Triple Bottom Line

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The shift needed for sustainability
Peter A.C. Smith
The Leadership Alliance Inc., Brechin, Canada, and

The shift needed for sustainability


Carol Sharicz
Suffolk University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Purpose – The purpose of this action research is to begin to assess to what extent organizations have in practice begun to make the shift towards triple bottom line (TBL) sustainability. Design/methodology/approach – A definition of TBL sustainability is provided, and key elements of TBL sustainability considered necessary to success are identified based on current literature and public commentary. An assessment is made via published surveys and an action research study of how these components are being addressed now and for the future. The action research study involved the design and launching of a Zoomerang survey that was posted both in the USA and on international websites and blogs. Findings – The synthesis from the research reveals a lack of a clear definition of sustainability which sets in motion a whole systemic dynamic. The data from the action research exemplify this dynamic. First, there is a pattern of adopting a short-term focus and expediency in decision making. Second, problem solving favors the “quick fix” over thoughtful consideration and development of the key components for sustainability. The research may also lead to questioning the urgency of implementing the very complex systemic TBL sustainability at this time in view of widespread climate concerns, versus concentrating on the more straightforward carbon footprint reduction. Research limitations/implications – A major implication is the pressing need to clearly define sustainability and its organizational implications. Organizations must then make the shift from a short-term perspective to more of a long-term perspective, such that the clearly defined sustainability concerns will be addressed. Research conclusions are based on limited published data and a single survey; further research is required to substantiate the conclusions. Practical implications – Sustainability is making some inroads in organizations but far too many organizations are only “going through the motions” with predictable results for overall need for improvement. A cohesive, clear linkage among the defining characteristics of sustainability, and guidelines for implementation, are proposed in this paper. Originality/value – This action research presents data on how sustainability is actually viewed and implemented in organizations, and suggests from a systemic point of view which critical components of sustainability are yet to be seriously addressed. Keywords Governance, Culture, Leadership, Learning organizations, Measurement, Decision making, Sustainable development Paper type Research paper

1. Introduction Global attitudes concerning ethical operation of companies continue to harden in the wake of scandals and disasters, and pressure continues to mount for companies to take into account not only the simple profit-related bottom line of the business operations, but to adopt a three-dimensional triple bottom-line (TBL) sustainability perspective. We define TBL sustainability as the result of the activities of an organization, voluntary or governed by law, that demonstrate the ability of the organization to

The Learning Organization Vol. 18 No. 1, 2011 pp. 73-86 q Emerald Group Publishing Limited 0969-6474 DOI 10.1108/09696471111096019

TLO 18,1


maintain viable its business operations (including financial viability as appropriate) whilst not negatively impacting any social or ecological systems. The purpose of this action research is to begin to assess to what extent organizations have in practice begun to make this shift towards TBL sustainability. The authors first examine the efficacy of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) reports to...
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