Getting to the Bottom of “Triple Bottom Line”

 by Wayne Norman and Chris MacDonald

(Business Ethics Quarterly, April 2004)

In this paper, we examine critically the notion of “Triple Bottom Line” accounting. We begin by asking just what it is that supporters of the Triple Bottom line idea advocate, and attempt to distil specific, assessable claims from the vague, diverse, and sometimes contradictory uses of the Triple Bottom Line rhetoric. We then use these claims as a basis upon which to argue (a) that what is sound about the idea of a Triple Bottom Line is not novel, and (b) that what is novel about the idea is not sound. We argue on both conceptual and practical grounds that the Triple Bottom Line is an unhelpful addition to current discussions of corporate social responsibility. Finally, we argue that the Triple Bottom Line paradigm cannot be rescued simply by attenuating its claims: the rhetoric is badly misleading, and may in fact provide a smokescreen behind which firms can avoid truly effective social and environmental reporting and performance.

[Read the full pre-publication version here. PDF format, 260k]

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