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The Sustainability Bottom Line

July 12, 2012
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The triple bottom line is an important concept outlined by John Elkington in 1994 and proposes that organizations cannot solely focus on profits, but must also consider impacts on "people" and the "planet."

The root of this idea is based on the results of an earlier survey of international experts on corporate social responsibility and sustainability.

In the simplest terms, the triple bottom line focuses organizations on economic value that they add, their environmental impact and social value.

The most often quoted idea about the triple bottom line is connected to the metaphor of a three-legged stool.

With this idea in mind, I was contemplating the repeated conversation about the "legs" of the triple bottom line; you know, people, planet, price and how they are all important.

Well, I got to wondering just how workable is that idea?

And, I have to conclude that it makes a lot of sense — as far as it goes.

The more I thought about it, the more it became clear that the triple bottom line idea may come across as a bit narrowly defined by our three-legged metaphor.

What occurs to me is that the focus on the three legs of the stool might miss an important and fundamental sustainability requirement.

A three-legged stool is not sustainable without a seat to hold the legs together, literally and figuratively.

The literal evidence is clear; the figurative evidence needs some explanation.

I''d like to suggest that the important seat, and the sustainable connection for the three legs of the stool, is the construct of the entrepreneur or stockholder who provides the capital to finance the enterprise.

I don''t want to assume anything is or is not included in all the triple bottom line thinking.

The Sustainability Seat: Capital

Some might argue that price is the same as business capital; I disagree.

Financing the business must stand as an important precondition to the three "Ps" because it''s the capital to finance the business that ultimately supports the bottom line, triple or otherwise.

Without an operating business, the revenue and profits aren''t there to support worthwhile goals.

This perspective was echoed by Ramon Arratia, sustainability director at InterfaceFLOR, who suggested that we "forget the triple bottom line because there is only one bottom line, and it''s financial."

By any real world model, it is the capital investment in the business that makes the triple bottom line idea possible.

And, in our oft-used metaphor, capital might function like the seat that makes the three legs sustainable and, without which, the stool legs and the triple bottom line might be a difficult goal to achieve.

Further, with all the focus on the triple bottom line, it''s easy to forget the revenue side of the business.

The Biggest Sustainability Requirement: The Customer

I''m not going to overreach by suggesting that the customer''s seat is a bigger reality than the stool seat; however, I do want to suggest that without a paying customer, there is no ongoing business, no revenue, no employment and no bottom line.

If I can be permitted the continued fantasy of our stool metaphor, it''s the customer who buys it from the business, creating the value chain that supports all the worthwhile goals being pursued by triple bottom line advocates — at least in a customer-driven economy.

And, from this perspective, notwithstanding the importance of the triple bottom line idea, the first purpose of a business is to provide the products and services that customers are willing to pay for.

If the business fails here, the rest of the conversation is moot.

While some might see this conversation as an exercise in crankiness, there is an important sustainability point to be made about business economics.

A customer wants a place to place their bottom.

They buy a stool from a business that sets a price that protects people and the planet.

Based on this broader thinking, we might want to expand the triple bottom line metaphor to a model that more accurately reflects a customer-driven economy, with capital investment and revenue that creates a sustainable business.

It seems to me, that''s how "the economy" works.

John Elkington goes on to say: "All of that said, even the best-run companies may not be sustainable if their business models or technologies are not sustainable in the long haul."

In the end, a sustainable bottom line makes a lot of sense for expanding the triple bottom line construct.

Vincent F. Elliott is the founder, president and chief executive officer (CEO) of Elliott Affiliates Ltd. of Hunt Valley, Maryland. For more information, visit He is widely recognized as the leading authority in the design and utilization of best practice, performance-driven techniques for janitorial outsourcing and ongoing management. Elliott is also the founder of the Chemical Free Cleaning Network (CFCN). More information about that initiative can be found at

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