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Triple Bottom Line and Sustainability: A Literature Review
Triple bottom line (TBL) and sustainability are two related constructs that are used
interchangeably in the literature. A comprehensive review of the relevant literature was
conducted and revealed an inconsistent use of the term sustainability. On the other hand,
consistency in terms of referring to the three lines simultaneously is built into the structure of
TBL as the construct is explicitly based on the integration of the social, environmental, and
economic lines. The purpose of this paper is not to support an argument that favors the use of
one term over the other, but to provide an overview of the presence of both terms in the
literature. In light of that, researchers in the business, management, and sustainability fields are
encouraged to pay particular attention to how they use these terms in their studies.
Triple Bottom Line (TBL), Sustainability, Literature Review
Triple bottom line (TBL) is a sustainability-related construct that was coined by
Elkington (1997). The origin of sustainability may date back to over 130 years ago from an idea
known as spaceship earth (George, 1879/2009). Evolving over the years, the construct gained
significant popularity with the emergence of the term “sustainable development” from the
Brundtland Report in 1987. The report defined the term as the “development that meets the
needs of the present generations without compromising the ability of the future generations to
meet their own needs” (Brundtland, 1987, p 43). Driven by sustainability, TBL provides a
framework for measuring the performance of the business and the success of the organization
using three lines: economic, social, and environmental (Goel, 2010). In essence, TBL expresses
the expansion of the environmental agenda in a way that integrates the economic and social lines
(Elkington, 1997). In his definition of TBL, Elkington used the terms profit, people, and the
planet as the three lines. In this study, the economic, social, and environmental lines referred to
profit, people, and planet respectively.
Consistency in terms of referring to the three lines simultaneously is built into the
structure of TBL as the construct is explicitly based on the integration of the social,
environmental, and economic lines. Different than TBL, literature reviewed showed inconsistent
usage of the sustainability term. For example, some studies used sustainability to primarily refer
to the environmental line (Yan, Chen, & Chang, 2009). Others used the term to refer to the social
line (Bibri, 2008), while some used the term to refer to all three (Marcus & Fremeth, 2009). In
regards to balance, TBL places an equal level of importance on each of the three lines; this
brings more balance and coherence into the construct (Elkington, 1997; Epstein, 2008; Harmon,
Bucy, Nickbarg, Rao, & Wirtenberg, 2009; Russell, Abdul-Ali, Friend, & Lipsky, 2009; Savitz
& Weber, 2006). Other sustainability-related studies showed an imbalance in the level of
importance distributed among the three lines. For example, although many studies included the
economic line when referring to sustainability, the notion of its importance was limited (Collins,
Steg, & Konan, 2007). The literature review presented in this paper was part of a larger review
conducted by Alhaddi (2013). This paper presents an overview of sustainability, followed by
TBL, then concluded with few recommendations for researchers in the business, management,
and sustainability fields.
Similar to the definition of sustainable development in the Brundtland report, Hart and
Milsten (2003) defined sustainability as the expectations of improving the social and
environmental performance of the present generation without comprising the ability of future
generations to meet their social and environmental needs. Herman Daly’s measurement-based
definition of the term brought more environmental precision to the construct:
A sustainable society needs to meet three conditions: its rates of use of renewable
resources should not exceed their rates of regeneration; its rates of use of non-renewable
resources should not exceed the rate at which sustainable renewable substitutes are
developed; and its rates of pollution of emission should not exceed the assimilative
capacity of the environment. (Elkington, 1997, p. 55)
Despite the evolution of the sustainability construct, the essence of the idea remained the
same; it was still an issue of needs weighed against limitations. Continuing to emerge from the
spaceship earth idea and others like sustainable society (Santos & Filho, 2005), the authors
pointed out the consensus of these ideas with respect to society and the need for it to be in
balance with its surroundings. Further, sustainability was referred to as a fundamental and
complex construct that mandates the balance of several factors in order for the planet to
continually exist (Aras & Crowther, 2009). Yet, in its simplest form, sustainability refers to a
value and a belief of the enhancement and preservation of the natural environment (Shrivastava
& Hart, 1992). Originated decades ago and through the significant momentum gained with the
Brundtland Report (1987), the construct continued to gain attention becoming one of the most
leading issues facing the world due to continuous pressure from the society and the stakeholders
(Ambec & Lanoie, 2008; Epstein, 2008; Lippman, 2010). Several definitions of sustainability
were found in the literature; although they differed slightly based on the source, the core (with
respect to the society and the environment) remained the same. For example, according to
Dyllick and Hockerts (2002), sustainability represents the societal development and evolution in
the direction of a wealthy and more comfortable world where the natural environment and
cultural accomplishments are reserved for future generations. In addition to benefiting future
generations, sustainability delivers value and financial gains in the present.
The purpose of the literature review was not to support an argument of TBL versus
sustainability, but to shed light on how they appear in literature. The consensus in the research is
that TBL is a sustainability-related construct. The reason for selecting TBL over sustainability is
that TBL provides additional consistency and balance. First, TBL is a consistent construct in
terms of always referencing the economic, social, and environmental lines (Elkington, 1997).
Consistency is built into the structure of TBL as the construct is explicitly based on the
integration of the three lines. Second, TBL places an equal amount of emphasis on each of the
three lines, which brings more balance and coherence into the construct (Elkington, 1997;
Epstein, 2008; Harmon, Bucy, Nickbarg, Rao, & Wirtenberg, 2009; Russell, Abdul-Ali, Friend,
& Lipsky, 2009; Savitz & Weber, 2006). On the other hand, the literature reviewed showed a
large number of sustainability studies where the study topic was sustainability, yet the ultimate
focus was on either the environment or society. Some studies omitted the economic line, while
other studies combined more than one line (see Table 1).
Summary of Sustainability Studies
Sustainability Study Topic
Innovation in sustainability marketing
Sustainable corporate performance
Sustainability and consumer perceptions
Sustainability and product
Sustainability and marketing
Corporate sustainability and marketing
Collins, Steg, &
Blengini & Shields,
Frame & Newton,
McDonald & Oates,
Yan, Chen, & Chang,
Kirchgeorg & Winn,
As shown in Table 1, the appearance of the three lines was not consistent. Some
sustainability studies discussed one line only (Bibri, 2008; Blengini & Shields, 2010; Iles, 2008;
McDonald & Oates, 2006; Yan, Chen, & Chang, 2008). Other studies combined two or more
lines (Collins, Steg, & Koning, 2007; Dewangga, Goldsmith, & Pegram, 2008; Frame &
Newton, 2007; Kirchgeorg & Winn, 2006).
Note. Sample of the studies found in the sustainability literature where the title or the abstract
contained “sustainability” as the focus of the study.
Triple Bottom Line (TBL)
Referred to as “a brilliant and far-reaching metaphor” (Henriques, 2007, p. 26), the TBL
construct was coined by Elkington (1997). Prior to the late 1990s, the term was not significantly
known. Today, a basic Google search returns over three million web pages with the notion TBL,
up from 52,400 web pages in 2004 (Norman & MacDonal, 2004). In essence, TBL is another
construct that expresses the expansion of the environmental agenda in a way that integrates the
economic and social lines (Elkington, 1997). TBL provides a framework for measuring the
performance of the business and the success of the organization using the economic, social, and
environmental lines (Goel, 2010). The term has also been referred to as the practical framework
of sustainability (Rogers & Hudson, 2011). Targeted toward corporations, the TBL agenda puts
a consistent and balanced focus on the economic, social, and environmental value provided by
Economic line. The economic line of TBL framework refers to the impact of the
organization’s business practices on the economic system (Elkington, 1997). It pertains to the
capability of the economy as one of the subsystems of sustainability to survive and evolve into
the future in order to support future generations (Spangenberg, 2005). The economic line ties the
growth of the organization to the growth of the economy and how well it contributes to support
it. In other words, it focuses on the economic value provided by the organization to the
surrounding system in a way that prospers it and promotes for its capability to support future
Social line. The social line of TBL refers to conducting beneficial and fair business
practices to the labor, human capital, and to the community (Elkington, 1997). The idea is that
these practices provide value to the society and “give back” to the community. Examples of
these practices may include fair wages and providing health care coverage. Aside from the
moral aspect of being “good” to the society, disregarding social responsibility can affect the
performance and sustainability of the business. Recent examples in the industries have revealed
that there are economic costs associated with ignoring social responsibility. For instance, during
the 2002 civic elections in the Bay area of California, the public voted against the establishment
of a Home Depot due to their perception of its negative residential impact as a neighbor
(Dhiman, 2008). The social performance focuses on the interaction between the community and
the organization and addresses issues related to community involvement, employee relations, and
fair wages (Goel, 2010).
Environmental line. The environmental line of TBL refers to engaging in practices that
do not compromise the environmental resources for future generations. It pertains to the
efficient use of energy recourses, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and minimizing the
ecological footprint, etc. (Goel, 2010). Similar to the social aspect of TBL, environmental
initiatives impact the business sustainability of the organizations. An analysis by Kearney
(2009) was done on 99 sustainability-focused organizations across 18 industries to examine the
impact of environmental activities on the performance of the organization. The industries in the
analysis varied from technology, automotive, and chemical to food, media, retail, and tourism.
The analysis period lasted for six months and the research methodology aimed toward
determining whether organizations with sustainable practices are more likely to withstand the
economic downturn. The sample of the study included sustainability-focused organizations that
were part of the Dow Jones Index. The analysis was done in two phases: a three-month phase
and a six-month phase. The analysis revealed that during the current economic downturn,
organizations with practices that are geared toward protecting the environment and improving
the social well-being of the stakeholders while adding value to the shareholders have
outperformed their industry peers financially. The financial advantage has resulted from reduced
operational costs (energy and water usage, etc.) and increased revenues from the development of
innovative green products (Kearney, 2009).
This paper presents an overview of the presence of TBL and sustainability in the relevant
literature. Surveying the literature showed an inconsistent usage of sustainability where several
studies used the term but were in fact referring to one or two of the three known lines (society,
environment, and economy). Used interchangeably, TBL and sustainability are related
constructs; however, there seems to be an inconsistent use of sustainability. The results from the
literature survey as shown in this paper encourage researchers pay particular attention to the
usage of the sustainability term in their research. Therefore, if the researcher elects to use
sustainability in light of the social, environmental, and economic pillars (or lines), the work
should explicitly state that.
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