The bottom line: let’s double double down

The quadruple bottom line is all about purposeful

By Edwin Colyer, Director

9 February 2023

Forget the triple bottom line, says Edwin, you need to live and die by your fourth bottom line: purpose.




Photo by Daniel Funes Fuentes on Unsplash

Since I stepped back into Scientia Scripta, the leadership team has been brimming with ideas and aspirations for the business. We hope to nurture a brilliant, ethical place to work. We want to find meaning in our work, and bring meaning to others. And we want our expertise and culture to contribute positively to a kinder, more caring world.

A thread running through all of this is whether/when to become a B Corp (or similar). By all means, accuse us of jumping on the bandwagon, but schemes like this are 100% in sync with our desire to work “for good” (the ambiguity is intentional, the long version is: “long-lasting positive change for people and the environment.”)

The B Corp scheme provides standards for businesses and other organisations by which they evidence how they benefit workers, communities, customers and the planet. B Corps must also adopt Articles of Association that commit them to considering the impact of decisions on all these entities. It’s a movement being driven by people who realise that global economic activity impacts and serves more than shareholders. I like the B Corp ethos because it highlights that profit and purpose are not mutually exclusive but intrinsically connected.

There are now over 6,000 B Corps worldwide and about as many again awaiting accreditation. I was thrilled when the UK topped 1,000 accreditations back in November 2022.

At Scientia Scripta, we are still getting to grips with our operations (I founded Scientia Scripta in 2011, but we’ve been in start-up mode here since our “relaunch” in 2021). But now we’ve settled on our mission to “democratise science and innovation, for good”, I think we will get the B Corp journey underway soon. Ideas on our KPIs are all gratefully received!

Purpose-led business and the quadruple bottom line

Mulling over our approach to purpose and ethics the other evening, I hit upon the idea of the “quadruple bottom line”. It turns out I wasn’t the first, but it really helps to understand the current trend for purpose-led business.

First some history. John Elkington coined the term “triple bottom line” (TBL) in 1994. It describes a new financial system which is geared towards regenerative and sustainable action, not exploitation of natural and human resources in the pursuit of profit. This concept is captured by the 3Ps: people, planet and profit (or prosperity). The framework sets business and financial activity within their wider social and environmental contexts and inherent connectivity.

TBL led to the rapid adoption of corporate social responsibility (CSR) action and reporting, although accusations of “CSR-washing” were rife; many company boards regarded CSR as a necessity for self-serving reputation management, recruitment and retention. I wrote about this phenomenon in the early 2000s when I was freelancing for the website (a treasure trove of original branding-related journalism, but sadly no longer with us).

Elkington argued in 2018 that TBL needed a rethink. “Fundamentally, we have a hard-wired cultural problem in business, finance and markets,” he says. “Whereas CEOs, CFOs, and other corporate leaders move heaven and earth to ensure that they hit their profit targets, the same is very rarely true of their people and planet targets. Clearly, the Triple Bottom Line has failed to bury the single bottom line paradigm.”

It’s true that despite this attention to CSR, we continue to manufacture and consume. The climate is fast approaching that potentially catastrophic 1.5 degrees tipping point. Business culture remains resolutely focused on profit.

Or is it?

Enter the quadruple bottom line. Various commentators have proposed TBL extensions and here’s mine: purpose. This is what Elkington missed. He wanted business performance tied to social, environmental and wider economic impacts, but he failed to fully appreciate the risk of tokenistic behaviours without a radical culture shift.

Purpose defines the very existence of a company. Why are we here? What are we trying to achieve? What gets a team up in the morning and makes people smile when they go to sleep?

“Purpose-led business” sounds like a buzzword, right? But if the vein of purpose runs deep and true, it actually brings a spiritual dimension into who we are and what we do, as people, and as a community of co-workers.

I like it. Spirituality is that sense of meaningful purpose and connection that many of us crave, yet so many neglect. So much of our activity focuses on tasks, deliverables, making money and the pursuit of what-I-think-will-make-me-happy and what-will-keep-the-boss-off-my-back.

A spiritual outlook leads to shared goals and collective action. It arches over everyday stresses and strains like a beautiful, shimmering rainbow of hope. It makes kindness and compassion not a means to an end (aka more productive workers), but the deep, sometimes difficult expression of shared humanity and our eagerness “for good”.

Don’t get me wrong, we still need to pay our bills. The draw of building a business worth millions is compelling – and I truly believe that our unique, pragmatic creativity and passion for purpose will help to solve some of the world’s most wicked issues. But our value must be ethically earned: no extractive practices, no exploitation, no environmental damage. Delivered with integrity, filled with compassion, seeking justice and supporting sustainability.

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