What is the Triple Bottom Line and How it Applies to the Internet

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You may have heard a lot of talk about “the triple bottom line” lately, and you may be wondering just what the triple bottom line is. The triple bottom line (also expressed as TBL, 3BL, or “people, planet, profit”) is a way of measuring an organization’s social and enviromental impacts as well as its financial health.

The term “triple bottom line” is most often attributed to John Elkington, of SustainAbility. Elkington used the term “triple bottom line” in his 1998 book Cannibals with Forks: the Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business.

However, the term seems to have become more popular – and certainly more common – in the past few years.

While the concept of the triple bottom line analysis can be applied to individual businesses and organizations (and arguably should be), it also applies to projects, and even broader systems, such as entire industries (or subsets thereof), or even countries. Recently a triple bottom line analysis was applied to the country of Australia, for example.

So what does this have to do with the Internet?

In the present economy, Internet businesses are floating to the top as, often, the least impacted by the current economic downturn. On first appearance, Internet businesses also appear to offer a more fair and favourable social and environmental impact. Many people who might otherwise not be able to earn a sustainable income are able to do so via the Internet, such as at-home parents, seniors, and disabled persons.

And certainly online businesses would seem to have a reduced impact on the environment. People tend to think of the Internet as an ephemeral world, with no real embodiment, and thus no real impact on the “real” world.

And it is true that some Internet-based businesses or projects have little environmental impact – at least negative impact, and substantial social and/or economic impact. (Take for example our own Dushanbe relief effort.)

 

The problem is that Internet businesses are often perceived to be more environmentally positive just by virtue of their being an Internet business. But of course that’s not always true.

Consider an Internet-based business like Amazon. In 2006, Amazon reported shipping costs of $317 million. Think about the packing materials, and air and ground transportation resources, that suggests. In one year.

Or how about Internet businesses that allow you to shoot animals over the Internet? What sort of social and environmental impact would you suggest they have?

Even Google, which is arguably the quintessential Internet business – and certainly highly profitable – may not appear so rosy under a triple bottom line analysis. Google’s camera-carrying streetview vans carry with them both an automotive environmental impact, and a social policy issue of privacy, which has been tested at least once in court, and which has invaded privacy to the extent of publishing a picture of a woman urinating.

The bottom line (no pun intended) is that a triple bottom line analysis changes the way that we view businesses and projects, industries and even countries. And a triple bottom line analysis of the Internet may surprise many.

In fact, we propose that a triple bottom line analysis of the Internet would make a great PhD thesis project. Any takers?

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