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The three pillars of sustainability: people, planet, and profit

Written by
Jasper Akkermans
August 7, 2023
10
min read

While sustainability is often thought of within an environmental framework, a holistic approach that encompasses its true impact across three essential categories has gained wide-spread acceptance. 

Fittingly, these categories have become known as the three pillars of sustainability, encompassing planet, people, and profit. What does this framework entail and how is it used? We explain this below.

What is corporate sustainability?

Corporate sustainability is a business approach focusing on creating long-term stakeholder value while ensuring accountability.

It's about understanding and managing the economic, social, and environmental impacts of a company's activities. Thereby ensuring responsible, ethical, and ongoing success.

Key components when it comes to corporate responsibility

Let’s take a closer look at the key components or responsibilities of corporate sustainability:

Economic responsibility

Companies ensure their financial stability and growth, making decisions that drive profit, but not at the expense of the environment or society.

Social responsibility

Companies act ethically and contribute positively to community wellbeing, including factors like employee rights, fair trade, and community development.

Environmental responsibility

Companies minimize their negative impact on the environment by reducing waste and emissions, using resources efficiently, and adopting green technologies.

The ultimate goal of corporate sustainability is to operate in a way that protects the future viability of the business and the communities it serves, while respecting and caring for the planet. 

By balancing economic success with social progress and environmental stewardship, companies can achieve true sustainable growth.

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The triple bottom line or 3 pillars of sustainability

The three pillars of sustainability, often referred to as the ‘triple bottom line’, consist of social, environmental, and economic dimensions. 

The social pillar, or ‘people,’ emphasizes fair business practices for employees and the community. 

The environmental pillar, ‘planet,’ encourages responsible use of resources to protect the environment. 

The economic pillar, ‘profit,’ involves creating economic value that also considers environmental and social costs. 

Now, let’s dive into the specific pillars and their implications.

Social pillar - fostering fairness and embracing diversity

The social pillar of sustainability represents an essential aspect of corporate responsibility, emphasizing fairness and diversity. It's about how businesses interact with people - their employees, customers, and the wider community. 

By fostering fairness in operations and embracing diversity, companies can contribute to a more equitable society, promoting social well-being and stability. Let's dive deeper into how businesses can achieve this.

Diversity

In the field of sustainability, diversity has taken center stage as a critical ingredient for innovation and resilience. 

Different perspectives – from the local to the national level – foster creativity and collaborative problem-solving, ensuring the solutions we devise are holistic and effective in tackling the complex challenges of climate change.

Human rights

The bond between human rights and sustainability is irrefutable. Ensuring the rights to clean air, clean water, and a stable climate is paramount; these are prerequisites to a healthy life and serve as the cornerstones of any strategy focused on long-term, sustainable development.

Equal opportunity

In the process of devising long-term sustainability strategies, equal opportunity is both a destination and a journey. 

It’s about leveling the playing field for everyone, ensuring fair access to resources and opportunities, while recognizing the existing inequalities that are a direct result of historical power structures.

Lasting solutions to climate issues must not only be inclusive, but must also seek to rectify these existing inequalities.

Civil society stakeholdership

The role of civil society in sustainability can't be overstated. These groups play a vital part in pushing for change, holding governments and businesses accountable, and ensuring that the voices of the most vulnerable are heard in the discourse around climate change and sustainability.

The three Ps of corporate sustainability

The ecological pillar – protecting our planet and its diverse ecosystems

The ecological pillar of sustainability prioritizes our planet and the influence we have on it as humans. It's about recognizing our dependence on Earth's diverse ecosystems and taking tangible steps to minimize our impact. 

From energy use and waste management to biodiversity conservation, businesses have a key role to play in protecting our shared environment. By integrating environmentally-friendly practices into their operations, companies can contribute to climate change mitigation. Here are four key dimensions of the ecological pillar:

Compliance

In the ecological sphere, compliance is not only about adhering to regulations; it's about proactively working towards net-zero. 

Voluntary reporting of CO2 emissions, for instance, signifies a step towards increased transparency and accountability, demonstrating a company's commitment to be part of the solution rather than the problem.

Biodiversity management

Biodiversity is a prerequisite to life on our planet, maintaining the balance and health of ecosystems and, by extension, our own survival. 

Effective biodiversity management is about recognizing our interconnectedness with all life forms and making a concerted effort to protect them. It’s a reminder that humans need nature, not the other way around.

Emissions

Addressing emissions is a critical component of any environmental strategy. Cutting down greenhouse gas emissions is not just about meeting targets; it's about fulfilling our responsibilities to future generations. 

Material use & discharge

Embracing a circular economy — where resources are used, reused, and recycled — can help minimize waste and the harmful discharge into our ecosystems. 

By shifting from a linear 'take-make-waste' approach to a more circular 'reduce-reuse-recycle' principle, companies and consumers alike can ensure the longevity of resources and the health of our planet.

A visualization of the linear economy

The economic pillar – cultivating prosperity and progress responsibly

The economic pillar of sustainability underscores the role of businesses in fostering prosperity and progress, but not at any cost. The focus here is on achieving economic growth in a responsible manner, considering social welfare and environmental protection. 

It's about redefining success, not just in terms of financial gain, but in the broader context of sustainable development. Let's delve into how this responsible cultivation of prosperity can be realized in practice.

Sustainable growth

In the economic context of sustainability, growth must be synonymous with longevity. It's about ensuring that our progress today doesn't compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs - as per the guiding principle of the Brundtland Report from 1987, which laid the foundation for today’s sustainability efforts. 

Sustainable growth is the intelligent fusion of environmental, social, and economic priorities to drive development that lasts.

Inclusive growth

Inclusive growth acknowledges that economic progress must be broad-based and equitable, benefiting all members of society. It is the concept that prosperity should serve the many rather than the few. 

By practicing inclusive growth, we ensure that local and global inequalities are internalized in future policy-making processes.

Risk management

In the pursuit of sustainability, risk management becomes a key economic principle. This involves identifying and mitigating not just financial risks, but environmental and social ones too. 

By doing so, we create resilient economies that are equipped to weather any storm, be it financial downturns or environmental crises.

How are the 3 pillars of sustainability connected?

The three pillars of sustainability – social, ecological, and economic – are deeply interconnected, each influencing and depending on the others. 

Like a tripod, the structure topples when one is removed; sustainability efforts require a focus on all three to stand strong.

Social and ecological interconnection

The social pillar is profoundly connected to the ecological. The environment we live in significantly impacts our quality of life, from the air we breathe to the water we drink. 

Biodiversity loss and climate change affect marginalized communities the most, underlining the crucial link between social equity and ecological health.

Social and economic interplay

Social sustainability and economic sustainability are deeply intertwined. Without equal opportunities and a fair distribution of resources, economic growth is unsustainable. 

Conversely, a healthy economy enables social progress, providing the means for individuals and communities to thrive.

Ecological and economic connection

The economic pillar is equally dependent on the ecological. Our economies rely heavily on natural resources, from the raw materials that drive industry to the ecosystem services that support our existence. 

Sustainable economic growth necessitates responsible resource management and a commitment to reducing emissions and pollution.

A visualization of the circular economy

The synergy of sustainability

The three pillars of sustainability are not singular entities but form a holistic whole. For sustainable development to be achieved – whether locally, nationally or globally – the social, economic, and ecological elements must actively complement and reinforce each other.

Finding the right balance between the 3 P’s of sustainability

Striking the right balance between the 3 P's of sustainability — People, Planet, and Profit — is a crucial aspect of sustainable development. This equilibrium promotes social equity, environmental protection, and economic prosperity simultaneously.

The challenge lies not in prioritizing one over the others, but in understanding their deep interconnection. This is how to combine them:

Establishing a holistic framework

Creating a holistic framework requires treating the three pillars not as separate entities, but as an integrated system where the health of each component influences the overall balance. 

The goal is to devise strategies that drive social progress, economic growth, and environmental protection simultaneously, rather than prioritizing one over the others.

The Human Development Index as an example

A practical example of such a holistic approach is the Human Development Index (HDI). The HDI, introduced by the United Nations, measures a country's standard of living, including health, education, and income. 

This broad approach reflects the understanding that economic prosperity alone is insufficient for true development. Similarly, in the pursuit of sustainability, we must consider social and ecological factors alongside economic ones.

Just as the HDI encompasses diverse factors to assess a nation's development, companies must integrate social, ecological, and economic considerations to attain true sustainability.

This holistic mindset moves beyond a single-minded focus on profit, allowing for a comprehensive approach that can lead to lasting, meaningful progress.

How ESG differs from the three pillars of sustainability

ESG, or Environmental, Social, and Governance, is a framework used by organizations to evaluate their impact on society and the environment while ensuring robust governance practices. Unlike the broader environmental, social, and economic pillars, which provide a general overview of sustainability and societal impacts, ESG specifically incorporates governance, emphasizing corporate leadership, ethical standards, and regulatory compliance.

ESG forms the basis of European sustainability reporting, particularly under the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD), which mandates comprehensive disclosure of ESG-related information, ensuring transparency and accountability in corporate sustainability efforts.

Why are green skills so essential to building a sustainable business?

Green skills are rapidly becoming a business necessity rather than an optional add-on.

In their effort to become more sustainable, businesses need individuals who can navigate the complexities of environmental issues, devise innovative solutions, and drive the transition towards more sustainable practices. 

These skills not only strengthen a company's commitment to environmental stewardship but also offer a competitive edge in the increasingly eco-conscious global marketplace. Let's delve into the reasons that make green skills so indispensable to sustainable businesses.

Coolset Founder, Konstantinos Kouzelis, on how to build a sustainable business

Driving innovation

Green skills, which pertain to knowledge and abilities in environmental and sustainability issues, are crucial for driving innovation in sustainable businesses. They encourage creative thinking and the development of new, eco-friendly products, services, and processes.

Meeting regulatory requirements

With increasing environmental regulations and standards, businesses need green skills to ensure compliance. This includes understanding legislation, implementing sustainable practices, and producing detailed environmental impact reports.

Responding to market demand

There's a growing consumer demand for sustainable products and services. Green skills help businesses understand and respond to this trend, allowing them to stay competitive and meet customer expectations.

Reducing operational costs

Skills in energy efficiency and waste reduction can help businesses lower their operational costs. By identifying and implementing sustainable practices, companies can reduce their resource use and waste production, leading to significant savings.

Enhancing brand reputation

Green skills enable businesses to act responsibly towards the environment, which can enhance their reputation among stakeholders, including customers, employees, and investors. 

Demonstrating a commitment to sustainability can strengthen a brand's image and improve customer loyalty.

Green skills serve as the engine that powers the shift towards more sustainable business practices. They spur innovation, ensure compliance, respond to consumer demand, reduce costs, and bolster a brand's reputation. 

As the business landscape evolves to prioritize sustainability, green skills will only grow in importance, becoming an integral part of every company's toolkit for success in the greener world of tomorrow.

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Practical examples of the 3 pillars of sustainability in modern businesses

Understanding what the 3 pillars of sustainability are is critical to navigating the business landscape wherein many companies currently adopt the ‘three P’s’. Below are various examples of companies that have adopted at least one pillar into their everyday operations.

Social pillar examples

To truly grasp the social pillar of sustainability, let's look at two Dutch examples: Moyee Coffee and Dopper. Their actions in fair trade and community education showcase how businesses can incorporate social responsibility into their core operations.

Moyee Coffee's FairChain model

Moyee Coffee is a small Dutch coffee roasting company that has implemented a FairChain model to ensure that farmers in Ethiopia, where they source their coffee, receive a fair price for their beans. They also promote social entrepreneurship by training locals in the coffee industry.

Dopper's education initiatives

Dopper, a Dutch company that produces reusable water bottles, runs educational programs about plastic waste to raise awareness and change behaviors. Their initiatives target various age groups, creating an informed community that values sustainability.

Some of Dopper's sustainable results so far

Ecological pillar examples

To illustrate the ecological pillar of sustainability, consider the actions of Fairphone and MUD Jeans. Through sustainable production and circular economy models, these companies demonstrate how businesses can significantly reduce their environmental impact.

Fairphone's sustainable production 

Fairphone, a Dutch social enterprise, creates environmentally friendly smartphones. They emphasize longevity, repairability, and sourcing of fair-trade, recycled materials, thereby reducing electronic waste and ecological impact.

MUD Jeans' circular fashion

MUD Jeans is a Dutch denim brand that adopts a circular economy approach. They offer a 'Lease A Jeans' model, where customers can return their jeans after use for recycling or upcycling, reducing waste and promoting sustainable consumption.

Economic pillar examples

Delving into the economic pillar of sustainability, we find two sexamples in Dutch companies Triodos Bank and Tony’s Chocolonely. Their practices in ethical investing and profit sharing exhibit how companies can achieve economic growth that is both responsible and beneficial to all stakeholders.

Triodos Bank's ethical investing 

Triodos Bank is a pioneer in ethical banking, investing its customers' money only in companies that contribute positively to society and the environment. Their focus on sustainable finance illustrates how businesses can grow economically while benefiting society and the environment.

Tony’s Chocolonely's profit sharing 

Tony’s Chocolonely implements a unique profit-sharing model with their cocoa farmers to ensure economic sustainability and fairness in their supply chain. This strategy not only fosters more equitable economic relationships but also incentivizes sustainable farming practices among their suppliers.

Tony Chocolonely's sustainable mission

These examples illuminate how businesses, small and large alike, can successfully integrate the principles of sustainability into their operations. 

Whether it's through fair trade, circular economy models, or ethical investing, every business has the potential to contribute positively to the social, ecological, and economic dimensions of sustainability. 

Greening the economy through proper carbon accounting at your company

Carbon accounting, measuring and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, is vital for businesses to assess their environmental impact. The following points highlight its importance and how effective implementation can aid your company in fostering a greener economy.

Identifying emission sources

Implementing proper carbon accounting at a company level involves accurately measuring and documenting all sources of greenhouse gas emissions. 

This includes both direct emissions from company operations and indirect emissions from supply chains, energy use, and product lifecycle. Understanding these sources enables companies to identify where reductions can be most effective and prioritize those areas for action.

Driving sustainable innovations

With a clear understanding of their carbon footprint, companies can start to innovate for sustainability. 

Carbon accounting provides critical data to inform research and development, enabling companies to devise more sustainable processes, create low-carbon products, and potentially open up new market opportunities. 

By reducing their emissions, companies also reduce their exposure to future carbon pricing, setting themselves up for long-term economic resilience.

Boosting corporate reputation and trust

Companies that actively measure, reduce, and report on their greenhouse gas emissions demonstrate a commitment to sustainability that can strengthen their reputation among consumers, investors, and potential employees. 

In an increasingly eco-conscious market, transparency in carbon accounting can foster trust, increase customer loyalty, and attract investment, thereby contributing to greening the economy at large. 

Ready to get started? Make sure you use a good carbon accounting software tool.

How to tackle corporate sustainability with Coolset

Using Coolset to tackle your company’s sustainability challenges is a simple yet effective move. Based in Amsterdam, Coolset is a start-up that helps companies understand and manage their carbon emissions. 

Here's how it works:

Measuring carbon footprint

Coolset provides tools that show a company's carbon emissions. This helps companies see where their pollution comes from. It's like a health check-up for a company's environmental impact.

Improving sustainability

Once a company knows its carbon footprint, Coolset helps it reduce these emissions by building a decarbonization roadmap. We do this by offering actionable sustainability advice, which encompasses both strategies and partnerships. 

This way, companies not only become compliant — they also join a forward-thinking network of industry leaders actively decarbonizing business.

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Download the 2024 Sustainability Trends Report

We've collated the latest sustainability trends in an annual report. The 2024 edition is out now.

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