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When a Sustainability ‘Concept’ Proves Its Point, Do We Still Need It?

Twenty-five years after the term “triple bottom line,” or TBL, was coined by John Elkington, the author and environmentalist has announced a “recall” on the phrase.

John Elkington came up with the phrase 25 years ago as a way for companies to begin considering social and environmental performance in addition to economic performance; two weeks ago, Elkington wrote in the Harvard Business Review that he is asking for a “strategic recall to do some fine tuning,” believing that the idea of the TBL is not going far enough and must be reevaluated.

But another environmental expert, Stephen Ashkin of The Ashkin Group, disagrees that a new concept is necessary. Sustainability, having proven its worth, is no longer just a concept, and no such fine-tuning is needed, he says.


Out with the Old…

The sustainability sector has grown rapidly – it now stands at around $1 billion in annual revenues globally and is (conservatively) estimated to reach over $12 trillion a year by 2030. But that’s not enough, Elkington wrote. Success or failure cannot simply be a factor of profit and loss, but must also be measured in terms of the wellbeing of the planet and the people who inhabit it. And our record on meeting those goals has been “decidedly mixed,” with climate, water, forests and other resources being increasingly threatened.

Sustainability frameworks like the triple bottom line will not be enough as long as they lack “the suitable pace and scale – the necessary radical intent – needed to stop us all overshooting our planetary boundaries,” he wrote, adding, “hence the need for a recall.”

Elkington believes a new concept will evolve, one that is based on TBL but that takes the idea to the next level.


…And In with the (No Longer Really) New?

Stephen Ashkin, a consultant and advocate for sustainability in the professional cleaning industry, says sustainability has already evolved to the point where a new “concept” is unnecessary. Sustainability is about efficiency – the efficient use of resources in order to operate effectively and profitably – and efficiency has already more than proven its value.

For example, Ashkin says, members of cleaning industry trade association ISSA that have been involved in a program focused on improving and tracking warehouse efficiency have saved, on average, more than $20,000 annually in operating costs from reduced consumption of energy, water, fuel, and other metrics.

His point? Efficiency is no longer a concept – it’s real and practical. “It’s all about taking tangible steps to reduce consumption and waste, ultimately lowering operating costs,” Ashkin says. “Efficiency has already proved its value.”

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