The “three pillars of sustainability”—people, place, and profit—are a broad framework many business are adopting for evaluating business performance in place of singular focus on maximizing revenue. The notion of a triple bottom line recognizes the impact of businesses on people (employees, stakeholders, communities), the environment, and the economy. So where does corporate responsibility fit in?
While the financial “bottom line” has long been a key metric for businesses, the focus on environmental impact is relatively new, and human impact possibly even newer. Twenty years ago, companies were not going out of their way to find eco-friendly ways of doing business–they simply complied with regulations around waste and pollution reduction. As environmental consciousness rose, some companies dared compromise their bottom line in order to prioritize sustainable business practices. Being “green” became an advantageous marketing spin. In time, running operations in an environmentally-friendly way has become both expected and accepted as a sensible business strategy for companies in most industries.
A similar evolution may be underway with the People spoke of in the “three P’s.” What is a company’s corporate responsibility for the well-being and happiness of its employees? What is the role of business in promoting a healthier society?
At a bare minimum, organizations are held responsible for providing a safe working environment free from occupational hazards. Some companies distinguish themselves by going beyond, offering standard benefits such as employer-sponsored healthcare to creating corporate cultures that make it “a great place to work,” a strategy which helps them attract and retain talent. In more recent years, employers have shown that promoting health and wellness among employees is a way to manage costs and generate business value.
In a broader context, many would argue we are in the midst of a health crisis in the U.S., where we spend a greater percent of our Gross Domestic Product on healthcare than any other country, yet we fail to see better health outcomes or longer life expectancy. Companies are shouldering a great deal of the cost. Perhaps the private sector will take a key role in addressing these public health issues, from the food and beverage industries who can have a direct impact, to employers in any organization supporting the social, economic, emotional, and physical well-being of their employees and families.
Making a Difference
The key to developing employers’ sense of responsibility for public health seems to be in reframing health and wellness as a broader stakeholder issue, rather than simply an employee benefit. Companies can improve public health by promoting healthy business practices and environment for their employees, their families, in their communities (e.g. attracting healthy restaurants to nearby neighborhoods, encouraging bike commuting lanes, insisting on value-driven care by local providers, etc.), and possibly across their supply chain (e.g. improving working conditions on farms).
This level of commitment may be idealistic; today most companies probably undertake community health initiatives either as part of their philanthropy efforts or to enhance their reputation. As more companies embrace the triple bottom line, there will be a greater sense of accountability for the health and welfare of people as a key measure of business success.