In our technology world of upgrades and versioning, sustainability is jumping on the evolutionary bandwagon. The quadruple bottom line (QBL), increased from the initial triple bottom line’s (TBL) three pillars of economic, environmental and social to include a fourth pillar, is beginning to gain ground. I understand the desire to expand and better clarify what sustainability means in four easy words, my issue is that the fourth pillar is largely ambiguous. There is no set definition. It tends to try to further define the social pillar of the TBL and some call it governance, others spirit or purpose, and others still break the social pillar into societal issues and workplace issues. None of these are wrong or bad ideas, it just begs the question of “Which one is it?” And if you’re like me, “How do we explain, measure and improve it?”
Sustainability already suffers from a lack of universal understanding, bad branding and a mixed reputation. Mention the word sustainability to random groups of people and you get anything from blank stares to in-depth, excited conversation to outright eye rolls. Adding a fourth, undefined pillar will not change these reactions in the near term without providing clarity.
It is our job as sustainability professionals to interpret the TBL or the QBL or any other framework used to promote responsible business practices for our companies and clients. In my own work, I tend to shy away from using the sustainability profession’s many pillars, frameworks and acronyms at least initially. Risk mitigation, business opportunity and reputation management tend to resonate and align with existing mindsets. Nonetheless, I am always interested in new ways to change blank stares and eye rolling into looks of interest and understanding. I do think the social pillar is the least truly understood principle, and if sustainability 4.0 in the form of QBL can help organizations better understand that pillar, then I am in favor. We just need to define it clearly.