Kaid Benfield Archive


More on the semantics of sustainability: is it time to reframe the 'triple bottom line'?

Kaid Benfield

Posted September 8, 2010 at 1:29PM

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If you’re familiar at all with discussions about sustainability, you have encountered the so-called “triple bottom line” ascribed to practices that simultaneously advance the environment, the economy, and equity.  These “three Es” or, if you prefer, three Ps (people, planet, profit) are part of almost every discussion on the topic.  A quick Google search produced 311,000 hits for “triple bottom line,” including in sustainability and business dictionaries, and the phrase appears in four book titles in Amazon’s database.

At least half the time, presentations and articles on the triple bottom line will also invoke the “three-legged stool” metaphor, the point being that a stool won’t stand on only one or two legs, but will with three.  I’ve always found that metaphor awkward at best, given that a three-legged stool isn’t all that stable, either, and “stool” . . . well, let’s not go there.

Urban communications expert Ben Brown, in his blog PlaceShakers and NewsMakers, believes that the current language of sustainability is failing us:

“I’m struggling with familiar twitches of cynicism when it comes to ‘sustainability.’

The 3-legged stool (by: ecopreneurist)“We’ve reached a point where just about everybody is laying claim to a sustainability strategy, whether we’re talking mining companies blowing up mountaintops or guys selling eight-mile-per-gallon SUVs. Let’s give them this: They have a point, provided sustainability goals are tied to the desire to keep on doing whatever you’re doing in perpetuity.

“I don’t think I’m being too cynical by noting the irony. Folks making claims on sustainability are, well, folks – human beings, each of whom are guaranteed from birth to be unsustainable. We’re all gonna die and flunk the test. So if sustainability is to have the transcendent implications we intend, we’d better agree on a definition that implies a multigenerational warranty.”

I love “multigenerational warranty,” by the way, a phrase that captures well the essence of what this should be about.  And I can’t disagree with Ben’s observation that the use of “sustainable” is oxymoronic when applied to things that are inherently unsustainable (which is what my host in Nova Scotia was getting at).  The same misuse of positive language applies to so much in our world, where today a “clean air coalition” is just as likely to be opposing limits on pollution as supporting them, and where buildings can receive the highest levels of “green” certification even if they are located where automobile dependence means emissions from driving long distances may exceed any savings from efficient building design.

Ben believes that one of the problems is that the three pillars (yet another metaphor, sorry) of sustainability are not necessarily of equal stature:

“I think one reason we’re stuck is our reluctance to commit to perspectives that force hierarchal decision making. We are biased towards egalitarianism. Love that three-legged stool.

“What nudged me out of cynicism recently was what I take to be a better metaphor, the hierarchical frame (via Placeshakers and Newsmakers)rendered in a simple graphic. It appeared in one of the foundation documents for a coding charrette we organized with the City of Revelstoke, British Columbia. Instead of the three-legged stool, the [triple bottom line] was arranged as a hierarchal nest, with the environmental component forming the surrounding context. Then, contained within the environmental nest was the one representing human society. And then, within that, the economic component. Simple, elegant, powerful.

“Representing the TBL in that way implies a commitment. To be sustainable in even the most basic sense, an economy demands the context of a healthy society. And society, in turn, cannot be considered outside the context of the natural environment, which includes and encompasses the other components.”

Read Ben's post here.  I think he’s on to something, and Ben isn’t the only one who finds fault with “triple bottom line” thinking.  Professors Chris MacDonald (St. Mary’s U., Halifax) and Wayne Norman (Duke) have written in Business Ethics Quarterly that the financial calculations tend to win in the so-called bottom line assessment, because they lend themselves to numerical accounting in a way that environmental and social concerns do not:  “we find that without exception the 3BL rhetoric fails to live up to its promises. Adding up the financial plusses and minuses is just a lot easier, as it turns out, than totting up, say, the ethical achievements and shortcomings of a firm.”

Ben’s approach is at least a start at thinking about these goals in a new way.  Other ideas? 

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