swan at the edge of a lake

CEOs won’t do anything that hurts the bottom line

Bullshit all you like; the bottom line is singular

Robert Reich, the American economist who was US Secretary of Labor in the Clinton​​ administration, is adamant that corporate social responsibility is bullshit because 

And I have to agree.

The bottom line is singular despite all the rhetoric for triples and even quadruples.

John Elkington, in his book Green Swans, seems to think otherwise. He borrows the swan analogy blatantly from the excellent Nassim Taleb whilst managing not to understand what Taleb meant by his black swans — it’s not just that they are wrong; indeed, they may be good for some. It is that they are unpredictably rare yet inevitable.

After outlining many of the disasters and absurdities that capitalism has imposed on everyone through unfettered resource use and waste, Elkington would have us believe that a shift in thinking among CEOs is still possible. He seems to adopt this notion because he thinks a handful of them might be thinking about it.

Seeing the glass as half-full can make anything look optimistic. However, to mix the metaphors, the frog in the saucepan of water thought everything was fine at the halfway point.

Only in 2018 John Elkington decided to make a “management concept recall” of his 25-year-old accountability concept, the triple bottom line, just as companies sometimes must do with faulty products. He coined the term as a challenge for business leaders to rethink capitalism and “stop focusing solely on profits and expand their focus to include improving the lives of people and the health of the planet”, but has concluded that TBL has been reduced to a mere accounting tool, a way of balancing trade-offs instead of doing things differently. 

I guess one strand of evidence to prompt the product recall was that the TBL concept had morphed into corporate social responsibility or CSR for many companies. Indeed, who could argue that accounting for social and environmental consequences of actions were anything if not responsible? 

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a self-regulating business model that helps a company be socially accountable—to itself, its stakeholders, and the public. By practicing corporate social responsibility, also called corporate citizenship, companies can be conscious of the kind of impact they are having on all aspects of society, including economic, social, and environmental.


CSR is the extension into public relations and marketing of the TBL accounting approach. But as the definition suggests, it is just an idea, a self-regulating way of thinking.

I think about it for a bit and then move on to profiteering. Although because I spent time thinking about my responsibility I am responsible. Bullshit becomes so much easier.

Elkington would have us avoid the pungent waste of CSR by looking for Green Swans instead.

This Green Swan definition implies the win-win-win version of the triple bottom line; a delightful but naive option from the much more likely win-lose outcomes of resource use.

Obviously, Reich favours government action and Elkington that corporations can somehow invent green birds…

Nassim Taleb is the pragmatic one. With his Black Swans, he reminds everyone that unpredictable disturbance is inevitable and natural no matter how you operate in the world.

What sustainably FED suggests…

Our experience across business, government and NGOs is that nobody truly understands disturbance, predictable or otherwise. Companies are ill-prepared for disruption but they know we are suckers for a good news story and they churn them out for the feel-good they generate.

It can be TBL, CSR or absurdly coloured birds, the message is a distraction from the negative consequences of protecting the prime directive, profits. Classic smoke and mirrors.

The worrying trend is that this neo-liberal agenda has taken over politics to the point that not even the politicians know the difference between politics and policy, happily ignoring the latter. We wonder if the government is even capable of figuring out the law changes Robert Reich deems necessary.

We have zero expectation that corporations will rethink capitalism. Someone else must do it for them. This can’t be the government or the bureaucracy that supports them for both have lost the plot. 

Academics are having a go, but they lack dress sense.

The best person to figure this all out and return responsibility to the world is you.

More on the TBL…

Win-win-win | Explaining the triple bottom line approach

Hero image modified from photo by Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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