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The Two-legged Stool

By Larry Washington, VP Creative

It’s funny how we can sometimes so easily embrace a concept without really questioning it.  The triple-bottom is one of those things.  Most folks in the sustainability marketing world have embraced the idea that there are three equal legs to the sustainability stool – people, planet, profit – and they’re just that:  equal. As a guy who works daily with clients to craft their sustainability stories, I can see that there’s something fundamentally off about the concept altogether.

The idea of balance is great and very easy to accept on the surface, but it just doesn’t work when using People, Planet and Profit as the subjects to be balanced. I understand that the idea is meant to change a long-standing inequality, but while doing so it dismisses the true importance of the planet and creates a new set of passive problems.

Our environment isn’t a separate leg that holds equal importance; it’s the foundation that business and community build upon.

Neil K. Dawe and Kenneth L. Ryan from the Qualicum Institute put a strong cap on this point in a paper stating that this model “…perpetuates an even older myth that the environment is something apart from humanity, humanity’s economy, and its social well-being.”

The environment is THE critical component of business, social responsibility and humanity itself. It cannot be separated from the things that it supports, no matter how satisfying the thought. Businesses can fully function without social efforts (and vice versa) but neither can function without the environment. So how can we separate out the environment when it’s an embedded part of the other two legs? We can’t. Our planet isn’t “just as important” as profit or people – it’s more important. It’s the foundation of all we have, and we’ll be fighting the same uphill environmental battle until we can give it its proper due.

So, let’s change the stool right now. Here’s my quick sketch of how a “sustainability stool” should work. Since we still need to balance this stool I’d love to hear what you think a new third – or even fourth leg – could be.


  1. The name of the new third leg should be “people” which is somewhat different than community. If we start with your premise that the environment is all encompassing, then the stool becomes the human situation, which is a combination of viable organizations, stable communities and healthy people. The organizations can be represented by the words “profit” or “economy” as stable organizations are profitable and are fundamental to a stable economy. Healthly individuals are those that have life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Stability of economy and health of individuals combine with many other variables to create a stable community, the third leg.

  2. Larry, you raise an important philosophical point in your article. And I disagree with your position.

    If, as you claim, the planet is more important than people, then we should just get rid of all the people. A planet without people would (arguably) be better off than it is now. But to what end?

    Rather, I would argue that people are the most important of the three components. When a choice has to be made between people and planet, the decision should should always be in favor of people. But in reality, the choice is rarely dichotomous; instead, it generally benefits people (and their progeny) to live in a healthy environment.

    So placing people first can be seen to lead to environmental responsibility, but placing the environment first leads to devaluing of people, and that’s not good.

    Of course, this brief comment isn’t a full treatise, and there’s certainly a lot more that could be discussed, but those are my two cents’ worth.

  3. Time is the missing third leg. This was the idea behind Seventh Generation. Their name comes from the tradition of a North American First People’s group (I apologize for not knowing which) of making decisions based on how it will impact their descendents seven generations hence.

    Look at the sustainability leader Interface carpet. They’ve spent decades learning how to have their products do the least harm over time, increasing their profitability while doing so. They have adopted the practice of taking back their product after its useful life is over. This is the ultimate idea proposed in Cradle to Grave, the book from which the triple bottom line comes.

    The more radical among us may even argue that “economy” does not belong in the sustainability equation at all. Is there room for the narrow, profit-based view of business in sustainability? Or is the business world just shoehorning itself into the nascent movement? From what I’ve read, business must learn to add value without extracting resources. That is the goal. It’s not an easy one, but the world of architecture is making significant progress with the idea of regenerative buildings.

    I agree that the model is inadequate. It will change numerous times in the coming years, but the winning equation must include the future. Can we stop making messes for future generations to clean up? What kind of life do we make for them, by what we create and by what we leave behind?

    Thanks for opening up the discussion and letting us take a stab at it.

  4. I suggest the third leg is ‘commitment’ yet it is not totally independent of the economy and the community. What are willing to do to have good air, good water, efficient energy and water consuming products in our homes? We live at the intersection of available energy, available water, and available top soil. In many ways they are the three legs of the stool.

    The stool is a great graphic! It can be effectively used to promote discussion, yet discussion without action is like fire without heat. I sometimes wonder why the environment and sustainability discussions are intensifying. I remember what my college calculus teacher said: funny things happen on the way to limits. We have moved into the realm of limits as a people and our options are, well, limited.

  5. As someone who has dealt with global sustainability for almost 15 years, it is refreshing to hear of critical thinking applied to this otherwise unquestioned concept.

    A better rendition is the “nested” concept, where the smallest element, the economy, is resting within the other two, community (the second smallest) which in turn resides within the environment (the largest of the three)

    This would corroborate the thought within that the environment is “foundation that business and community build upon”. . . as this analysis of the flaw reveals.

    Another way to look at it is based on the work of Gretchen Daily of Stanford University, who coined the term ‘ecosystem services’ to describe her work, which is essentially to put an economic value on the fresh air, water, and lifestyles conducive to living sustainably. . .

    Simply put, we could not afford it, if we were to consider paying for it. . . putting another thought in place as to our over-reliance on the way our “economy” is reveled in as the most important – it is decidedly not.

    Incidentally, the “three-legged stool” is quite often used to describe the Olympic bidding process, as (1)the venue (can the locale support the seasonal aspect); (2) financial (can the resources be brought to bear for a successful event), and (3) sustainability (can the event leave a residual legacy to the inhabitants [usually this is an infrastructural element that the locale could not otherwise afford to do on its’ own]. . .

    Sustainability is about human behavior and its’ impact: to the degree we change our behavior, we will change impact:

    Otherwise. . .

    For humanity, the overarching importance of sustainability is in its’ support of being conducive to life, not destructive of it. . .it supports us, so we need to support it. . .and not for the sake of money.

    Incidentally, the book is Cradle to Cradle (not “grave”) and the ‘triple bottom line’ concept is from John Elkington, a London consultant, in 1994. The other key that is missing from Mr. Elkington’s theory is: nature – as described above – he was focusing on balancing the three goals, instead of our overblown focus on the importance of just one. . .