Monthly archive: October 2011

by Jacob Corvidae

As the world embraces more sustainability practices and concepts, we need simple ways to sum up what this means. One of the most common ways to represent sustainability is the idea of the Triple Bottom Line, or the Three Stool Legs of Sustainability. Variations abound, but the basic gist is a Venn diagram showing the overlap of economic, environmental and social health. A particularly common mnemonic for this idea  is “People, Planet, Profits” — and in my experience, this phrase is particularly frequent in the business world and used with the concept of the Triple Bottom Line.

But it bugs me. And I think this is why: “People” is broad to the point of meaninglessness. What does it mean? I think the phrase “social sustainability” is already hard for anyone to really grasp, but  “People”?!? If you have employees have you solved this part of the puzzle? What about people are you working on?

Correspondingly “Profits” is extremely precise. And while that saves this part from the vagueness I complain about above, it seems to narrow as to miss the more fundamental point. In my world view, we need to create a better link between profits and value. The two words  are used synonymously by most businesses, yet the reality of the world belies this equation. Economic health is not the same thing as profit.

So should we try for a phrase that’s more precise or one that’s more general? Personally, I’d rather we just had better ways of referring to this concept. Alliteration works for mnemonics, but I wish we had something better. Granted, “Economics, Environment, and Equity” is out there, but has an academic feel that makes it much less accessible than the three Ps.

So consider this a plea for more precise placeholders. And remember that the words we use for such a mnemonic would ideally be meaningful, measurable and mundane. Otherwise, we may inadvertenly create a conversation that is imprecise, imbalanced and therefore ulitmately immobilized.