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From the Triple Bottom Line to Zero

2012 Update: In addition to the terms mentioned below, others that I have coined in recent years have included the Future Quotient, the Phoenix Economy, the Sustainability Barrier and the 'Zeronauts' (plus a bevy of linked terms, from 'Zeronautics' to 'zerowashing'), the subject of my next book, to be published by Earthscan/Taylor & Francis in May 2012.

Older Content: It’s no accident that when I have been asked around the world what my favourite strategic tool is, I have tended to reply, “Our sofa.” As someone who likes to think aloud with others, this is where some of my best ideas (big or not) have surfaced. And one way to track ideas is to track language. Among the new terms I have coined over the years are environmental excellence (while working on a UN conference in Versailles during 1984), green capitalists, green designer, green consumer and green investor (all popped up in my writing 1985/6) and the triple bottom line (1994). I also came up with the 3P tag (People, Planet and Profit) to make the TBL concept a little easier for people to grasp.

Graffito: Written on a World Economic Forum wall—or whiteboard—in Davos, 2007
Sofa Action
Sofa Action: Tell (Münzing), Katie (Fry Hester), Kavita (Prakash-Mani) and Nick (Robinson). It’s not atypical of SustainAbility that the countries represented here are Germany, the USA, India and New Zealand.

The idea behind the TBL idea was that business and investors should measure their performance against a new set of metrics—capturing economic, social and environmental value added—or destroyed—during the processes of wealth creation. This approach, laid out in 1997’s Cannibals With Forks, played a crucial role in shaping such ventures as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and the Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes (DJSI), both of which I helped nurture.

I would also claim to have helped establish the concept of sustainability. When I picked that name for our new company in 1986, it was little used. Indeed, as I have often recalled in public, our team spent the first 3-4 years after the company was registered early in 1987 spelling the word for people over the phone. Letters (and there still were such things) came to SustainAbility addressed to all manner of things, among them ‘Survivability’ and ‘StainAbility’.

By 2007, the twentieth anniversary of the watershed Brundtland Commission Report, Our Common Future, the term is widely used (and, inevitably, abused). I have never checked, but one academic once told me that in a literature search our use of the term in its current sense was the first that they could find, though I subsequently found a French writer (a priest, I think) referring to sustainability in 1974. The same academic told me that his team hadn’t been able to find the word in Our Common Future. True or not, it has been fascinating to see the term move steadily into the mainstream of thought, discussion and—to a much lesser degree—action. For a longer discussion, see The Triple Bottom Line: Does It All Add Up?, edited by Adrian Henriques and Julie Richardson (Earthscan, London, or http://shop.earthscan.co.uk/ProductDetails/mcs/productID/480).

And here's a quote from the Financial Times...

Goodbye to corporate social responsibility?

Never mind rising sea levels: the waves of cynicism washing over corporate executives as they push their CSR agendas promise to become life-threatening in 2008. In the inevitable life cycle of management fads CSR is now heading for the exit. Customers are generally unconvinced by the hype. And “social responsibility” was always too flimsy a concept to gain serious traction with business leaders.

That gives us a clue as to the identity of the next Big Thing in management: sustainability. Unlike CSR, this concept has some meat and commercial potential to it. Innovations that make money while helping to reduce carbon emissions are actually worth pursuing. So here’s one further prediction for next year: the urgent rebranding to be carried out by all those CSR consultancies, which will be replacing the old acronym with the more contemporary “sustainability” label.

Stefan Stern

Still, for true sustainability to be achieved with a global population of 9-10 billion people projected sometime this century, we need waves of creative destruction and reconstruction—the central argument in my 2001 book The Chrysalis Economy,. This heralded my efforts to move beyond the triple bottom line—to forms of wealth creation that represent a fusuon of value and the sort of values implicit in the concept of sustainability. A few years later, Jed Emerson neatly labelled this 'blended value'; In a 2004 article co-authored with Jed and Seb Beloe, I also introduced the term value blends (‘The Value Palette: A Tool for Full Spectrum Strategy,’ California Management Review, Winter 2006, vol 48, no 2, pp 6-28).

Now, as illustrated by The Power of Unreasonable People, my thinking has shifted from what big companies can do to advance the cause of sustainable development to what entrepreneurs (the “unreasonable people” of the book’s title) are doing—and might do, if properly supported. Reverse engineering the Millennium Development Goals, I came up with the 10 global divides that form the heart of our future markets analysis—and which will be central to the evolving Volans website. More anon.

When 2001 was the future
When 2001 was the future: Another artist's impression... an image done for me by Ingram Pinn.

©2014 John Elkington. All rights reserved.