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Understanding the Social Dimension of Sustainability

Document Type

Working Paper

Publication Date



Leadership, Knowledge management, Social responsibility of business


The triple bottom line is emerging as a popular conceptualization and reporting vehicle for articulating corporate social, environmental, and economic performance and is receiving significant attention in connection with its efficacy and sufficiency as a means for reporting the extent to which an organization meets its societal responsibilities. By preparing and disseminating triple bottom line statements, an organization conveys an image of concern and sensitivity to the three dimensions of societal responsibility: economic, environmental, and social. However, as currently conceived and operationalized, we question whether the triple bottom line reports actually provide information relevant to accessing corporate responsibility and enforcing accountability, particularly social sustainability. In addition, we discuss the efficacy of using the bottom line as a metaphor to help determine the metrics and measures relevant to social sustainability. Our conclusion is that triple bottom line reporting, although a step towards increasing the awareness of multiple, competing, simultaneous objectives for organizations, is an inadequate, and perhaps detrimental, representation of organizational sustainability. While our primary concern is social sustainability, the associated issues cannot be adequately addressed without considering the natural and economic systems. This work is part of an ongoing program of research concerned with the developing an enabling accounting.

In the following discussion, we explicitly consider the concept of the triple bottom line report that has been generally set forth in the accounting and reporting literature as a significant step forward in the quest for enhanced social and environmental corporate responsibility. The triple bottom line statement purports to render corporate actions more understandable and transparent in areas not covered under current reporting conventions. Within a democratically governed society, information provides the basis upon which citizens and their representatives stipulate and regulate the parameters within which organizations are required to operate. If managers are held accountable for the social and environmental impact of their decisions though the external reporting of results in these areas, they will of necessity more fully incorporate them into their decision processes.


© Darrell Brown; Jesse Dillard; R. Scott Marshall

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