It goes by many names: “The Triple Bottom Line” (TBL), “People, Planet, Profit,” “Environment, Economy, Equity,” “The 3 P’s,” “The 3 E’s,” “The 3 Pillars,” “The Three-Legged Stool,” “Socialist Behavioral Engineering System” …
That is what some on the political far right believe and there are various levels of skepticism and acceptance regarding this concept to the political center and left of this position.
The Triple Bottom Line was developed in the late 1990’s by John Elkington, a world authority in corporate responsibility and sustainable development. It is a tool used to used to guide discussion, policy-making, the creation of business models, and development based on sustainable practices. It suggests questions encompassing values and criteria for measuring organizational success in balancing economic, ecological, and social concerns.
So far this has been a summer of rampant wildfires and record-breaking heat waves. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that since January 1, the U.S. has set more than 40,000 hot temperature records. Many scientists such as Princeton University’s Michael Oppenheimer point to the wildfires devastating Colorado and the two-thirds of the country experiencing drought, and are now publicly saying, “This is what climate change looks like.”
Individuals such as Brian Sussman, author of the books “Eco-Tyranny” and “Climategate” and organizations such as the conservative think tank Heartland Institute, are dedicated to exposing the “myths” of climate change as an anti-American left-wing conspiracy to take away our liberty.
A Web site called “American Alert” claims that sustainable development is “a sinister new ideology” and the TBL is an “assault on the U.S.A.” While it accurately defines both sustainable development and the TBL, the fear expressed is that individual freedom will be lost “to benefit the greater ‘common’good of society.”
Oregon PeaceWorks Executive Director Peter Bergel doesn’t take issue with the facts found on the Web site but with their conclusions. “It pains me that they don’t like sustainability and dismiss it as an attack on capitalism and an attack on freedom. But at least they’re not lying about it. It’s a fair contest in the marketplace of ideas.”
Meanwhile, public concern regarding climate change is growing and businesses and local governments are responding, most notably by adopting the TBL. Portland General Electric President and CEO Jim Piro said at last year’s Salem/Keizer Sustainability Summit that PGE is adopting a more sustainable business model because their customers are demanding it.
PGE Vice President of Public Policy Dave Robertson said at this year’s Summit that “PGE is striving to be a sustainability-centered company.” He explained that the TBL is “now considered with many decisions we make. It is used on a project-by-project basis and will be extended to all decision-making in the future.”
The City of Eugene has adopted the TBL as “official policy” and its Web site offers a comprehensive guide with suggestions for implementing it. It is a key component of the sustainability programs initiated by the cities of Corvallis and Portland.
Last year the TBL was prominently featured as part of the sustainability efforts on the City of Salem Web site, with a definition and a Venn diagram that explained the concept. When the Web site was re-designed, these items disappeared. Mike Gotterba, a Core Member and Co-Facilitator of Salem’s Environmental Action Plan, said it was “an oversight on [their] part.” The original charter for the Action Plan has been restored to the Web site and it contains the original diagram and a definition of the TBL.
Gotterba says the TBL “is something we are very aware of and internally we use that sustainability model.”
But simply adopting the TBL is not an easy fix and it can be difficult to implement. Babe O’Sullivan, Sustainability Liaison with the Eugene Office of Sustainability, said that Eugene is “still figuring out what it looks like, from budgets to policy decisions and program development.” They are actively training staff “on how to use this tool to improve quality of the process, not necessarily the outcomes.”
PGE’s Robertson admitted that while his company is “getting some things right, we are continuing to work on this internally.”
Each of the three legs of the TBL stool also can be seen as competing interests. What is good for business is not necessarily good for the environment, and what is good for the environment may not be helpful in addressing social concerns. Does a community go forward with a project that provides jobs but negatively impacts local resources such as water quality?
Retired Willamette University economics professor Russ Beaton sees social justice as the weakest of the three legs of TBL, citing the huge wealth gap between the 1% and the rest of the population as an example. “Sustainability requires more economic equality. We’ve done better in the overlap between the environment and the economy than with the community and social justice.”
While some groups fear a global government take-over, most sustainability advocates stress de-centralization and localism as the answer to future climate-driven adaptations. Beaton says the ideology of individualism versus cooperation is an obstacle. He believes focusing cooperatively on local resources and resource protection would actually strengthen local capitalism and address all three legs of the TBL.
But many businesses are reluctant to jump on board the TBL bandwagon. While PGE’s Robertson says that “sustainability helps your costs,” other business leaders see outlays that are cost-prohibitive. O’Sullivan said that Eugene is addressing concerns expressed by local businesses by emphasizing opportunities and cost savings.
Annie Gorski, Salem Urban Development Project Manager, says funding at the municipal level is a primary concern. “There is no funding for sustainable projects and we must operate within existing budgets. We are targeting grants and partnerships to achieve our goals but in this economic environment, it is a stretch.”
Gotterba said, “We’ve picked all the low-hanging fruit and now the more difficult challenges need to be addressed. We wish we could do more in these economic times but continuous improvement is still possible.”
Both Gotterba and Gorski cited the programs and initiatives that have been developed locally, such as organizing a more efficient multi-disciplinary approach to sustainable purchasing, realizing zero-waste goals, public outreach to raise awareness of sustainable programs, attracting solar manufacturing and implementation of the City Energy Strategy.
Salem’s Gotterba says, ““The TBL is what sustainability is all about and it is vital to the concept of achieving something. Without it, sustainability doesn’t happen.”