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Define Your Path

Why Every Good Business Student Needs to Know the Triple Bottom Line: People, Planet & Profit

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Many years ago as an eager undergraduate I took a class in Environmental Chemistry. This class preceded much of the environmental discussion related to climate change and global warming. I learned about the science and impact of carbon dioxide on our planet. The science is clear, the impact is not so clear. There is much debate whether we are facing a dramatic shift in our environment or simply a case of statistical fluctuations. At the dinner table or in the board room the opinions vary. The passion runs deep on both sides of the global impact equation. Some feel we have passed the point of no return, others still see hope but only if actions are immediate and deep. The impact on globalization has dramatic financial positives but potentially at the cost of good social behavior and the environment. As areas of the world continue to industrialize in similar fashion as the United States in the late 1700’s, the impact on the environment continues to increase. The mathematical extrapolation of continued industrialization is simple, the impact is not quite so clear.

The phrase “the triple bottom line” was first coined by John Elkington. The phrase consists of 3P’s:

  • People is related to corporate social responsibility
  • Planet is related environmental responsibility
  • Profit is the traditional definition of the corporate “bottom line”

According to Elkington a firm must use the 3P’s to evaluate the full cost of doing business. Major multinationals have taken the 3P philosophy to heart and constructed organizational structures to lessen the impact their firms have on society and the environment.

I was first introduced to sustainability to include the 3P’s within the graduate program as an instructor, not a student. What better place than the University to build knowledge and share skills for future business leaders. Students will read and review opposing views on the 3P concepts. Several authors have stated this is simply a marketing fad and will fade over time. These authors also state that only large multinational firms will actively pursue the “triple bottom line.” Smaller firms will not be enticed to participate due to implementation costs. This will delay active implementation and the momentum required to provide a major impact will never occur.

I consider the opposite. In the past the University setting is an incubator for thoughts that translate to business actions. The concept and value of the “triple bottom line” is no exception. I will not debate the need to invest and the traditional return on investment (ROI) must be re-defined in relation to payback timing. Future business leaders must always manage profit. However, business students should consider and utilize the “triple bottom line” in their current and future career choices. The use of corporate social responsibility and environmental impact in future business decisions should be required actions.

This is a difficult topic. Today concepts of the “triple bottom line” may not directly impact many of us. But as in all good University curricula, newer ideas and concepts are shared with future business leaders in anticipation of impact. I hope that this is one.

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About the Author

Pete Papantos is an operations director at a Fortune 500 company. He is responsible for the global execution of their strategic plan and driving operational excellence using lean methods. In addition, Pete is a graduate instructor with emphasis in operations and strategic management — both in traditional and online settings.