People, planet, profit in context

I recently published a post on sustainable development courses in higher education. It was based on my personal experiences examining curriculum across the world over the past decade. In that same post, I also talked about the broad definition of sustainability and how the term is used [and misused] in society to communicate many things- mainly gestures of responsibility, progressiveness, and best practices. I also pointed out the unfortunate trend of greenwash, where a company misleads people about the true sustainability of a product or service with empty or inaccurate claims. The simplest example i can think of is when a company touts a product as “all natural”. The actual truth is that there are no requirements or criteria needed for using this term. Mercury is all natural. Dog poop is all natural. In contrast, if a company wants to label a product as “organic”, there are many standards and certifications to verify before this label can be affixed. Similarly, consumers are victims of greenwash if they purchase a Toyota Prius thinking they are helping the planet. The Financial Times recently posited this argument with Tesla, proclaiming that “sustainability and promoting the purchase of raw-material consuming heavyweight products are mutually exclusive.”

I’d like to use this post to talk about the opposite of greenwash, and give a few examples companies and corporations who are utilizing the true definition of sustainability and sustainable development in their business practices and policies. As a reminder, the true meaning of sustainability should show a balance between the three main tenets of environment, economics, and social sustainability. If one of these pillars are not being addressed, then the practice is considered unsustainable. This concept has taken on many shapes and forms over the past decade in the business world, and the one I know best is called the Triple Bottom Line. It consists of three Ps: profit, people and planet and aims to measure the financial, social and environmental performance of a corporation over a period of time. The concept originated in the UK in the 1990’s and was a large part of the coursework i did in sustainable business practices while abroad in England.

The Triple Bottom Line is a response to the sustainable standard of the single bottom line thinking seen in business today, where financial measures are the only metrics for success. According to the terms founder John Elkington, “Companies should be preparing three different (and quite separate) bottom lines. One is the traditional measure of corporate profit—the “bottom line” of the profit and loss account. The second is the bottom line of a company’s “people account”—a measure in some shape or form of how socially responsible an organisation has been throughout its operations. The third is the bottom line of the company’s “planet” account—a measure of how environmentally responsible it has been.”

Now for those good examples of triple bottom line sustainability approaches. Disclaimer: both are recent Philly-based developments.

Example 1: Arcadis Sustainable Cities Mobility Index

A study was recently completed by design consultancy group Arcadis, which measured 20 factors of mobility contributing to the sustainable transportation of a city. These factors include financial investments in improving a city’s public transportation infrastructure, commuting travel time, and affordability of public transit. However, the study focused primarily on ranking and measuring these factors three through the main pillars of sustainability: People (social), planet (environmental), and profit (economic health). Major cities across the world were assessed using this criteria, and Hong Kong took the top spot globally, while New York City was the highest ranked city in North America. Using such a framework brings huge credibility to this research in terms of creating a fair assessment of cities. By adhering to the very definition of sustainability, we can call this an excellent and very appropriate use and deployment of sustainable development. Additionally, the infographics really help the user to understand the completeness of the three pillars when assessing something monumental such as public transportation.


Its a real interesting report by by the way, and major new outlets across the country covered the results as top news stories, such as in Philly. This is another testament to the credibility of the methodology.

Example #2: PolicyMap left the nonprofit model to pursue benefit corporation status

In general, it seems easier to trust the motives and mission of  non-profit corporation over a for-profit company. By it’s very definition, non profits are formed to benefit: (1) the public, (2) a specific group of individuals, or (3) the membership of the Nonprofit. While there’s no doubt that an altruistic benefit is being produced for the public, there are no guarantees for sustainability. I recently read about a local Philadelphia-based non-profit called PolicyMap that carried this same concern, and opted to switch to B-corp status to help address its needs in social sustainability. Check out this TedxPhilly talk on why B-Corps matter.

“B Corp is to business what Fair Trade certification is to coffee or USDA Organic certification is to milk.” –

According to B Lab, a global non-profit that issues the B-Corp certification, for-profit companies should pursue certification to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. All members pledge to a declaration of interdependence, which seeks to:

  • Be the change we seek in the world.
  • Make people and place matter in all business operations.
  • Business should aspire to do no harm and benefit all through their products, practices, and profits.
  • Acknowledge that we are all dependent on each other and are thus responsible for each other and future generations

Today, there is a growing community of more than 2,100 Certified B Corps from 50 countries and over 130 industries working together toward 1 unifying goal: to redefine success in business []. The decision for PolicyMap to pursue B-Corp status shows a real, genuine commitment to sustainability. It is something that cannot be faked, bought, or associated with greenwash. Like example one, it is a sustainable approach to the people, planet, profit mantra.

Moving forward

The central theme of my website is presenting topics of interest to my personal and professional life in the natural and built environment and further acknowledging sustainable approaches to these concepts. Everything we do has a connection to sustainability, and furthermore has a direct impact on people around us, on the planet we’re living on, as well as our financial well being. Perhaps the most powerful thing about accepting and acknowledging this path is how easy it then becomes to point out the everyday atrocities we see with bottom-line decision making, unsustainable trajectories, and true greenwash. Knowing sustainability is a powerful tool to help inform oneself in making everyday decisions that in turn help to create resilient communities on all scales.



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