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Business Ethics Checklists

The Triple Bottom Line


Checklist Description

This checklist outlines triple bottom line accounting.

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Definition

Traditional accounting models are all about profit and more profit, whereas triple bottom line accounting recognizes that, without content, healthy people to run a business, and the natural environment to sustain those people and resources the business is simply unsustainable in the long term. Triple bottom line accounting means expanding the traditional reporting framework to take into account environmental and social factors as well as financial performance.

The idea proposes that an organization’s license to operate in society comes not just from rewarding shareholders through enhanced profits (the economic bottom line), but by improving its environmental and social performance. As such, it includes environmental responsibility, social awareness, and economic profitability.

The triple bottom line is sometimes referred to as “TBL” or “3BL.” Triple bottom line can also be simply summarized as People, Planet and Profit:

People

People are also known as human capital. The people aspect means treating employees, the community, and the region in which a corporation conducts its business correctly. In this part of the TBL, business not only ensures a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay but also reinvests some of its profits into the surrounding community through education, sponsorships, or donations, or helping in projects that promote the common good.

Planet

Under the planet principle, or natural capital, a business will endeavor to minimize its ecological impact in all areas—from obtaining raw materials, through production processes, to shipping and management. It is a “cradle to grave” attitude, and in some cases “cradle to cradle,” i.e. taking responsibility for goods after they’ve been sold by, for example, offering a recycling or return program.

Profit

TBL is about making a principled profit, rather than earning a profit at any cost. In other words, the profit made should be in accord with the other two principles of People and Planet.

The TBL concept is important because it is not just about commerce; it is an ongoing process that helps a company to run a more sustainable and greener business and demonstrates to the community at large that the company is working not just for profit but also for the members of the community. On balance, without people and planet, there would be no profit to be made.

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Advantages

  • A TBL business endeavors to benefit the natural order as much as possible—or at least do no harm and curtail environmental impact.

  • TBL manufacturing businesses conduct a life-cycle assessment of products to determine their true environmental cost, from the growth and harvesting of raw materials to manufacture, and then from distribution to eventual disposal by the end user.

  • TBL companies make an effort to reduce their ecological footprint by vigilantly managing the consumption of energy and nonrenewables and reducing manufacturing waste, as well as rendering waste less toxic before disposing of it in a safe and legal manner.

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Disadvantages

  • Quantifying this bottom line is a relatively new task. Therefore, it is sometimes problematic and often subjective.

  • The types of problems that occur in social and environmental realms do not lend themselves to a measure that would allow for clear-cut accounting. How, in financial terms, do you measure the two factors of People and Planet?

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Action Checklist

  • If you are considering TBL, carefully study any potential downsides and obtain as much information from as many sources as you can before committing to an expensive process.

  • Will the TBL model suit your business, and how will you measure the People and Planet principles?

  • Support an atmosphere of openness about the kinds of problems the business will face if it adopts TBL.

  • Involve key local stakeholders in the evaluation of how a TBL program could benefit the local community.

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Dos and Don’ts

Do

  • Involve both your accountants and lawyers in the evaluation of the risks and potential benefits of TBL.

Don’t

  • Don’t make the mistake of being attracted to TBL because it is politically advantageous. Implementation could be expensive and time-consuming, with potentially unpredictable results.

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Further reading

Books:

  • Elkington, John. Cannibals with Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 1998.
  • Henriques, Adrian, and Julie Richardson (eds). The Triple Bottom Line, Does It All Add Up? Assessing the Sustainability of Business and CSR. London: Earthscan, 2004.
  • Savitz, Andrew W., with Karl Weber. The Triple Bottom Line: How Today’s Best-run Companies are Achieving Economic, Social, and Environmental Success—And How You Can Too. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass, 2006.
  • Willard, Bob. The Sustainability Advantage: Seven Business Case Benefits of a Triple Bottom Line. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2002.

Articles:

  • Colman, R. “Triple bottom line benefits.” CMA Management 78:1 (2004): 3.
  • Henderson, Lance. “Triple bottom line: The conceptual frontier.” Bellingham Business Journal (April 2008). Online at: tinyurl.com/2v3l2cb

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