Sept. 1, 2008

Many scenarios in our lives have triple bottom line dimensions—we just aren't accustomed to looking at all three: Equity, Economy, and Environment.

By Keri Luly, LEED AP

Early in the environmental movement, only the environment mattered. Greenpeace banners hung from smokestacks. Environmental groups were all about fighting the good fight, never compromising, and demanding that the government punish businesses for polluting. Laws were passed, lines were drawn.

SEPARATION, COOPERATION, CONNECTIONIn 1983, the United Nations established the World Commission on Environment and Development, an independent organization representing the developing and developed worlds. In its wisdom, the Commission recognized the need for "changes in the nature of cooperation between governments, business, science, and people." But it took years before groups like Environmental Defense and World Resources Institute began building cautious bridges between the conflicting groups.

The Commission wrote the now well-known definition of sustainable development and recognized that human activities could no longer be compartmentalized "within broad areas of concern (environment, economics, social);" and that "these are not separate crises ... they are all one." The recommendations of the Commission focused on population and human resources, food security, species and ecosystems, energy, industrial production/efficiency, and urbanization-all with the recognition that each area has environmental, economic and social impacts.

The Commission and its 1987 report, Our Common Future, set the stage for the 1992 Earth Summit (attended by nearly 200 governments) and led to international agreements for a plan of action called Agenda 21.

For all its wisdom, the Commission did not coin a catchy name for its concept.

COOPERATION, CONNECTION, DIMENSIONThe relationship between the three "crises" of sustainable development was described in various ways to portray their linkage, such as a "three-legged stool." (If one leg were missing, the stool couldn't function). The term "bottom line" was well-known to reflect profitability. Then in 1998, John Elkington's book, Cannibals with Forks, introduced the term "Triple Bottom Line" (TBL), with fascinating corporate case studies to illustrate it.

It may be useful to clarify each bottom line individually. For their definitions, I turn to the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), a nonprofit organization that has been working with interest groups all over the world since 1997 to develop and improve a set of sustainability reporting guidelines. The guidelines are designed so that readers of sustainability reports are able to compare year to year within one organization, and business to business across different organizations.

GRI's Sustainability Reporting Guidelines defines three dimensions of sustainable development and provides numerous performance indicators for each:

  • The social dimension concerns the impacts an organization has on the social systems in which it operates. The Social Performance Indicators would identify performance surrounding:
    • labor practices
    • human rights
    • society
    • product responsibility

A sample Social Performance Indicator is: "Programs for skills management and lifelong learning that support the continued employability of employees and assist them in managing career endings."

The social dimension, commonly called social equity, has led to another way to reference the TBL-equity, environment, and economy (the "three Es"); also called people, planet and profit.

  • The environmental dimension concerns an organization's impacts on living and non-living natural systems, including ecosystems, land, air, and water. Environmental Indicators would cover performance related to:
    • w inputs (e.g., material, energy, water)
    • outputs (e.g., emissions, effluents, waste)
    • performance related to biodiversity, environmental compliance, environmental expenditure, and the impacts of products and services

A sample Environmental Performance Indicator is: "Percentage and total volume of water recycled and reused."

  • The economic dimension concerns an organization's impacts on the economic conditions of its stakeholders and on economic systems at local, national and global levels. This is different from standard financial information that must be reported by public companies. Economic Indicators in a sustainability report illustrate:
    • flow of capital among different stakeholders
    • main economic impacts of the organization throughout society

A sample Economic Performance Indicator is: "Policy, practices and proportion of spending on locally-based suppliers at significant locations of operation."

In past articles, I've focused mostly on environment and touched briefly on social equity (in the "Shopping" series), but I haven't provided a strong connection between the three bottom lines.

Take factory worker safety training as an example. It may be a social dimension because chemicals used in manufacturing could cause harm to the worker. It has an environmental dimension, because, if spilled, the chemicals could cause environmental harm. And it has an economic dimension, because the healthy worker and workplace contribute to a thriving local community: A triple bottom line.

Consider the conservation of natural resources-pure environment, right? In the early days, environmental groups from developed countries, such as the United States, tended to look at saving tropical forests and their inhabiting species in less developed countries as being all important. Their programs typically failed because they related only to the environment and failed to understand local needs. When local economic development and social equity were added to the potential solutions, success became more attainable-another triple bottom line.

Nearly every situation and activity in our lives has triple bottom line dimensions ... we just aren't accustomed to looking at all three.

DIMENSION, SITUATION, ACTIONVarious organizations are beginning to expand their triple bottom line thinking, although many lean more toward the one they understand most as they learn the others. Businesses typically deal with environment first, then branch into the other two. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development, for example, pulls together environment and economy with less attention to equity. The Global Compact, a set of international principles, leans more toward social equity than environment, with less focus on economic development. Programs like The Natural Step, Cradle-to-Cradle, and the upcoming Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA) Sustainability Standard are primarily focused on environment, but include a social equity component.

In the United States, LEED® was designed primarily for the environment (including energy), but there are credits that have economic components (rarely social). Regional manufacturing and extraction promote stronger local economies while saving transportation fuel. Sustainable Sites credits for brownfield redevelopment and development density include strong local economic development dimensions. It could be argued that the credit for development density impacts the social dimension (health) by encouraging people to walk instead of driving. LEED for Neighborhood Development is about community and environment interactions.

Our call to action? Understanding the TBL's value, shifting our actions to include all three, and measuring change-another three-legged stool, of sorts.


Keri Luly has elected to donate her monetary compensation for the articles she writes to an environmentally pro-active organization of her choosing. This issue, she has selected the World Resources Institute (WRI), an environmental think tank that goes beyond research to find practical ways to protect the earth and improve people's lives. WRI's mission is to move human society to live in ways that protect Earth's environment and its capacity to provide for the needs and aspirations of current and future generations. Because people are inspired by ideas, empowered by knowledge, and moved to change by greater understanding, WRI provides objective information and practical proposals for policy and institutional change that will foster environmentally sound, socially equitable development. More information is available at

Keri Luly, LEED AP, is Allsteel's stewardship coordinator and regular contributor to EnvironDesign Notebook. She can be reached at [email protected].

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