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.

About the Author

Larry Washington

Larry Washington is a former contributor to Shelton Insights.

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Suzanne Shelton

President and CEO

Suzanne is the voice and the vision of Shelton Group. Drawing on her extensive experience in energy and the environment – and 25+ years in the marketing and advertising industry – Suzanne provides high-level strategic insights for our clients and guidance for our research and creative departments. She regularly speaks at conferences around the country, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and the International Builders’ Show, and serves as a guest columnist for publications like Fast Company, Green Builder and

Susannah Enkema

VP Research & Insights

Susannah directs our research team and plays a key role in extracting the nuggets of information that pave the way for recommended marketing strategies and creative approaches. Susannah has nearly two decades of market research and strategy experience, including her role as president of SE Consulting, where she led the services for the likes of DIY Network and the makers of GORE-TEX®.

Laila Waggoner

VP Client Engagement

Laila leads our client engagement process, overseeing activities from both a strategic and a tactical level to ensure our work generates desired results – and clients’ satisfaction. She brings 25+ years of marketing leadership experience to her client relationships, with particular expertise in the homebuilding and remodeling industries as well as member-driven organizations, such as the Vinyl Siding Institute and Plastics Pipe Institute. Before joining Shelton Group, she led strategic marketing teams for Owens Corning’s insulation business.

Matt Brass

VP Creative

Matt steers the creative department in concepting, designing and producing campaigns. He ensures sound strategy and deep insights inform everything his team develops, and works closely with the accounts department to ensure copy and designs will meet our clients’ goals. As a designer and filmmaker himself, he’s also a principal contributor to all of Shelton’s in-house photography and videography work.

Glen L. Vesser III

VP Finance and Administration

Glen manages Shelton Group’s finances and administration, ensuring our internal systems run smoothly so we can provide exceptional client service in a seamless and timely manner. Glen’s financial and administrative expertise has been shaped by decades of experience in a variety of industries, including public accounting, media distribution and health care.

Mike Beamer

VP Business Development

Mike joined our team to help provide strategic vision and foster our agency’s growth by overseeing new business leads and managing agency marketing and website content. He arrived in Knoxville steeped in energy efficiency and renewables – he previously led client service for an agency division in Boston dedicated to marketing communications strategy and branding for B2B and B2C clients in that space.