Public Square

Christians in Business: The Triple Bottom Line Through a Biblical Lens

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It used to be that a stable job with a large employer was part of the “American Dream.”

Such is the reminder in the description of Rick Wartzman’s new book The End of Loyalty: The Rise and Fall of Good Jobs in America.

Wartzman would not disagree that there are a lot of jobs available in the United States in 2017, but are they good jobs? Wartzam’s book chronicles the significant change over the last 60 years in the social contract between larger American businesses and their employees.

Wartzam writes about how four American companies, Coca-Cola, General Motors, General Electric, and Kodak in the ‘40s, ’50s, and early ’60s set a standard, offering good-paying jobs with profit-sharing, health care, and other benefits, to earn worker loyalty. The belief was, says Wartzam, quoting GM’s Alfred Sloan, that “[industry should] lend a helping hand to workers” and protect them from “the vicissitudes of life.”

This unwritten compact between workers and employers became the cornerstone for the “American Dream.”

Over the next two decades, this compact began to unravel, eventually collapsing in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Wartzman suggests the largely overlooked cause for the loss of good jobs was a culture that evolved into valuing shareholders more than employees. As one reviewer suggests, a better subtitle for the book might be “The Rise and Fall of the Corporate Welfare State.”

Corporations with a Purpose

For me, Wartzam’s book raises a bigger question: What are companies and corporations for? Are they primarily vehicles for employment, or investment, or another purpose?

For years, people have been talking about the need for companies to strive for a triple bottom line, sometimes called the “three pillars of sustainability” or “components of sustainable development,” as mentioned in this UN resolution. While the general idea has been around for quite some time, the actual term, “triple bottom line” was first used by John Elkington in 1994. A recent article in the Economist summarizes Elkington’s argument:

…companies should be preparing three different (and quite separate) bottom lines. One is the traditional measure of corporate profit—the “bottom line” of the profit and loss account. The second is the bottom line of a company’s “people account”—a measure in some shape or form of how socially responsible an organization has been throughout its operations. The third is the bottom line of the company’s “planet” account—a measure of how environmentally responsible it has been.

Over the last 25 years, this idea of the “triple bottom line”—profit, people, planet—has gained popularity and been embraced by many.  It has powerfully impacted many an entrepreneur’s philosophy and has influenced business development around the world. (For one example see our blog on the Mars Corporation.)

One of the reasons this concept has gained acceptance is that it speaks directly to one of the key concerns of all business owners regardless of the size of their organization—sustainability. As Kristen Sullivan writes in a recent Wall Street Journal article:

Proponents of sustainability—which include investors, consumers, regulators, NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), and others—are demanding that companies think more broadly about how they make money, and about the impacts their operations and decisions have on the environment and society. They insist that by addressing a range of nonfinancial factors…businesses can create long-term shareholder value while preserving natural resources, enhancing social stability and achieving other quantifiable benefits.

Beyond the Triple Bottom Line

We have suggested here at IFWE that the purpose of work and, by extension, the organizations in which we do that work, is to bring glory to God by producing more flourishing in his creation.

From the very beginning (Gen 1:28), we were told that our job description was to fill the earth with God’s images and subdue it. Theologian Wayne Grudem writes that the Hebrew word translated subdue in Gen. 1:28 means “to make the earth useful for human beings’ benefit and enjoyment.”

For humans to truly flourish, they need their physical, social, and spiritual needs met. In their book When Helping Hurts, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert suggest that in man’s fall from grace, his ability to meet these three needs was severely handicapped.

  • Our relationship with the Creator God was broken, affecting our spiritual well-being.
  • Our relationship with one another was broken, making it difficult to embrace the social interdependence we were designed to enjoy.
  • And finally, providing for our physical needs became more difficult because of our broken relationship with the creation (Gen. 3:17-19).

It is only through the redemptive work of Christ on our behalf that these relationships are repaired and we are once again equipped to fulfill our original calling.

Therefore, as believers, we should see the triple bottom line differently—through the lens of biblical redemption. We would suggest that as believers, we are called to work for a somewhat different triple bottom line: one that produces economic (physical), social, and spiritual returns. This is true for each of us individually and it should be true of the organizations that God has given some of us the privilege of building, growing, and operating.

As Christians, we need to be about providing examples in our economy that go beyond the financial bottom line—yes. But we also need to be about glorifying God and serving the common good; a new and improved “triple bottom line.”

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