Getting Up to Speed on Triple Bottom Line Reporting

Getting Up to Speed on Triple Bottom Line Reporting

I'm a relative newcomer to the concept of sustainability in business, so when I learned about a workshop on Triple Bottom Line Reporting offered by Sustainable Seattle, I figured it might be a good place to get me up to speed.

I was right. Sustainable Seattle, a non-profit organization founded in 1991 that promotes urban sustainability, had brought together a number of organizations for the event, and thankfully there were other sustainability 'newbies' like me at the workshop: Small and medium-sized business owners; employees who are getting their triple bottom line reporting effort off the ground; consultants, students and volunteers who are learning about or managing the economic, environmental and social impacts of business.

According to the workshop description, the event was intended to help participants:

• Recognize the frameworks and performance areas of triple bottom line reports;
• Identify indicators appropriate for an organization's triple bottom line report;
• Review drivers, risks and liabilities to issuing a report;
• Understand the factors for successful implementation of a triple bottom line report.

The workshop was led by Laura Musikanski, executive director of Sustainable Seattle, a non-governmental organization that is actively measuring sustainability across the greater Puget Sound region through, an open source, web-based tool that identifies and tracks 24 goals. Sustainable Seattle is also known nationally and internationally for its sustainability indicators.

The workshop began with an overview by Musikanski of sustainability and the various paths organizations take to sustainability integration -- from basic compliance to strategic intent. "Some say sustainability is too complex for businesses to achieve, but it's easier if you break it into pieces," she said.

Musikanski suggested that sustainability is practiced by managing environmental, social and economic impacts. Companies can begin this process by looking for the intercepts, or synergies, across these areas of performance. "Fortunately, most companies are doing more than just making profits so this is a good starting point for triple bottom line reporting," Musikanski added.

She noted the quick growth of triple bottom reporting in recent years -- from 27 reports registered in 1992 to more than 3,600 in 2009. "We've come a long way in sustainability reporting," Laura said. "Today we are seeing a lot more people reading corporate social responsibility reports, and companies are also promoting their sustainability efforts on pamphlets and beverage cups," she added.

Establish a Common Language

Musikanski indicated it is important to find a common language around sustainability in order to make progress. "In the industrial era, we used the language of profit. In this new era of sustainability, we need a common language for what we've done so far and what we want to do," Musikanski said.

She emphasized that one way to establish this common language is through the effective use of graphics. To demonstrate the point, Musikanski turned the workshop over to presenter Burr Stewart, a consultant who specializes in communicating about sustainability using visual tools.

Stewart shared a number of graphics that companies could use to share their economic, environmental and social performance with stakeholders. "My favorite idea of a triple bottom line report would be a large poster that visually communicates what a company is engaged in and the benefits and costs of each activity," Stewart said.

Sustainability Reporting Mechanisms

In the second half of the day, Musikanski talked about the various frameworks and measurement methods that companies are using for triple bottom line reporting. These include the existing ISO 14001 series (and pending ISO 26000 series), SRI Indices, Principles for Global Corporate Responsibility, Agenda 21, as well as the internationally-known and used Global Reporting Initiative (GRI).

Attendees then reviewed the GRI framework in detail, looking at the recommended performance indicators, and specific core and additional aspects that companies can use to measure and report performance.

Musikanski noted that GRI is not telling companies how to perform, but telling them what to measure. "Ethical businesses don't necessarily report very well. And, in my opinion, some companies get a good grade from GRI for reporting on every aspect, but they are not necessarily operating their businesses in a sustainable way," she said.

For the afternoon workshop exercise, attendees received a checklist of the standard components of a triple bottom line report. Next the group reviewed and discussed recent corporate sustainability reports from companies such as Vodafone, Nike, Coca-Cola, Dow, Chubb, Con-Agra and ENI. (Note: You can find these reports online at

According to Musikanski, some companies closely follow the GRI framework to organize their report; other companies look at triple bottom line reporting in terms of sustainability and profit, or water and basic needs. "We are also seeing reports become more glossy and marketing-friendly," she said.

Reporting Best Practices

To summarize the day, Musikanski outlined triple bottom line reporting best practices, including:

• Prioritize -- make choices about what your company reports based on stakeholder interest and what aspects your company can control or influence;
• Quantify -- establish benchmarks, measure progress, and use numbers and graphs that are comparable and understandable;
• Standardize -- follow GRI and industry practices and verify facts by hiring an accountant or other third-party entity to validate;
• Message -- tell the story in a language and medium that resonates with your audience.

The second day of the workshop, which I was unable to attend, covered regional indicators for sustainability, risks and liabilities with triple bottom line reporting, greenhouse gas emissions and life cycle analysis, and project-specific triple bottom line reporting and decision making.

Looking ahead at what is to come with triple bottom line reporting, Musikanski said: "I'm truly hopeful since I see companies setting -- and meeting -- goals beyond profitability."

Debbie Van Der Hyde is an experienced freelance writer with a strong interest in sustainability, clean energy and the green industry. For more than a decade, she has helped organizations effectively communicate their brand and promote their products and services through feature articles, brochures, video scripts, podcasts, web copy and more. Now Debbie is expanding her writing repertoire through blogging about the green economy -- and what started as a pastime has become a passion. Prior to becoming a writer, Debbie worked in marketing and corporate communications for a global consulting company.

Photo CC-licensed by users_lib.