The need for sustainability and for corporations to take their responsibilities to society is a commonplace now. It was not always thus. And one man has played a big part in that transformation: John Elkington.
Very Short Biography
John Elkington was born in 1949, and grew up in England, Northern Ireland, and Cyprus. He studied Sociology and Social Psychology at the University of Essex, gaining his BA in 1970. He then went on to gain an MPhil in Urban and Regional Planning from University College London (where he is currently a visiting Professor – also at Imperial College and Cranfield University).
From there, he worked for four years at a transport and environment consultancy, before spending five years as the editor of the ENDS report (ENvironmental Data Services) from 1978-1983. A prolific writer, Elkington’s first book, The Ecology of Tomorrow’s World, appeared in 1980.
In 1987, he co-founded consulting business, SustainAbility, and in 1997 wrote the book that popularised his most notable idea, the Triple Bottom Line. Cannibals with Forks: Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business continues to be a high-selling book.
Currently, Elkington serves as Executive Chairman of another business he founded, Volans. This is both a consultancy and think-tank that tries to foresee the future and help clients to make breakthrough changes. He also continues to write books and articles for many publications including frequent articles for the website, GreenBiz. He speaks, and serves on many advisory boards guiding big businesses on sustainability and their corporate and social responsibility.
The Triple Bottom Line
Among the catalogue of ideas that any serious manager or business person must be familiar with is Elkington’s Triple Bottom Line.
He suggested that, in addition to the usual profit-based bottom line measure of a company’s performance, businesses should also prepare bottom line measures in a ‘people account’ and in a ‘planet account’; giving rise to the three pillars of people, profit and planet – another coinage of Elkington’s.
These are often represented as three overlapping circles of concern that clearly represent three views of overlapping stakeholder groups.
‘Profit’ represents the economic imperative felt by owners and shareholders, whose concern is for monetary reward and growth of capital. It refers to the traditional bottom line in a company’s accounts.
‘People’ represents the needs of the organisation’s community and therefore its corporate social responsibilities. A corporation’s social responsibilities extend to all of its stakeholders; not least its employees and the communities within which its facilities sit. This is a big challenge for companies whose shareholders demand that they maximise dividends, whilst its workers are in countries where the state does little to champion their rights.
‘Planet’ represents the natural environment and the part an organisation must play in our joint responsibility for its stewardship. The best organisations treat the environment as a prestigious stakeholder and the worst as nothing more than a source of raw materials and a sink for disposing of waste.
Progress to Date
Pocketblog is not a political commentator, so it must be our readers who assess the progress corporations have made to making the triple bottom line a meaningful commitment. There are examples at both extremes. What is evident, however, is that the challenges facing the world in the coming years are equally great with regards to people and planet, and if too much of our economic activities sacrifice these to the a single profit related bottom line, there may be little left for our grandchildren to spend their profits on.
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