp. 111–36.
  8. ^ Scerri, A.; James, P. (2009). "Communities of citizens and 'indicators' of sustainability". Community Development Journal 45 (2): 219. doi:10.1093/cdj/bsp013.  edit
  9. ^ Scerri, A.; James, P. (2010). "Accounting for sustainability: Combining qualitative and quantitative research in developing 'indicators' of sustainability". International Journal of Social Research Methodology 13: 41. doi:10.1080/13645570902864145.  edit
  10. ^ Scerri, A. (2012). "Ends in view: The capabilities approach in ecological/sustainability economics". Ecological Economics 77: 7–10. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2012.02.027.  edit
  11. ^ Liam Magee, & Andy Scerri (2012) ‘From Issues to Indicators: A Response to Grosskurth and Rotmans’, Local Environment 17(8): 915-933.
  12. ^ Filler, S. (2007-01-26). "A Legally Enforceable Triple Bottom Line -- Nau!". Green Counsel. 
  13. ^ Government of Western Australia. (2003, September). "Hope for the Future: The Western Australia State Sustainability Strategy." Accessed: August 30, 2013.

Further reading[edit]

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