The Two-legged Stool

by Jan 12, 2012

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.

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About the Author

Larry Washington

Larry Washington is a former contributor to Shelton Insights.

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