"Triple Bottom Line" -- a Critique

by Wayne Norman, Ph.D. and Chris MacDonald, Ph.D.

Have you bought into "triple bottom line" accounting? Are you considering moving your company toward "triple bottom line" management? Are you considering "triple bottom line" investment?

Maybe it's time to think again...

Advocates of the "triple bottom line" paradigm encourage managers to think in terms of not just the good old fashioned financial bottom line, but in terms of two additional "bottom lines," namely the so-called "social bottom line" and "environmental bottom line."

Read the first major critique of this fad:

Getting to the Bottom of "Triple Bottom Line", by Wayne Norman and Chris MacDonald (published in Business Ethics Quarterly, April 2004)
[read the entire 260 kb PDF or just the Abstract]

The authors argue that the triple bottom line ("3BL") paradigm is a rhetorical device with little substance. Further, the 3BL paradigm may distract managers and investors from more effective approaches to social and environmental reporting and performance. Their critique is not aimed at corporate social responsibility efforts in general, but rather at this one misguided approach to CSR.

Here is a brief article outlining the main argument: What's Wrong With the Triple Bottom Line?.)

(More recently, we've published a rebuttal of the only scholarly response to our original 2004 article. Here's the abstract.)

Despite a lack of critical reflection, "Triple Bottom Line" rhetoric is spreading like wildfire.

Google hits for that term:
August, 2002: 15,600
January, 2003: 22,900
September, 2004: 69,500
January, 2005: 187,000
December 2008: 292,000

(See current Google.com hits for "Triple Bottom Line")

See also:

Some Links about Triple Bottom Line

A blog entry about Visualizing the Triple Bottom Line

Prof. Wayne Norman's homepage

Prof. Chris MacDonald's homepage