Marketing Thought

Triple Bottom Line

John Elkington gave us the idea of the Triple Bottom Line (TBL) in 1994. In 2018 he proposed that the idea be recalled for a retooling. Things hadn’t worked out as he hoped.

The Triple Bottom Line

The idea behind the Triple Bottom Line is simple. Rather than fixating on financial performance alone, the bottom line, managers should consider three important bottom lines. These are the firm’s social, economic, and environmental impact. So a firm cannot be said to be successful if it is making a lot of money but only at the expense of society or the planet.

Triple Bottom Line

The idea has taken off. It is now common to see the term. I hear students who talk of wanting to have more meaning in their choice of work. This means going to a firm that considers the triple bottom line. Firms regularly produce reports on their social and environmental impact as well as their traditional financial reports. As Elkington says, the Economist has signaled the TBL idea is now a standard part of the business lexicon. It appears to have had a major impact.

Elkington Is A Man Of High Standards

Yet Elkington isn’t happy with what has happened. Here I have to say that he is a man of high standards. I am pleased if I manage to publish any of my work. When two people read it and a post-graduate student cites it in their thesis I feel like I am making a huge impact on the world. Not so for Elkington.

…TBL’s stated goal from the outset was system change — pushing towards the transformation of capitalism. It was never supposed to be just an accounting system.

Elkington, 2018

Despite entering everyday business usage he feels the system hasn’t changed enough.

Clearly, the Triple Bottom Line has failed to bury the single bottom line paradigm.

Elkington, 2018

Success And The Future

I would advise Elkington to be a little less hard on himself. Yes, the single bottom line is still hale and hearty but alternatives have been growing. (Such as the B Corp movement that he draws attention to). Some, even if not enough, progress has been made. Better to compare what the world without the Triple Bottom Line would be like with our current situation, rather than compare now to an ideal that Elkington simply had no chance of delivering however well crafted his concept.

I’m not entirely sure what Elkington proposes to do with his recall of the term. Still, I think he has given us a useful concept. If he can improve it through a retooling so much the better. Even if he can’t it is something others can build on.

For more on sustainable marketing see here, and for free sustainable marketing strategy cases see here.

Read: Elkington, John. (2018) “25 years ago I coined the phrase “triple bottom line.” Here’s why it’s time to rethink it.” Harvard Business Review 25 (2018): 2-5.

Exit mobile version