Friday, September 09, 2005

Beyond the Triple Bottom Line: A New Standard for 21st Century Commerce

By William McDonough and Michael Braungart

The UN's Our Common Future, linked corporate resource efficiency to human and environmental health. Our conception of "Intelligent Products" provided a design strategy that recognized the interdependence of economy, ecology, and equity. And John Elkington's triple bottom line became a useful tool for measuring corporate performance against this trio of concerns.

"Reduce, reuse, recycle" is the new business mantra. And the triple bottom line is replacing purely economic metrics.

In practice, however, measuring performance at the bottom line tends to be a balancing act between economic value and environmental liabilities. For example, if the environmental impact of a profitable product has been minimized by a more efficient use of materials, its performance likely meets the triple bottom line. But if the material itself is unsafe, as is often the case, then efficient manufacturing is merely slowing down ecological destruction - a rather dispiriting measure of quality.

Globally sourced materials are rarely, if ever, assessed, so many "lean-thinking" U.S. companies are applying efficiency measures to toxic materials. The result: cheap products, expensive waste management systems, and rising health care costs - all of which add up to a very dull competitive edge in the global marketplace.

Why not a sustaining industrial system built on a new definition of quality? From our perspective, quality is embodied in designs that allow industry to enhance the well being of nature and culture while generating economic value. Ultimately, quality design follows the laws of nature to create products, processes and facilities so ecologically intelligent they leave footprints to delight in rather than lament. In these new human systems, materials become food for the soil or flow back to industry forever.

The triple top line's positive aspirations often begin in one sector and end up generating value in many others.

By 2012 we hope to see millions of designs such as these celebrating life in diverse and wonderful ways and creating a world in which all children are nourished with fresh healthy food, affordable health care, and a generous prosperity that honors the laws of nature. Instead of a world of laments, a world full of hope for the future and respect for the Earth's abundant gifts.


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