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Redefining Sustainability in Business

Popular Definitions of Sustainability

According to the United Nations Brundtland Commission, sustainability is defined as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future. Another popular definition that relates more to business is John Elkington’s “Triple Bottom Line”. Here, sustainability is comprised of three pillars, namely the economic, environmental, and social pillars. The economic pillar delves into ensuring that our activities are financially feasible, repeatable, and affordable. The social pillar requires that we create an equitable community where diversity is praised, learning is encouraged, and respect and inclusion are of the highest priority. The environmental pillar involves using our resources diligently and taking proper steps to minimize harm to planet Earth. All three pillars intertwine to create a well-functioning and harmonious collection of societies.

Elkington’s Triple Bottom Line may serve a great purpose for business, but raises an important question: can we do better

Can we do better?

John Elkington seems to think so. Midway through 2018, Elkington proposed “sustainability’s first-ever recall”, stating that like an automobile, managerial concepts ought to be fine-tuned, test-driven, and regulated. Though Elkington acknowledges the substantial impact that the TBL produced (i.e., the birth of ESG, Impact Investing, and more), he also recognizes its shortcomings, writing: “Clearly, the Triple Bottom Line has failed to bury the single bottom line paradigm”.  In response, John Elkington has now launched his newly renovated edition of the TBL - the  “6 Ways CEOs Can Prove They Care About More Than Shareholder Value”. 

This article provides fresh insights on how to provide value to all stakeholders, rather than using an outdated “shareholder primacy” model.  Could these 6 ways be the key to a better future in business? 

“The critical question for the 2020s will be how business can simultaneously become economically, socially, and above all environmentally responsible (which is where the Business Roundtable is focusing), resilient (which is where the climate emergency is taking us), and regenerative (the next big step)” - John Elkington

“Beyond Tangible Measures”

Others have recognized flaws in the Triple Bottom Line’s concept as well. The B Corporation movement is seen as a reaction to these shortcomings and has struck magnificent change throughout the business community. According to B Corps, The B Corp Certification is given to businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose. In short, they recognize businesses that define their success based beyond profit or the Triple Bottom Line. So, can we do better? People seem to be moving in that direction, and Circle is too.

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