From soothing palliatives and towards ecological literacy: a critique of the triple bottom line

Milne, Markus J (2005) From soothing palliatives and towards ecological literacy: a critique of the triple bottom line. Working Paper. Department of Accountancy and Business Law, University of Otago.

Not too long (21 pages) and not too hard to read for the most part, this paper is well worth a look. It reinforces (by looking at triple bottom line accounting) the concerns expressed about sustainable development and eco-capitalism expressed in our last post, and offers some constructive initial suggestions on advancing the transition to sustainability.

A few quotes:

“What emerges from this brief analysis of new concepts and tools is that current efforts of environmental or sustainability reporting are woefully inadequate means on which to form ideas about “success” in terms of the ecological logic needed to reorganise and ‘control’ economic activity.” (p.19)

In a transition to sustainability, if the end game is to remain unchanged, then the only… [way to seek processes, systems, and changes that promote a transition to an ecologically sustainable society]… is to seek changes that promote the decoupling of measures of success (growth, profits, etc.) from Earth’s limited physical energy and material flows. (pp.19-20)

Ultimately, however, humanity will need to realise that “success” is not just a case of making the transition to a solar economy, it is also in recognising that the natural cycles that the sun’s energy fuels are themselves limited in scale and speed (Sachs, 1999), and that all people have basic rights to meet their needs. Success is not just about technology, and efficiency, it is also about equity and sufficiency. (p.20)

There is also a useful brief discussion (pp.2-3) of John Dryzek’s suggestion that people can be split into ecological optimists (“Prometheans”) or ecological pessimists (“Survivalists”). In terms of making change happen, it is always useful to be able to recognise the deeply divergent emotional and psychological frames people use in their perception of the world, and this, I feel, identifies another set of those profound frames.

The formal Abstract

The ‘triple bottom line’ (3BL), an idea attributed to and increasingly evangelized by John Elkington of the London-based consultancy, SustainAbility (Elkington, 1997; Wheeler & Elkington 2001), involves incorporating economic, environmental and social performance indicators into businesses’ management, measurement and reporting processes. The emergence and increasing take-up by business of the 3BL, however, seems to have created dangerous uncertainty as to what is required of organizations. At its narrowest, pursuing the 3BL involves measuring and reporting economic, environmental and social performance objectives that are pursued simultaneously. A broader view, however, suggests that the 3BL involves assessing an entity’s values, strategies and practices and how these can be utilized to achieve economic, environmental and social objectives (SustainAbility, 2003). The term also seems to be used increasingly as a synonym for “sustainability”. Many organizations seem to confuse narrow and often incomplete reporting practices with claims to be reporting on being sustainable, actually being sustainable, or more commonly, with claims to be moving towards sustainability. In view of such dangerous confusion, this paper critically examines the content of international business 3BL reporting and argues that while pursuing the 3BL may be a necessary condition for sustainability, it is unlikely to be a sufficient condition, and indeed may amount to little more than soothing palliatives, leading to greater levels of un-sustainability. We offer, therefore, some ways in which businesses may begin to get beyond their 3BL change-but-no-change rhetoric of sustainability and towards ecological literacy.


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