Tomorrow’s Capitalism Inquiry

Today, Triple Bottom Line companies still operate in a single bottom line system. The Tomorrow’s Capitalism Inquiry aims to accelerate the emergence of an economic system where companies thrive because of  – not in spite of – their commitment to creating economic, social and environmental value

We haven’t changed the system

The Triple Bottom Line (People, Planet, Profit) was coined by Volans co-founder John Elkington in 1994 with a view to challenging the economic system in which business operates. Since then it has inspired thousands of businesses to produce sustainability or non-financial reports, and thousands more to become certified B Corporations.

The system in which these companies operate, however, has not changed much. In 2018 John Elkington issued the first-ever ‘product recall’ of a management concept via the Harvard Business Review, arguing that the Triple Bottom Line, though widely adopted, has not yet triggered the kind of system change required to make capitalism truly sustainable. With the backing of companies like Aviva Investors, The Body Shop International, Covestro, and Unilever, the Tomorrow’s Capitalism Inquiry is now exploring how the principles of the Triple Bottom Line can be applied differently to catalyse economy-wide transformation.

Recalling the Triple Bottom Line  

Today you would be hard-pushed to find a large company not reporting on at least some elements of its non-financial performance. In the 25 years since the Triple Bottom Line was introduced there has been a proliferation of frameworks and approaches – from ESG and Impact Investment, to Integrated Reporting and Shared Value.

We celebrate companies that put their greenest, cleanest and fairest feet forward, but the sum total of all this activity is yet to shift us from a degenerative to a regenerative economy. Our climate, water resources, oceans, forests, soils, biodiversity – even our democracies – are all increasingly threatened.

Read John Elkington‘s article for Harvard Business Review on why it’s time to rethink the Triple Bottom Line

Burnishing the credentials of even the best companies in a world of unsustainability is like cleaning fish to swim in a dirty ocean.

Conducting an inquiry

The first phase of the Inquiry explores how business leaders can be more effective agents of systemic change during the 2020s – a crucial decade for humanity.

The process involves a combination of research into best practice and relevant trends; Imaginarium Sessions to envisage and co-create the future; and public-facing events and communications to disseminate insights and create momentum for change.

This phase will culminate in the launch of a Board Briefing on what Triple Bottom Line leadership looks like for the 2020s, and a Diagnostic Tool to provide companies with a framework for assessing how their current approach to sustainability compares with what’s needed to catalyse system change. The launch event will be held in London on 10 January 2020.

How to change a system?

Research has revealed a great deal about how and why complex systems behave as they do. Work such as Donella Meadows’ Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System offers a framework for how a system’s behaviour can be modified. The Inquiry will explore how this knowledge can be applied to identify what kind of interventions are now required, and by whom, to embed the TBL approach into our economic system.

Just as the single bottom line still prevails at a company level, GDP is still the prevalent measure of our economy’s success. As part of the Inquiry, Volans recently sat down with economist Kate Raworth to understand the role of business in rewiring our economy.