Design for the Triple Top Line: A New Definition of Quality

As the concept of sustainability takes root in corporate culture, many business leaders today are beginning to measure performance against the triple bottom line. This triad of concerns—economic growth, environmental protection and social equity—was once considered an impractical, blue-sky ethic. Yet today it has begun to define both long-term strategy and everyday practice for leading manufacturing corporations all over the world.

Developed by the sustainable business theorist John Elkington, the concept of the triple bottom line has given corporations a useful tool for balancing economic goals with a desire to “do better by the environment.” Unfortunately, the concept in practice tends to yield strategies that try to meet the triple bottom line by merely minimizing environmental or social liabilities. These are important first steps toward identifying problems, but ultimately they are strategies for managing negative effects.

Why lament our creations? Why not celebrate the things we make?

A New Definition of Quality

One might take the first step toward celebrating human creations with a new definition of quality. From our perspective, quality is embodied in designs that allow industry toenhance the well being of nature and culture while generating economic value.  Designers aiming for this level of quality follow the laws of nature to create products, processes and facilities so ecologically intelligent they leave vital, delightful footprints rather than waste management headaches. Think materials that become food for the soil after their useful commercial lives. Think enormously productive factories that purify water and restore the landscape.

This new measure of quality sparks transformations. Pursuing positive aspirations at every level of commerce can anchor intelligent design deep within corporate business strategy. And when good design drives the business agenda, the path toward sustainability turns from end-of-pipe solutions to creating value with innovative product design—a shift from the triple bottom line to the triple top line. If one approaches the design process asking, right from the start, “How can I grow prosperity, celebrate my community, and enhance the health of all species?’ the results are likely to be far more positive and enriching than measuring performance against a bottom line standard.

Design for the triple top line is as rigorous as it is creative. Most of today’s consumer goods, from CD players to toys to electric shavers, contain potentially toxic synthetic chemicals. Understanding their impact on human and environmental health is one of the first steps of intelligent design, which makes product chemistry a key element of product quality. Indeed, designing truly high-quality products—goods and services that enhance economic, ecological and social well-being—requires careful scientific assessment of all product materials. With a good scientific foundation, designers not only can approach design with positive intentions, they can produce positive results.

Understanding Value with the Fractal Triangle

In our work with corporate clients such as Ford Motor Company, Nike, Herman Miller and BASF we have found that a visual tool, a fractal triangle, helps us apply triple top line thinking throughout the design process. Typically, meeting the triple bottom line is seen as a balancing act, a series of compromises between competing interests played out in product and process design. The key insights offered by the fractal triangle turn this notion on its head: Intelligent design, rather than balancing economy, ecology and equity can employ their dynamic interplay to generate value and business opportunities—triple top line growth.

Representing the ecology of human concerns, the fractal triangle shows how ecology, economy and equity anchor a spectrum of value, and how, at any level of scrutiny, each design decision has an impact on all three. As we plan a product or system, we move around the fractal inquiring how a new design can generate value in each category.

In the pure Economy sector, we might ask “Can I make my product at a profit?” As we see it, the goal of an effective company is to stay in business as it transforms. The Equity sector raises social questions: “Are we finding ways to honor all stakeholders, regardless of race, sex, nationality or religion?” Moving to the Ecology corner, the emphasis shifts to imagining ways in which humans can be tools for nature:  “Do our designs create habitat or nourish the landscape?”

As we move around the triangle, questions expressing a complex interaction of concerns arise at the intersections of Ecology, Economy and Equity. In the Economy/Equity sector, for example, we consider questions of profitability and fairness. “Are employees producing a promising product earning a living wage?” As we continue on to Equity/Economy, our focus shifts more toward fairness. Here we might ask: “Are men and women being paid the same for the same work?”

Often, we discover our most fruitful insights where the design process creates a kind of friction in the zones where values overlap. An ecologist might call these areasecotones, which are the merging, fluid boundaries between natural communities notable for their rich diversity of species. In the fractal triangle, the ecotones are ripe with business opportunities.

Triple top line thinkers tap these opportunities not by trying to balance Ecology, Economy and Equity, but by honoring the needs of all three. In an infinitely interconnected world, they see rich relationships rather than inherent conflicts. Their goal: to maximize value in all areas of the triangle through intelligent design. When designing a manufacturing facility, for example, they would ask: How can this project restore more landscape and purify more water? How much social interaction and joy can I create? How do I generate more safety and health? How much prosperity can I grow?

Questions such as these allow us to remake the way we make things. Today.

Triple Top Line Design at Work: Designing New Facilities

In projects already underway—indeed, already completed—triple top line thinking has sparked an explosion of creativity in our clients decision-making, yielding designs that produce new value in ways that would never have been imagined when approached from a purely economic perspective.

Consider, for example, the restoration of Ford Motor Company’s Rouge River plant in Dearborn, Michigan. In May 1999, Ford decided to invest $2 billion over 20 years to transform the Rouge into an icon of 21st century industry. As we approached the design process with Ford many wondered if a blue chip company with a sharp focus on the bottom line could take a step toward something truly new and inspiring. Could inspiration and profits co-exist?

Well, yes. Using triple top line thinking and the Fractal Triangle, we explored with Ford’s executives, engineers, and designers innovative ways of creating shareholder value. Rather than using economic metrics to try to reconcile apparent conflicts between environmental concerns and the bottom line, the company began to ask triple top line questions. Innovations would still need to be good for profits, but Ford’s leaders began to examine how profits could be maximized by design decisions that also maximized social and ecological value.

Rather than trying to meet an environmental responsibility as efficiently as possible, Ford opted for a manufacturing facility that would create habitat, make oxygen, connect employees to their surroundings and invite the return of native species. The result: a daylit factory with 450,000 square-feet of roof covered with healthy topsoil and growing plants—a living roof. In concert with porous paving and a series of constructed wetlands and swales, the living roof will slow and filter stormwater run-off, making expensive technical controls, and even regulations, obsolete. All this with first cost savings of up to $35 million, with the landscape thrown in for free.

This is the power of design for the triple top line.

Triple Top Line Design at Work: Conceiving New Products

Designers can also apply triple top line thinking to the design of a single product—or even product packaging. Imagine that you are the CEO of an ice cream company. You sell an all-natural product you are very proud of. It brings pleasure to your customers while supporting the dairy farmers of your region, and it generates great profits, too. But you have a problem: after a recent outdoor event downtown, hundreds of wrappers from your popular ice cream sandwich littered the city parks. You did the right thing when you sent out a crew to clean up the mess, but clearly, that’s not something you want to do for the long-term. You also realize, when forced to face this problem, that your packaging is also dyed with chemicals you’d never put in your ice cream. What to do?

If we were advising you, we’d suggest some triple top line thinking with the fractal triangle to try to generate an innovative solution. We would not ask how to reduce the chemicals in your packaging or how to work with the city on litter control. Instead, we’d wonder what kind of positive effects you hoped to create. Maybe you’re interested in continuing to provide the pleasure of a delicious sweet while offering a healthful package that creates new value for your community.

Working with the fractal triangle, we might begin to see that ice cream packaging could be designed for biodegradability with new bio-polymers and safe dyes. This light, healthful packaging could be economically produced. You might decide to provide added value by embedding the seeds of a native wildflower in packaging designed to dissolve in a day after use—when children toss it on the ground they’d be planting seeds rather than discarding trash. Suddenly, your problem starts to become an asset: You’re supporting the population of native plants; your customers are excited to be young “Johnny Appleseeds;” the city parks are blooming with colorful flowers; and your sales are through the roof. Not bad for packaging.

Seeing the Future

These examples begin to suggest some of the ways in which triple top line thinking and the fractal triangle create business opportunities. Applied throughout the design process, they introduce a new standard of quality, adding ecological intelligence, social justice, and the celebration of creativity to the typical design criteria of cost, performance, and aesthetics. Design driven by these positive aspirations could lay the foundation for a truly inspiring era in which we transform industry by remaking the way we make things.

We will do so, we believe, by engaging in a true partnership with nature. Expressed in designs that resonate with natural systems, this new partnership can take us beyond sustainability—a minimum condition for survival—toward commerce that celebrates our relationship with the living earth. We can build factories that inspire their inhabitants with sunlit spaces, fresh air, copious views of the outdoors, and cultural delights. We can create fabrics that feed the soil, giving us pleasure as garments and as sources of nourishment for our gardens. We can tap into the flows of energy and nutrients in the natural world, designing astonishingly productive systems that create oxygen, accrue energy, filter water, and provide healthy habitats for people and nature.

As we have seen, designs such as these are generators of economic value too. When the principles that guide them are widely applied, at every level of industry, productivity and profits will no longer be at odds with the concerns of the commons. Instead, we will be living in a world of sustaining prosperity, a world in which both nature and commerce can thrive and grow.

© 2003 William McDonough & Michael Braungart for [email protected]

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