Triple Bottom Line

In case you’re not familiar, Triple Bottom Line (TBL) is a framework for looking at a business’ output (for example, their net profit) with three lenses: social, environmental and financial. To put it in a more catchy way, to evaluate a business’ success by 3 bottom lines: “profit, people, and planet.” The term was coined by John Elkington in 1994. Since then there has been much thought about what it means in the real world.

I won’t try to summarize all the opinions out there. Instead, as we’re over 6 years into a TBL business, I’d like to share my current real world opinion.

Confession: I’m a naive Millennial who believes I can change the world. We established Overflow as an L3C social enterprise because of our mission (the impact we want to make on the planet and the people who live here). Honestly, we thought it would be a lot easier to be profitable but, turns out, it’s not.

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I wouldn’t change our approach though. We have learned so much in the struggle to be profitable and we’ve done it while making the world a better of a place for coffee, tea, and chocolate growers, for the city of Chicago, and for our environment. Others have found “success” in business by first becoming profitable and then using the money they make to make a difference. I applaud them and urge them on toward greater financial, social, and environmental good. But that’s just not me and my journey…

I’m an activist first and a business person second. I’ve learned that if Overflow isn’t profitable then it’s not sustainable. If we’re not sustainable, then we won’t have the impact we want to have. But, when it comes down to it, if I can’t achieve the social and environmental returns I want, then it doesn’t matter how much money I make. I am who I am. I’m an activist first and a business person second.

So the question with TBL becomes, how are you going to rank your outputs? What’s most important — money, people, or planet? What’s least important — money, people or planet? Make a decision and build your business accordingly. Stay authentic my friends!

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