Triple Top Line

Note: This is the third in a series of posts on the ideas that influenced my thinking on the Ecosystem.  William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s book Cradle to Cradle was essential in giving me a vocabulary to speak about the amorphous ideas that had been oozing through my brain, so the first few posts in this series will be built around concepts from McDonough and Braungart’s books.

Companies that like to be seen as eco-friendly often point to their consideration of the triple bottom line of their business.  The triple bottom line – people, planet and profits – only comes into consideration at the end of the decision making process. 

To illustrate this, I’ve created a hypothetical scenario involving a carpet manufacturer.

The company has a strong product line with a reputation for quality.  These are carpets that can last 10-15 years, and the company’s customers are willing to pay a bit more.  However, the company has been getting an increasing number of questions about the sustainability of its products and the low wages it pays to workers in its factories overseas.  The company board decides that it’s time to address these concerns.

The board visits one of the company’s factories, and notices that the chemicals used to glue the carpet together are causing respiratory issues in some workers.  The entire production process is pretty toxic, if they’re honest, but it’s something of a necessary evil.  After all, all their competitors use the same materials.

To reduce harm that their process causes, the company decides to offer health care to the factory workers and asks an engineer to redesign the portions of the assembly that cause the most health issues.  While those decisions are being implemented, the company diverts a day’s worth of production and provides free carpet to the workers.  They make sure a photographer is on hand to document their generosity.

A staff scientist is tasked to find a way to decrease the carpet’s environmental impact.  While the carpet does last for a good amount of time, the production process mixes wool with plastics and toxic chemicals, meaning that the carpet doesn’t degrade cleanly in a biological system.  It doesn’t release much in the way of toxic chemicals during normal use, but when it is incinerated or sent to a landfill, the chemicals will be released into the environment and cause problems for the local biological cycles.  The staff scientist – who has seen several great ideas emerge from research to be squashed by leadership for being too different and dangerous – notices that he can use up to 10% recycled water bottles in the carpet without a loss of quality or feel.  It takes a few additional chemicals and adds several extra steps to the supply chain for the manufacturer.

The scientist writes up a report on his findings and is surprised when his idea is hailed as the next green breakthrough in carpets.  The company rushes to put his process in practice, rolling out the carpets in stores with a green themed advertising campaign.  Since the new process requires additional steps and suppliers, the company leverages lines of credit to open up new accounts.  And, under the new worker safety rules, the new chemicals added to the process must be stored separately and worked with under tightly controlled conditions.  The new carpet is $2 more expensive per square foot when compared to the company’s other lines, but it plays to the customer’s desire to feel ‘green’ and sells well enough to justify the debt the company took on.

Good situation, right?  The customer is happy, the company is profitable, and the carpet now requires more energy and toxic chemicals to create while still ending up in a landfill after 10-15 years.

Less bad, but miles away from good.

What else could have happened in this scenario?

Instead of trying to improve upon a bad product, the staff scientist could have gone back to the drawing board.  By starting with a list of all the carpet’s inputs, the scientist could have eliminated all materials that were negative or questionable, and built a carpet that performed just as well using only materials that were neutral or beneficial to the health and well being of the factory workers, the consumers, and the environment.

Think that’s not possible?  In Cradle to Cradle, McDonough and Braungart describe working with the Swiss textile company Rohner.  The company created upholstery fabric, and had just been told that the fabric trimmings were classified as hazardous waste that had to be disposed of outside the country.  McDonough and Braungart started with a list of 38 materials with only positive qualities, and created a fabric that could be produced safely, performed as well as or better than its chemical laden counterpart, and could be composted at the end of its use.  In fact, the factory manager reported that, after the fabric went into production, the water flowing out of the factory was actually cleaner than the city-treated water flowing in!

But, let’s say that it’s not possible to eliminate all the chemicals or materials that would cause problems in a landfill.  There are still ways to prevent the hypothetical company’s carpet from ending up in a landfill.  What if the company could pick up the carpet after a consumer tired of it, and cycle the contents into new carpet?  This could take the form of a carpet lease, a rebate or security deposit returned to the consumer when the carpet is returned, or a buy back program.  The consumer gets new carpet (which face it, new stuff is fun) and the company retains a customer and retains use of materials which they would otherwise lose.  All it would take are a few design tweaks to allow the carpet components to be easily separated to recycle like materials with like.

The triple top line offers an opportunity to build benefits into every aspect of a product.  Instead of trying to improve upon an inherently flawed process, it allows for the creation of flawless processes from every angle – sustainability, total health of the worker, consumer, company and environment, and increased profitability.