Triple Bottom Line: Still Crazy After All These Years

Regular readers my recall previous rants about the ubiquitous, and misleading, “Triple Bottom Line” (3BL). For those of you who are blissfully unaware of that concept, the 3BL is the idea that, in addition to the good old-fasioned financial bottom line (you know, the one at the bottom of an income statement), there are 2 further ‘bottom lines’ (viz. the social & environmental bottom lines) that businesses ought to attend to. In particular, adherents of the 3BL notion argue that business managers can and ought to monitor, measure, and report the social and environmental performance of their companies.

Wayne Norman and I published what we thought, modestly, was a devastating critique of the concept in the April 2004 issue of Business Ethics Quarterly. More recently, we’ve written a rebuttal (forthcoming in BEQ, January 2007) of the only scholarly response (written by Moses Pava) to our original 2004 article (you can see the abstract of our rebuttal here). Briefly, Wayne and I argue that while there’s nothing wrong with the idea of tracking and reporting social and environmental performance, there’s something very wrong — misleading, incoherent, etc. — about thinking that you can sum up social and environmental performance “just like” you do with financial performance, so that you can arrive at a clear & defensible “bottom line.” (You can find more info about our critique here.).

Despite our best efforts, the 3BL remains frighteningly popular. For a while, we tracked the popularity of 3BL, by the crude but useful measure of Google hits. Here’s the early data.

August, 2002: 15,600 Google hits
January, 2003: 22,900
September, 2004: 69,500
January, 2005: 187,000

We stopped keeping track, but as of today, Google registers about 726,000 hits. (Get the latest figure by here.)

Needless to say, I was curious when I saw that a new book on 3BL had been published. Curious, and hopeful that perhaps this book would mention that the 3BL concept is not without its critics (critics like Wayne & me). The book is called The Triple Bottom Line: How Today’s Best-Run Companies Are Achieving Economic, Social, and Environmental Success — and How You Can Too, and it was written by Andrew Savitz (with Karl Weber).

I was disappointed (but I guess not surprised) to find that the bibliography contains no reference at all to our criticism of the 3BL. That’s unfortunate, and not just because I’ve got a vested interest in my work being recognized. It’s unfortunate because people who buy Savitz’s book (or otherwise swallow the 3BL line) ought at least to know that there’s reason to be wary of the concept. Now, to be fair, our BEQ article came out in 2004, and Savitz’ book came out in 2006, and given how long the publishing process takes, Savitz might simply have submitted his manuscript before becoming aware of our work.
OK, enough about me. What about the book?
Well, to be honest I haven’t read it all yet. But early signs have me worried. My hope had been that, though this book has the 3BL idea in its title, maybe it wouldn’t really take the idea seriously. Maybe “triple bottom line” is just a catchy phrase, one the author would use without implying that, you know, there really are 3 “bottom lines.” Alas, no. All you need to see is this figure, from the book’s introduction, to see that Savitz is very committed to taking this awful metaphor seriously:

This table clearly implies that performance on areas as diverse as “Human Rights” and “Community Impacts” can be summed to provide a TOTAL. In other words, it makes a promise that it can’t possibly deliver on. And in doing so, it likely does damage to the very idea of managing social and environmental performance.

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