Sustainability’s Triple Bottom Line: Tool for Commit-a-Phobes?

As a recovering journalist, I’m working hard to suppress old impulses. But habits of a couple decades are hard to shake. Which is why I’m struggling with familiar twitches of cynicism when it comes to “sustainability.”

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. And that gets me to my gripe about the Triple Bottom Line (TBL) language we’ve been leaning on for the last couple decades.

The TBL metaphor is an earnest attempt to bust us out of single silo thinking. Sustainability is not just about securing a future for Nature without humans. It’s not just about building an economy that ignores the natural environment or social responsibility. And it’s not just about privileging social relationships and ignoring the environment and human ambitions for individual and collective prosperity. It’s about doing all that at once. Hence, the three-legged stool: People, Planet, Profits.

Okay, that gets us out of a single silo. But it sticks us with three. It makes us tri-polar, which in itself is unsustainable. Another irony.

And how has TBL thinking affected decision-making so far? Not so much. At the moment, we’re having trouble imagining a sustainable economy, a natural environment that will sustain human life as we know it, or healthy social relationships on the neighborhood scale – let alone globally.

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.

Click for greater detail.

What nudged me out of cynicism recently was what I take to be a better metaphor, 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 TBL 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.

As self-evident as this organization appears, it’s a tough one to honor in everyday political and business practice. We want desperately to believe that we can wag the dog from the tail. It’s where we can most easily get a grip. But if debates over global warming or the effects of the recent BP oil spill tell us anything, it’s that the struggle towards sustainability is likely to require a shift in perspective. The three-legged stool won’t stand. I’m for promoting a new metaphor. Or at least a better graphic.

–Ben Brown


  1. Uncle Able says

    An enlightening ‘sustainability’ moment for me was during the opening comments at our Kona charrette. Wally Lau talked about the ancient Hawaiian concept of living in finite resources was to maintain good fences and to keep in balance. The interesting part was the three elements to balance in harmony: 1) Environment; 2) Society; 3) Spirituality.

    That was the first time I had heard a critical analysis of sustainability. In our western culture value system a capitalistic society is valued and sustainability is a new spirituality filled with our western values.

  2. jeffrey Blydenburgh says

    Ben, a much better graphic. Never did like that three legged stool. Perhaps we will meet up in Winter Park. If ever there is a place with so much potential that needs so much shaking up!

  3. In total agreement. It’s a much better way to represent the idea.

  4. Ben

    Love the graphic… The color scheme made me think of it in three dimensions. The Economy running deep and providing the strength and resources to support the shallower ring of Society. The Environmental ring is the broadest and is responsible for the long term balance of the whole, without which the peg tumbles…just as the stool did before it.

    Best wishes from Hilo

  5. Fascinating! My only complaint is the colors of the graphic, unfortunately. Orange for society? Brown for the economy? Kinda makes it look like society is a fire burning the environment, and that at its core, it’s… use your imagination. But I think the diagram is spot-on… I never did agree with the stool. This puts things in the proper perspective.


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