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The Rise of Triple-Bottom-Line Businesses

Colleen Cordes

A remarkable new breed of business is volunteering to be held publicly or even legally accountable to a triple bottom line: prioritizing people and the planet, while also promoting profits. This emerging movement is still a small phenomenon relative to the total global economy, but it continues to expand, led by mostly small and medium-sized companies in the United States, and to a lesser degree in Canada and Chile. Almost all are privately held, although a few major corporations have recently become connected through subsidiaries they have acquired.

Some of these companies have been lobbying—often successfully—for new “benefit corporation” statutes that specifically allow them to incorporate with an official requirement to strive for a positive public purpose beyond financial success. Others have been seeking out and publicizing sweeping assessments of their companywide social and environmental impacts by independent third parties. And a significant number have been doing both. This entrepreneur-led movement for an ethics-infused capitalism challenges business as usual, and there are already signs of pressures to dilute it. Yet whether its vision and values can be scaled up broadly, rapidly, and rigorously is a vital question.

Given the supersized global impacts of for-profit enterprises, sustainable economies are likely to remain elusive without substantial shifts in corporate norms. The conventional model for publicly traded corporations—regardless of the personal morality of the people who manage and direct them— has been a myopic focus on maximizing short-term financial returns for a relative few, typically investors and top executives. Attention to the consequences for everyone else on the planet, and for the planet itself, has been frequently downgraded to a matter of doing the minimum necessary to stay within the bounds of the law.

In pursuing that single-minded goal, many large companies have spent their way to outsized influence over governments at every level, resulting too often in lax regulations, low legal standards for corporate behavior, and even lower public expectations. In many cases, this has set up a race to the bottom, in terms of corporate ethics. Even community-minded companies have felt pressured to cut ethical corners to compete. These excesses, especially in the absence of an alternative corporate vision to fire the imaginations of governments, citizens, and corporate leaders themselves, have translated into incremental and frustratingly slow progress toward environmentally and socially just societies. Put simply, the conventional economic model—amoral capitalism—and the willingness of so many investors and consumers to tolerate it are two of the most challenging threats to preserving a livable human future.

In the last few years, however, public restlessness around the world has been growing with revelations about the environmentally reckless behavior and fundamental social inequities that the conventional model has bred. Among the groups that have turned up the heat are grassroots activists and organized labor, a growing number of concerned investors and concerned customers, and national and international nonprofit groups advocating for human rights and ecological protections. They have prodded an increasing number of large, multinational corporations to acknowledge their companies' social and ecological responsibilities and to track their impacts. Over the last 15 years, for example, the number of businesses of all sizes that choose to self-assess how sustainable their operations are, using widely accepted social and environmental standards, and to publicly disclose their results has been growing rapidly, especially in Europe and Asia.

But simply tracking results, often with an eye to preventing serious missteps that could destroy a brand's reputation in a hurry, will not speed the world to sustainable economies with the haste that is so urgently required.

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