Ardent Eden

Ardent Eden is a place to explore my thoughts about the interdependence of life - humanity and nature - and to engage with others for collective problem-solving.

Monday, December 05, 2005

What's Your Bottom Line?

I spent a lot of time in the car this weekend traveling back home after a couple of weeks out of town. Watching the landscape go by out the window simultaneously inspires me (how resilient nature is!) and depresses me (how destructive we are!). Either way, a road trip always makes me think about the big picture. And recently I'm finding that I can't think about the direction of our society and earth without seeing The Almighty Market's presence on the horizon. Corporate responsiblity has been cropping up on a regular basis, it seems. From analyzing the Wal-Mart movie to taking the Starbucks Challenge, a lot of us are concerned about the effect of "global corporatism" (Frances Moore Lappe's preferred term for globalization) on our society and our planet. We've decided that our government is too busy with "staying the course" in Iraq and concocting immoral budget bills to focus on the growing feeling of disconnect between what we as individuals want from a just society and what is being served up to us in big box stores, fast food restaurants, and a corporate-funded media. It's time for individuals to interact with corporations in new ways that go beyond the consumer-supplier relationship.

The recent emphasis on the so-called triple bottom line is heartening. Check this out for a brief background on this new way to analyze corporate results. Instead of thinking only about quarterly earnings - the traditional bottom line that measures corporate success - analyzing the triple bottom line gets us to look at two additional factors: social responsibility and environmental sustainability. This big picture approach makes good sense as a way to invest our money and make choices about the goods we buy. Using this approach can also remind us to think about the consequences of all of our actions on "the big picture."

So I've started to look more critically at all of my decisions during the day, starting with the most simple and mundane: paper, plastic or cloth? drive or walk to the store? fill up travel mug with organic Fair Trade coffee at home or try my luck at Starbucks where only 1.6% of the coffee is Fair Trade? And what I've found is that the right decisions often end up being good for more than just the traditional economic bottom line. A few examples:
  • I take a large canvas bag and three smaller hemp bags to the grocery store. Turns out that what's best for the environment is also slightly better economically thanks to the (small) discount that the market gives for bringing your own bags. It also saves my kitchen from being overrun with plastic bags.
  • When I decide to buy Christmas gifts at my local bookstore rather than a big box bookstore or Amazon, I am not contributing to the demand that makes corporate executives think that another large, anonymous book warehouse is needed in a new shopping center, my dollars are going back to my community, and I get some great personal recommendations from the owner.
  • I brew a pot of coffee in the morning and fill up my travel mug. I don't have to use a paper cup with plastic top and cardboard sleeve, I am sure that I am getting Fair Trade, organic, shade-grown coffee, and I save myself some money.
  • When I walk to the local co-op to buy groceries, I reduce the amount of carbon emissions that I'm responsible for while also saving money on ridiculous gas prices, refusing to support oil companies, and getting exercise.

You get the idea. Considering the triple bottom line just makes sense. When you get down to it, the right decision starts to seem obvious even if it's not the norm in today's low-cost, convenience-driven society. It's not always easy, but I'm committed to asking myself about how my actions affect the big picture today. Let's start there.


  • At 12:39 PM, Blogger Roger, Gone Green said…

    The concept of social responsibility as part of corporate measures of success is a good one -- and largely discouraged by corporate law. A corporation, particularly a publicly traded corporation is required to maximize profits for shareholders. Period. Anything not grounded in the basic mission of maximizing profits for shareholders puts corporate officials at risk of a shareholder lawsuit!

    Now, as it happens, some companies have put socially responsible factors into their process but always this will be tied to a business case for increased profitability as a result of either (1) responding to market demands to sell product or (2) creating corporate goodwill in order to sell product.

    (As an aside, both the law and market economics says that if a profit can be made by breaching one contract but paying damages to make the other party whole, then that is the rational and required action by a corporation. There are some who feel the same way about low level criminal conduct, although shareholder law would not support that.)

    This legal requirement for profit at any legal price and social cost is the core of the problem. There is a movement afoot to create corporate legislation to require a triple-bottom line much like what you described. If not required, it should at least be permitted.

    For a particularly radical description of the problem (even more radical than this Green, stay-at-home-dad, white-boy Buddhist would advocate see The Divine Right of Capital.

  • At 7:50 PM, Blogger Andrea Rusin said…

    Lovely post. Really!

    And Roger, your description of yourself describes my husband -23 years ago. He's still all those things EXCEPT a stay-at-home dad. Alas, you spend a lifetime raising independent children -and you end up with independent children! They grow up and move away, the little so-ans-sos!

  • At 8:42 PM, Blogger lauren said…

    As Roger rightly pointed out, a change in corporate law is necessary in order to effectively implement a triple bottom line in corporations. In the US, corporate law is governed by the state in which the corporation is incorporated, which is usually Delaware due to its well-established body of corporate law. One way that citizens can encourage corporations to take the social and environmental effects of their business into account, then, is to change the state corporate law that requires the purpose of a corporation to be the maximization of shareholder profit. The Citizens Works website has model legislation for a Code of Corporate Responsibility which could be adopted by the states. There are tools for organizing and sample letters to encourage state legislators to support implementing a corporate code that takes the public interest - not just the interest of shareholders to the greatest return on investment - into account. It's worth a read. And some action.


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