The ‘People’ Component of the Triple Bottom Line Has Taken a Backseat to Profit and Planet. Here’s Why That’s Changing and How to Get Involved.

If you’ve ever given thought to terms like “corporate social responsibility” or “social equity,” it’s no wonder; since the mid-1990s, companies have increasingly embraced their roles and responsibilities as global citizens rather than mere profit mechanisms. This shift was due in part to pioneering ideas put forth by visionaries like author and sustainability consultant John Elkington, who coined the phrase “Triple Bottom Line”—a three-pronged framework for business that places equal emphasis on people, planet and profit.

Although it seems industry has wholeheartedly embraced income and the environment, as evidenced by the mainstream adoption of sustainable design practices, for example, the social side of the sustainability equation is out of balance.

“If you think about people, planet and profit and the Triple Bottom Line, all of us have been more focused on the planet/profit side and less focused on the people side,” explains Holley Henderson, founder of H2 Ecodesign, Atlanta. One of the reasons for this disparity is because social impacts can be somewhat difficult to measure.

“One problem with the Triple Bottom Line is that the three separate accounts cannot easily be added up. It is difficult to measure the planet and people accounts in the same terms as profits—that is, in terms of cash,” according to The Economist. “The full cost of an oil-tanker spillage, for example, is probably immeasurable in monetary terms, as is the cost of displacing whole communities to clear forests, or the cost of depriving children of their freedom to learn in order to make them work at a young age.”

Nevertheless, Henderson says the tide is changing with regard to industry’s focus on humanity and social outcomes, particularly within the built environment. She notes with the emergence of programs like the WELL Building Standard, an evidence based system for measuring, certifying and monitoring the performance of building features that impact health and wellbeing, social outcomes are emerging as “a forefront trend”.

See the Bigger Picture

So, what exactly are the social implications of doing business today and how are they tied to our infrastructure? The answer is somewhat unclear because understanding the full implications of design and architecture on social justice is an ongoing pursuit. However, as John Peterson, curator of the Loeb Fellowship at Cambridge, Mass.-based Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design and founder of Public Architecture, a San Francisco-based organization that facilitates pro bono design services, says, identifying social outcomes can begin with rather ordinary, yet accessible ideas that ultimately help define quality of life.

For example, considering the types of communities we build, he asks, “Do people engage with one another on the street in a positive way? Do we have choice? Can you walk to the market?” Peterson says simple factors, such as whether houses have front porches and neighborhoods are walkable or they have access to retail, as well as larger policy decisions about where people can live based on exclusionary zoning, are issues that need to be addressed. Such considerations may seem pedestrian on the surface but they are ultimately rooted in social equity.

“Other things that are obvious are health outcomes,” Peterson continues. “The materials we use [in buildings], the exposure people have to good things or bad things—it’s very direct.”

Henderson agrees there is a corollary relationship between the built environment and social outcomes. She participated in a recent education curriculum development project for Bristol, Va.-based Universal Fibers Inc., partnered with Masland Contract, Saraland, Ala., and says three major trends were identified: reuse of materials (see “Trend Alert”, July-August issue, page 67), health and social issues. “We also talked about how all three things overlap—how you can see social benefits if you reuse things and how you can see health benefits if you’re socially responsible, etc.”

Even something as simple as exposure to natural daylight, which Peterson notes “is pretty well researched as a positive force in our daily lives,” can be a starting point for addressing the social impact of the environments we create. And the opportunities to make a difference are ripe for those who are able to see the forest for the trees.

“We spend the vast majority of our time within an environment that we construct, and if the environment has an impact on our lives and how we interact with one another, and we are not thoughtful or understand how it has an impact on our lives, then we are obviously missing an opportunity to participate—for the built environment or decisions around the built environment—in these larger social goals,” Peterson observes.

About the Author

Robert Nieminen
Robert Nieminen is a freelance writer; the former editor of Interiors & Sources magazine; and retrofit’s editor at large, specializing in interiors. Under his direction, Interiors & Sources was the recipient of several publishing awards, as well as a pioneer of sustainability reporting.

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