Whatever Happened to the Triple Bottom Line
Published Aug 13, 2022

Growing up in a packaging household, I remember hearing about the concept of ‘triple bottom line’ a lot.  And then I forgot about it.  Over time, ESG and other terms seem to have replaced the elegant simplicity of the triple bottom line (3BL for short).

3BL was created by John Elkington with the premise that companies needed to be assessed across three dimensions; People, Planet, Profit.  John’s initial goal was to have society rethink capitalism - and build the DNA around the triple helix of the 3BL.  

The Economist phrased it this way: 

The Triple Bottom Line “aims to measure the financial, social and environmental performance ….and only a company that produces net positive 3BL is taking into account the full cost of doing business.” 

Today’s ESG framework is built from the Triple Bottom Line foundation - but the discussion often leaves out the need for companies to MAKE A PROFIT.  It just isn’t possible without that critical element.  

And that, specifically, is the biggest hold up to all of our ESG goals today.  Regardless of what we hope to be true, companies need a profit.  

The triple bottom line is the very highest level of the circular economy, and very simplistic: 

  1. Invest in people who do amazing work 

  2. Focus on products and initiatives are good for the planet

  3. Make a profit

  4. Reinvest profits into people and start the process over again. 

But here’s the issue - many consumers and government policies forget that profit is a necessary piece of the equation.  They want innovation without understanding the cost.  It just doesn’t happen that way.  WIthout profits, companies die.  When innovative companies die, it sets us back in our collective goal of creating a sustainable future.

And because of this, we are making decisions that may be suboptimal towards our goal of creating a sustainable future.  Climate change IS an urgent matter - maybe the most urgent issue of our generation.  But we need a sustainable solution to the sustainability problem.  Rushing to conclusions, basing R&D decisions more on marketing instead of science, and the potential for unintended consequences down the road could lead to making the problem worse, not better. 

In order to actually solve this problem, we need to accept that until the economics for sustainable packaging, recycling facilities and recycled raw materials can generate a profit, very little progress will be made.  And if companies are not making money, we fall even further behind as the funds are not available to invest in people who create amazing products that are good for the planet.