A Triple Bottom Line for Hawai‘i

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From the Say “Alaka‘i” mailbox:

Went to a luncheon meeting for my industry’s local association chapter, and the guest speaker kept referring to “Hawai‘i’s triple bottom line” but without ever defining it for us. Turned out to be one of those situations where nobody wanted to ask the question and appear to be the clueless one. Do you know what he was referring to?

I am not familiar with the gentleman you identified for me as your luncheon speaker, and thus cannot speak into his intended context, however I can respond based on my own knowledge of the phrase. Perhaps that will trigger some thoughts for you.

Let me first say, I wouldn’t have thought the question a “clueless one.” You can chalk up seeking a ‘triple bottom line’ for a business’s profit and loss statement in that listing of business-speak which consistently cries out for greater clarity and definition, for many different industries (and places, like Hawai‘i) have seized the concept for their own adaptation.

A strong three-legged stool

A triple bottom line is thought to be “strong, sturdy, stable, steadfast and stalwart” in the time-tested design brilliance of the simple three-legged stool. When each of the stool’s three legs are of equal proportion and they are equidistant in their footing the stool doesn’t wobble, and it will bear your weight well; it will be comfortable for you to sit on, and it will likely be strong enough for you to stand on with confidence.

However take one of those legs away (break it, or weaken it somehow), and the stool tips over and falls. Easy to see what a great metaphor this is for the design of a business plan that should best result in a triple bottom line which gives a company long-term success, keeping it standing upright in optimal usefulness. Yet the metaphor is also conducive to much creative interpretation; in keeping ‘triple bottom line’ as a financial term, which three measurements do you choose as the legs you confidently stand on?

The stool topper of sustainability

And what about that topper which holds those three legs together? Is there a common ground they must meet at, giving you the most comfortable seat?

One ‘stool topper’ which is probably most common is that of sustainability, where the stool doesn’t only keep you in good standing, it gives you the greatest possibility for forward momentum. Sustainability is thought of as the common sense which underpins all business plans —at least those not knowingly built for short-term flipping.

For instance, in the book To Be Of Use, The Seven Seeds of Meaningful Work, by Dave Smith, best known as cofounder of Smith & Hawken, the triple bottom line as “advocated by many progressive organizations today, [is defined as] environmental sustainability and social responsibility [which both] can be incorporated with a company’s financial bottom line [profitability].”

However I find that value-based legs can get confused with bottom-line measurement; it is not always clear that the topper is sustainability, purely financial, operational or something else. As Dave Smith also points out about his definition, “It’s true that this is often simply ‘greenwashing’ the real way a business operates, paying only lip service to ideals, or trying to fend off bad publicity with ‘spin.’” Thus he talks about this version of the triple bottom line connected to his virtue of ‘prudence’ asking us to “reclaim the soul of business.”

And that connection to reclaiming the soul of business is where Hawai‘i seems to chime in most often, where sustainability often becomes a question of stewardship (of our communities, and our island-based living), and our Sense of Place.

Hawai‘i’s Sense of Place connection: Host, Guest, Place

The triple bottom line usually discussed in Hawai‘i is one I first learned of from the late Dr. George Kanahele, where the three legs are host, guest (or visitor), and place. It has been defined in the effort to reconcile our value of Ho‘okipa, and the hospitality we extend to those visiting our islands when we fear they have overcome us, swallowing us up in their larger numbers. Imagine these three legs with “what we value most” as the stool topper, where “we” may refer to a specific business entity, or to Hawai‘i as a whole —optimally, it’s a win-win for both of us.

“Despite the good feelings Hawaiians may have about their capacity for hospitality and generosity —the positive sides of the popular stereotype— there is no question that in matters of dealing with tourists Hawaiians have divided opinions, for many good reasons.

Some would argue that the conditions today are so totally different that the ‘old customs’ simply do not apply and that what we can offer at best is mostly ‘pseudo hospitality,’ because either we have to sell it or buy it. Genuine hospitality can take place only when no exchange of money is involved, or, more precisely, when something is given without any thought of getting something back, except the pleasure of giving and purest aloha.”

—Dr. George Kanahele, in KÅ« Kanaka, Stand Tall

In our Sense of Place, it would be sad for us, a horrible feeling of defeat, to accept that “what we can offer at best is mostly ‘pseudo hospitality,’” and thus Hawai‘i’s triple bottom line is a challenge of sorts, and a formidable one: How can we get the needs of host, guest, and place to be like “a stool’s three legs of equal proportion, [so] the stool doesn’t wobble” and it will bear our weight well?

However what we often get confused about, in my view, is that stool topper. Many in Hawai‘i will say that it is sustainability, but to me, we will still fall short if we stop and settle there (and yes, I fully realize we are not there yet, so we take one step at a time). I learned of the topper as Gift; the gift of Ho‘okipa offered in its full traditional sense, “that is, as an act of giving which is based on reciprocity.” If you have Dr. Kanahele’s book, or borrow it from the library, you will find this discussion well articulated in his chapter on The Relevance of Primal Economics, and I highly recommend it.

Consistent with our core value-goal here of Alaka‘i, the Hawaiian value of leadership, I would encourage you to ‘power up your vocabulary’ with the definition and clarity of a triple bottom line most applicable to your own business. Pull it out of business-speak, and make the phrase relevant and useful to you. Conventionally it is a financial metaphor that should be measured with the same ethical integrity with which you measure profit, with each leg fortified by value-alignment. And don’t forget the topper.

More reading from the Say “Alaka‘i” archives on:

~ Originally published on Say “Alaka‘i” ~
A Triple Bottom Line for Hawai‘i