The next step for sustainability: People, Planet, Profit… and Spirit

The “People, Planet, Profit” three pillar principle for sustainability has found its way on to corporate boardroom agendas 25 years after its conception. This article looks ahead to identify the next evolutionary step of this model.

Although the current approach to sustainability is a big improvement on the purely economic outlook, it has yet failed to include the personal, human dimension. Without that, I argue, sustainable development will not be sustainable itself.

The PPP balance myth

First conceived by John Elkington in 1997, the triple bottom line or “People, Planet, Profit” approach tried to bridge the gap between economic benefits (Profit) and non-economic benefits (People and Planet), which appeared to be mutually exclusive in any previous theory. Elkington’s concept recommended to measure profits not only in terms of financial value, but also in terms of other economic, social and environmental denominations, collectively called ‘People, Planet and Profit’ (PPP).

The accepted view was that People, Planet and Profit would have to be balanced in order to achieve sustainability. Unfortunately, this view compares apples and oranges, assuming that aspects of People, Planet and Profit may be interchangeable.

The loss of ecological values such as biodiversity, for example, cannot adequately be described or compensated with money. Neither can true friendship be bought. The thought that balancing People, Planet and Profit would result in sustainability is in fact a myth.

the PPP myth - it's not overlapping circles, it's a stacked cake.*see disclaimer for more elaboration

Instead, it is more important to consider the interdependence of the ecological, social and economic systems, as the Director of MIT Sloan School of Management Peter Senge explained in his 2010 book “The Necessary Revolution“.

Elkington himself further developed the PPP model in his new book “Zeronauts”. He gives the idea of Zero a central role, advocating a target of ‘zero negative impact’ for sustainable business, rather than his earlier approach of balanced priorities. Taking the use of fossil fuel as an example, his new line of reasoning is to get rid of all fossil fuel (zero), in contrast to his earlier PPP balance view of achieving an optimal balance between fossil fuel use, social impact and economic investment.

Yet, however valuable this new development towards zero may be, it still falls short to acknowledge that sustainability is not about what is in the interest of ecological or social systems, but about the effects those systems have on humans.

Indeed, we need to remind ourselves that the whole concept of sustainability is fully human centred. The planet will live on and life will restore itself, with or without humans.

Human self-centredness

The PPP balance approach has been formulated from a misguided starting point, namely a failure to acknowledge the fact that economics is a human creation. Economics is all about ideas and thoughts and does not follow any single law of nature.

Consequently, the concept of sustainability needs to be considered from a human needs perspective, with humans seen as individuals.

According to Maslow and Max-Neef, an important human need, hard-wired into every human being, is the need to identify him- or herself as an individual in the great scheme of things; the need to believe in something. Whether through religion, science, art or complete self-centredness, every person seeks to relate to a conceptual idea as a means to determine his or her place in the world.

It is thus important to realize that sustainability does not just happen out there, but also concerns the inner workings of me, you and every other individual.

It is this realization that I believe will find its place in the concept of sustainability within the next years. The term SPIRIT, to me, frames it in the most universal way, although it obviously disappoints people with a fetish for same initial acronyms, who would prefer ‘pneuma’ or ‘purpose’ instead.

I draw further evidence for this upcoming orientation towards SPIRIT from various social developments and anecdotes. Older generations increasingly engage in yoga, meditation and spirituality, probably making up for the declining appeal of the old religions. They have again found something bigger than themselves to believe in.

Simultaneously, younger generations are struggling to find a purposeful role to play in our current society. In 2011, I received an email message from a student doing research into various industries. It started off with a striking and most meaningful question: “What is the moral purpose of your company? Is it not to harm humanity’s interests or is it to promote humanity’s interests?”

Implications of a human-centred perspective on sustainability

Because sustainability is a concept made up by humans, we need to look at all human needs to make sustainability work for us. Discussions and new concepts on sustainability will only be complete if they start addressing the inner human dimensions of the topic. Otherwise, personal motives will remain what they are in today’s sustainability arena: the main obstacle to change.

For businesses, one logical implication is to make jobs more meaningful. Employees, especially the next generations, will increasingly demand to derive a sense of purpose from their jobs. If they do not find it, they will either leave or perform their tasks without spirit, mechanically, without any sense of loyalty. I dare say that we will only achieve sustainable economics if all jobs provide a source of pride and purpose to those who perform them.

There is no sustainable world without sustainable people. We might just as well start to recognize the inner dimension of sustainability today.

By Tobias Stöcker

Tobias Stöcker began his career in the German automotive industry, before moving to the Netherlands to study Business at Maastricht University. He has been working as a sustainability manager and expert within the Dutch consultancy, engineering and food industry. He now focuses on the combination of sustainable development (impact) and personal development (learning) as a key to lasting change.

*Disclaimer for the figure (the circles of PPP have been lost)
In contrast to a balance, we have to look at the dependencies of the three systems. If you would take away any ecological functions of the planet, we as humans would cease to exist, because we are just another organism depending on clean water, food, air, sunlight etc. In that case, there is evidently no economy present either. If in turn you would remove any societal system from the planet, economy would also cease to exist (as there would be no human form of social cooperation), but ecology would remain untouched. Lastly, imagine that you would remove any economic system from the planet: people would still be able to interact differently to economic exchanges, for example in full self-sufficiency, and also in this scenario, ecological systems would remain in place. In other words: no planet means no people, means no profit, but the reverse is not valid.

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