A New Triple Bottom Line

Social responsibility isn’t only “social.” It has a spiritual aspect too.

The term “corporate social responsibility” has never really hit the spot for me, and neither has “corporate citizenship.” The terms are muzzy, fuzzy. Sure, corporations should be “socially responsible”—but to whom? And for what? As for “corporate citizenship,” exactly what is a good corporate citizen supposed to do? Put flowers in flower-boxes? Vote? (Come to think of it, corporations do vote—with their wallets, big-time, before the election—but that doesn’t quite make them good citizens, does it?)

The entire notion of “corporate social responsibility” needs more clarity, I think. I started to explore this matter in the March/April 2004 issue of green@work, where I argued that in this age of economic globalization, every business owes a duty to every person on the planet. I called this the “six billion stakeholder theory.”

That’s only the beginning, though. There’s more unpacking to do.

Here, too, the triad, the model of self I’ve been holding forth on for several issues now, can help clarify our thinking. For those who are new to the subject, the triad (which is elaborated at length in my book Out of the Labyrinth: Who We Are, How We Go Wrong, and What We Can Do About It) proposes that we all do three things in our lives: we solve problems, we participate in society and the natural world, and we seek meaning. These three activities organize into sub personalities with distinct value systems that I call the strategist, the citizen and the seeker, respectively—and the “habitats” or “domains” they inhabit are the objective domain (because the strategist pursues objectives), the social domain (the citizen interacts socially), and the depth dimension (the seeker must plunge into the depths of his or her own consciousness to emerge with the gold of meaning).

This model is a “fractal:” it applies to organizational and cultural dynamics as well as personal ones.

By focusing on a key difference between the social domain and the depth dimension, we can derive important clues about the nature of corporate social responsibility:

  • The citizen engages the visible world. He talks with people he can hear and touch and see. We engage the social domain with our five senses. It is where we are born and interact
    and die.
  • The seeker engages the invisible world; she encounters the world beyond our five senses. The mystic doesn’t sit down with God over a cappuccino at the corner café; she encounters a power that is invisible, but experienced as real.

Corporate social responsibility bifurcates along these lines, I believe. It has a visible dimension, and an invisible one as well. Or, to put this another way, it has a civic aspect and a meaning aspect. A physical dimension—and a spiritual one, too.

What does this mean in terms of specifics? Let’s take a hypothetical global corporation: Megacorp. It has its headquarters in Peoria, IL, and factories in communities around the world. The employees of Megacorp interact continually with the residents of these communities. The civic aspect of corporate social responsibility requires Megacorp to care for these communities—to treat their residents with respect and to care for the local environment.

But Megacorp’s social responsibility doesn’t stop there. It also owes a duty to the invisible world, to the world beyond our five senses. The toxic pollutants Megacorp emits travel around the world and threaten the web of life on which we all depend. Through its marketing and advertising, Megacorp peddles a worldview that causes people to derive their self-worth from the stuff they buy. Corporate social responsibility extends to these unseen impacts, too.

And so we have a new triple bottom line. The first part is the usual one, the financial bottom line, defined in the context of the triad as the strategic objective of delivering a strong ROI to investors. The second bottom line is social in the sense of being civic and local—taking care of the people and environment where a company operates. The third bottom line is spiritual and global. It’s about acting responsibly toward all the things that connect us on a level that transcends touch and taste and sound and sight and smell. It’s about the duty to care for creation because we are part of creation. It’s about our invisible connection to the whole.

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