Another Bottom Line

A growing number of people appear to be interested in considering environmental issues when they make major decisions… but how do you consider the environment?

Legislators often get it wrong, or less right than they might. For example, when CFCs were banned because they were depleting the ozone layer, the replacement HCFCs were less damaging in this regard, but they were powerful greenhouse gases. Thus you might be spared a skin cancer of the kind we were all worrying about in the 1980s, but you (or you food supply) will be at increased risk from extreme weather events as the planet warms. Similarly, legislation promoted compact fluorescent lightbulbs because they save energy when compared to the incandescent kind, but (among a number of problems) they contain mercury: a horribly toxic material that we really don’t need any more of in our homes. All too often, you solve one problem, and introduce another.

CFL bulb

Compact Fluorescent Lamps: love them or loathe them?

Lead-free solder seeks to address the problem of toxicity, but the new material requires higher processing temperatures, and introduces reliability problems. Wind turbines provide a low-carbon energy source, but are said to harm the tourist trade and present a hazard to migrating birds…

Basically, you can’t improve matters unless you understand the ‘big picture’, and are prepared to tackle some difficult compromises. It’s always been about tradeoffs. Elkington [1994] showed us this with a call for ‘Triple Bottom Line’ (TBL) accounting, seeking solutions that are socially just, environmentally sound and commercially viable. Virtually all sustainability practitioners are familiar with the Venn Diagram representation of the TBL, and accept that sustainability is found only at the intersection of the three sets.

Triple Bottom Line (TBL)

The concept of the Triple Bottom Line, expressed as a Venn Diagram

This helps a little bit because we can see that in order to find solutions that meet all three requirements, we might need to make compromises. Large businesses address this need through their corporate social responsibility programmes; perhaps funding local development or improvement schemes in exchange for being allowed to do business in a certain place. In effect, they take a (small) hit on profitability in order to win hearts and minds through their handling of social or environmental issues.

The idea that wind turbines on hillsides are hurting the tourist trade because they spoil the view demands that we (or rather, our legislators) make a choice between low-carbon energy and the profitability of a local industry: weighing planet vs. profit. Not all tradeoffs cross the boundaries between TBL categories, however: the concern that our renewable, low-carbon energy source might chop visiting guillemots into a feathery pink mist is a planet vs. planet tradeoff. That makes things complicated.

What I have come to suspect is that we need a fourth bottom line. In this, I am not alone. In the context of land management, Williamson and Wallace [2007] added governance standards as a fourth dimension. In sustainable tourism, Tjolle [2008] split the ‘people’ dimension into social and cultural–ethical, and Hughey and Coleman [2007] applied the same subdivision in a study of local government. Mahoney and Potter [2004] also effectively subdivided ‘people’ when they specifically represented health impact assessments as a fourth category, while for Burke [2006], the fourth dimension was spirituality. Other practitioners have added yet more.

Me, though, I want to divide the ‘planet’ category into two. I believe that there are two kinds of environmental consideration: the local and the global. To call all environmental considerations ‘planet’ is to misunderstand the subtleties of the natural system that we are trying to defend through environmental accounting. My hypothetical “guillemots versus wind turbines” quandary shows a tradeoff that requires us to weigh how much we value local wildlife against the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that affect the whole world.

It’s difficult to draw a Venn Diagram with four sets. Strictly speaking, it’s impossible, because a Venn Diagram should use circles, and with four circles you don’t get all the necessary overlaps. If you use ellipses instead of circles it’s possible: you can see my proposed Quadruple Bottom Line diagram below.

Quadruple bottom line

Conceptual Venn Diagram for a Quadruple Bottom Line.

Pretty. But does it do much? Well, not on its own. It still requires inventive thinking from stakeholders if solutions are to be found… but humanity’s experience with lightbulbs, refrigerants, electronics, power generation and everything else suggests that we’re an inventive species. Coming up with solutions isn’t the problem; it’s in understanding the consequences that we stumble. Perhaps a system of Quadruple Bottom Line accounting will help.

As a first step, the diagram below attempts to categorise a variety of issues that a legislator might come up against.

Issues allocated to a quadruple bottom line

Initial categorisation of issues, using a Quadruple Bottom Line approach.

The ‘big problem’ is that while we’re very good at accounting when it relates to trade – where we have mechanisms such as the market, banking, audits and currency as a medium of exchange – the science of measuring harm, hurt or waste in a more general context is far less developed. How bad does the smell from a local business have to become before residents can demand recompense? How much is a species of butterfly worth? Is traffic congestion a worse problem than water shortages?

Clearly, the hard work has yet to be done.




Burke, R. (2006) Leadership and spirituality, Foresight, 8(6), pp. 14–25

Elkington, J. (1994) Towards the sustainable corporation: Win-win-win business strategies for sustainable development, California Management Review, Vol. 36, no. 2, pp. 90–100

Hughey, K.F.D. and Coleman, D.C. (2007). Adding another top and bottom line to Sustainability thinking in small to medium sized local authorities – application to a small New Zealand local authority. Proceedings of the 2007 ANZSEE Conference, 3–6 July 2007, Noosa Lakes, Queensland

Mahoney, M. and Potter, J-L. (2004) Integrating health impact assessment into the triple bottom line concept, Environmental Impact Assessment Review, Vol. 24, pp. 151–160

Tjolle, V. (2008) Your Quadruple Bottom Line: Sustainable Tourism Opportunity, SMILE Conference, 27 May 2008, Dublin, Ireland

Williamson, I.P. and Wallace, J. (2007) New Roles of Land Administration System, in proceedings of the International Workshop on Good Land Administration – Its Role in Economic Development, 27–29 June, 2007, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia


4 thoughts on “Another Bottom Line

    • Thank you! I’d been incubating it for several years, in the hope of writing an academic paper that never quite materialised. I’m glad to have finally shared it with somebody who found it to be of interest.

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