The triple bottom line is supposed to integrate the concerns of all stakeholders into the balance sheet of business, adding a concern for society and the environment to those of profitmaking. These 3 domains are seen as increasingly inter-related: incorporating these "value concerns" in the business model, the reasoning goes, will also make you money. (E.g. recycling plastic waste is good for the environment and saves business a lot of money, which in many cases it does.) The concept was coined by John Elkington, a consultant and author, in 1996.
At the 10th anniversary of the idea, a group of British academics produced this book to assess the project. While the essays in the volume are uneven, there are a few gems that are very useful indeed.
Elkington's chapter sketches the vision: to create a world with a sustainable economy, stakeholders must act together to transform the global economic system. Elkington is a gifted creator of frameworks. He sees a number of forces converging to push the world in the direction of sustainability, including the concerns of activitists, the development of life-cycle technologies (businesses designing products with their life and disposal in mind, beyond solely their immediate sale), the demand for transparency and inter-action from a wide array of stakeholders, and the impacts of dwindling resources on the market. As he sees it, multi-national corporations will transform themselves from locusts (despoliators of resources for short-term profit) into honey bees (sustainable companies for the long term that are inclusive of the poor in terms of value creation), with several intermediate steps. Governments too should get involved, with encouragement, regulation, and legislation, but also as a forum for dialogue with the stakeholders.
This is an arresting vision, to be sure, but how to get there is a serious challenge. One possible (if in my view unlikely) way is through the development of accounting methods that add the concerns of non-corporate stakeholders into a triple bottom line (TBL) report that will be as important as the financial balance sheet is today. It would be honest, open to all stakeholders, and consulted by corporate governors as they plan their action for sustainability for the long term.
The only trouble is, there is little agreement on definitions, on methods, etc. The bulk of the papers in the book examine this problem from a rather technocratic point of view, looking at various models and how to improve them via action from government and international organizations as well as developing new networks for problemsolving. For example, how do you link small-scale sustainability initiatives in the firm to global environmental goals via a statistically valid measure? The details of this were way beyond my interest as a journalist, but certainly useful for academics and activists familiar with accounting.
As I came to see it, TBL at present is a mishmash of good intentions. The disarray and gaps in knowledge are so great that it is unrealistic to imagine having much of an impact on corporate behavior in this manner. But hey, many believe it is worth a try, and all power to them.
If the book stopped there, it would have hugely lessened its value. Fortunately, there are several excellent essays that challenge the notion of TBL and how it is conceived. Of particular interest is the essay by Deborah Doane. She believes that very little meaningful or credible TBL reporting is done, that tying social and environmental concerns to profit is a dead end, and that TBL is largely a tool of PR departments (unless their business models are clearly linked to TBL concerns, which in some cases they are). Indeed, she concludes, TBL has produced no lasting impact that she can discern and should be separated from bottom line concerns - in large part because the inclusion of the profit motive influences the other legs of TBL, she argues, into traditional short-term business concerns such as "reputation", brand, quarterly high margins, etc. This is strong stuff. The only way ahead, she believes, is to transform multi-national corporations into more caring institutions that are honest, plan for the long-term (i.e. beyond the quarterly report), and that all stakeholders can evaluate and influence their behavior. Once again, the whole debate returns to Elkington's vision.
This is a valuable examination of TBL. The better chapters are very good indeed, the others can be skimmed for the many valuable nuggets spread throughout them. Recommended.