What is a Triple Bottom Line?

It’s A Simple Bottom Line, Tripled

Environment, society, and economy are equally important, yet there is a hierarchy of importance. This triple bottom line hierarchy can be expressed in a diagram.

Triple Bottom LineThe Triple Bottom Line Components:


Simply put, the ecosystem provides the context in which we develop our social and economic systems. It is the largest of the triple bottom line elements because all of the resources we use in both our social and economic systems come from our environment, our ecosystems.

Social Systems

Our social system is a product of our needs, geography, climate, and available resources. For example, a fishing community will develop where the abundance of food is caught from great lakes, oceans, seas or other water bodies. A fishing community will not develop in a desert. The rules and social behaviors of that community will differ from those of an alpine shepherding community, and so forth. A social system is the second largest triple bottom line element because we create our values, beliefs, rituals and rules within each particular ecosystem.

Economic Systems

Our economic system derives from our social system, our politics, values, rules, and social behaviors. It also derives from the ecosystem – that is the source of our resources and the foundation of our well-being. This is the smallest of the triple bottom line elements because it is dependent on both the ecosystem and the social system in which it is established.

If we are to approach sustainable practices with a view to sustaining ourselves, our social and economic systems, we must first address our ecosystems (i.e. our natural resources). We must question the conventional wisdom that our natural resources will always be available and productive and abundant.

Sustainable business practices attempt to integrate ideas into better decision-making processes and strategies.

My Introduction to the Triple Bottom Line

I met John Elkington, the originator of the Triple Bottom Line, when I was studying business and sustainability at NYU in the early 1990’s. He was charismatic, and his ideas were cutting edge at the time. Everything about his talk, and the small group discussion afterwards, resonated with me. I began to pull together all of the literature and ideas that had been floating, unconnected, into a cohesive ideology. After I finished my MBA at NYU I moved to Arizona to study natural resources and ecosystems at University of Arizona, so that I could put all of MY triple bottom line components (fashion, business and natural resources) together as knowledge with which to move forward – as both teacher and business owner.

Laura Tanzer As Example

I’ll use my sustainable clothing business as an example. As a clothing designer/maker who intends to create jobs where I live and work, I am very interested in the social and economic impacts of my actions. As a clothing designer who wants to utilize ‘clean’ textiles that will not negatively affect me or my workers or my customers, I insist on using natural fiber textiles, minimum impact dying and printing technologies, and ethical sources for those textiles. As a clothing designer who does not want to ‘dump’ more waste into the environment, I re-use, re-purpose, re-cycle as much of my fabric scraps as I possibly can, by donating them to schools and children’s organizations for art projects, or to other artists and craftspeople for their creative uses. Tip of the iceberg – more to come in my next blog!

What Can You Do?

I leave you with one thought: How might you, as a consumer, business person, fashion advocate, or creative (designer, maker, etc), apply sustainability principles to your life/career/business/industry?

One reply on “What is a Triple Bottom Line?

  • Mike

    Thank you for educating us on sustainable business practices. It will be interesting to see when accounting packages make it easier for businesses to measure these components, data which is then reported to the public for publicly traded companies.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *