What's Wrong With the "Triple Bottom Line"?

 by Chris MacDonald and Wayne Norman.

(This article originally appeared in the 6 Degrees Newsletter, July 2004.)

MacDonald and Norman say that Triple Bottom line accounting compares apples to oranges, because you can't do the comparison or value-translation necessary for the accounting to take place.

Attempts to do the right thing in business go by many different names: "Sustainability," "Business Ethics," "Corporate Social Responsibility," "Socially Responsible Business," "Corporate Citizenship" and so on. Each of these means something slightly different, or has a different 'spin,' but they're all aimed at the same rough idea, namely the idea that businesses can, and should, behave better. But to say that each of these names stands for roughly the same thing is not to say that each of them is equally good. Indeed, some of them may be downright misleading. We argue that that is the case with the so-called "Triple Bottom Line" (or "3BL") approach: it is misleading, and should be done away with. The 3BL has quickly become one of the very most popular terms being applied to attempts by business to do the right thing. There are consulting firms offering 3BL accounting services; investment firms promising to screen with 3BL analysis; Fortune-500 companies bragging about their 3BL approach in their annual reports; and various non governmental organizations encouraging more companies to do so. Indeed, in the last three or four years the term has spread like wildfire. Back in March of 2003, the Internet search engine, Google, returned roughly 25,200 web pages that mention the term. Just over a year later (June, 2004) Google returns more than double that number: 61,200.

So what is the "Triple Bottom Line"? The basic idea is that corporations should (and can) manage not just the good old-fashioned bottom line (i.e., the financial bottom line), but also their social & environmental "bottom lines," too. On the face of it, this is an attractive idea: it is easy to agree with the idea that corporations have obligations that go beyond financial success. Unfortunately, we find that without exception the 3BL rhetoric fails to live up to its promises. Adding up the financial plusses and minuses is just a lot easier, as it turns out, than totting up, say, the ethical achievements and shortcomings of a firm. Any attempt to arrive at a calculation of a net social or environmental performance is likely to run head-on into just what it is that separates the management of finances from the management of social and environmental impacts. In the financial realm, money provides a common unit of measure that permits expenses to be subtracted from revenues. So while it makes perfect sense to take the costs of labour and materials and subtract those from sales revenues, it makes little sense to talk about (for example) taking a social "minus" such as a sexual harassment lawsuit and subtracting that from a social "plus", like having engaged in corporate philanthropy. How big a charitable donation do you think it takes to off-set the social "cost" of a sexual harassment suit? Of course there's no obviously uncontroversial way to make this sort of calculation. In other words, there's no real social "bottom line". The kinds of issues that arise in social and environmental domains can be (and regularly are) managed , but they will never be reducible to the kind of common unit of measure that would allow for straightforward bookkeeping.

In practice, a commitment to the 3BL approach means one of two things. Either it means that social and environmental concerns are going to be assigned dollar values — a controversial (though sometimes useful) practice that in effect means managing, again, just a single (though admittedly now richer) good-old-fashioned bottom line. Or, it means simply paying attention to — without attempting to derive anything like a real "bottom line" for — the social and environmental impacts of your business. In that case, the concept of a Triple Bottom Line in fact turns out to be a "Good old-fashioned Single Bottom Line plus Vague Commitments to Social and Environmental Concerns."

Why should advocates of responsible business be worried about perpetuating the 3BL rhetoric? Because it allows just about any business to claim to believe in the Triple Bottom Line, and even the best forensic accountant will not be able to prove that they are morally bankrupt.

More about the Triple Bottom Line...

criticism of triple bottom line, critique of triple bottom line

This page is administered by Chris MacDonald (chrismac@ethicsweb.ca)