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The term “triple bottom line” refers to businesses committing to sustainable development by focusing as much on social and environmental concerns as they do on profits. In other words, instead of one bottom line, there should be three: social, economic and environmental – or people, profit and planet. This way of thinking maintains that your business can and should be managed in a way that not only makes money but also improves the wellbeing of the planet and people’s lives.

Three pillars of sustainability

Why are the 3 pillars important for your business?

In short: sustainable companies perform better on every other key metric.

Taking sustainability into account reflects well on them, making them more attractive to investors, stakeholders and customers alike. Seventy five percent of investors see sustainability performance as relevant to their investment decision, and 83% believe that being better at managing ESG factors will either improve returns or reduce risk.

Generally speaking, businesses’ number one priority has historically been to make money. But the climate crisis is forcing each of the three interacting factors into the spotlight, with all ESG matters increasingly in-demand from investors, stakeholders and customers alike.

This sustainability-driven way of thinking maintains that it is much harder to be successful in one pillar – including economic - if you are neglecting the other two pillars. The interaction between the three means that transitory considerations (e.g. short-term profitability) risk destabilising all pillars and systems. Environmental issues cannot be solved in isolation from other problems; for example, when a nation’s economy is struggling, it often cuts back on its environmental goal as a result.

So what are the implications for businesses? Well firstly, it’ll mean shifting away from traditional approaches of tackling sustainability in isolation and secondly, it will require your corporate social responsibility (CSR) to be fully integrated into your core business strategies.

To support this shift towards sustainability, it helps to couple the three pillars with their related ISO standards to leverage the standards’ guidance, framework and best practice.


Certifying to the relevant ISO standards is a powerful demonstration to your investors, stakeholders and customers of your commitment to sustainability.

Our blog takes a deeper dive into what these three pillars are, how they manifest in businesses, and the relevant ISO standards you should certify to in order to demonstrate your commitment. 

Key takeaways:

  • Sustainable companies perform better, and investors are increasingly prioritising ESG matters
  • Interaction between the three pillars is key; weakness in any one pillar risks the sustainability ‘roof’ collapsing
  • ISO standards provide effective tools to help contribute to the UN’s sustainable development goals and the three pillars of sustainable development, and certification is a powerful demonstration of your organisation’s commitment to improving sustainability

What are the three pillars of sustainability and their relevant ISO standards?


The ‘people’ pillar includes human health, safety, education and security, among other important social elements of society.

ISO 45001 is a core ISO standard which promotes health, safety, and wellbeing of stakeholders. ISO 26000 focuses specifically on social responsibility for ethical and transparent development. However, it is simply guidance and you cannot certify to this standard.

The approaches to securing and maintaining this social sustainability are wide ranging, but it ultimately boils down to treating employees fairly and being a good community member, both locally and globally. A sustainable business should have the support and approval of its employees, stakeholders and the community it operates in.

For example, on a local, employee level, businesses should refocus on retention and engagement strategies such as more responsive benefits (e.g. better maternity and paternity benefits, flexible scheduling and L&D opportunities).

On a global social scale, a business should be aware of how its supply chain is being filled, is child labour going into your end product? Are people being paid fairly? Is the work environment safe? How can you eradicate slavery from your supply chain?


The ‘planet’ pillar often gets the most attention, with its focus on mitigating negative environmental impacts. In fact, when most people think of sustainability, they think of the planet's health, mitigating our negative environmental footprint and how we can re-green our spaces. But Ideagen’s recent research discovered that training and knowledge on how to implement environmental controls is one of the greatest challenges organisations are facing.

ISO 14001 provides guidance on improving environmental sustainability. Overall, to be more environmentally friendly, we must stop contributing to:

  • The systematic increase in extracting substances from the earth, such as oil or heavy metals
  • The systematic increase in making substances such as plastics of toxic chemicals
  • The systematic physical degradation of natural processes (such as deforestation, overfishing, or destroying wildlife habitats)

In order to achieve this, companies are focusing on reducing potentially damaging actions and materials including carbon footprints, packaging waste and water usage among others. They have found that having a beneficial impact on the planet can also have a positive financial impact; for example, lessening the amount of material used in packaging will reduce the overall spend on those materials.



The ‘profit’ pillar – sometimes referred to as the ‘governance’ pillar - encompasses economic sustainability, including profitability, good corporate governance, compliance, risk management, job creation, and accurate accounting of ecosystem services.

ISO 9001 focuses on improving quality infrastructure and optimising business practices which is essential for economic sustainability, and ISO 37000 specifically looks at corporate governance.

To be sustainable, a business must be profitable, so this is where businesses typically feel safest. But it is important that businesses are conscious of not letting profit trump the other two pillars. Rather than striving for profit at any cost, companies that are economically sustainable practice proper governance and risk management.


What you should do next

Certification to these key ISO standards will give you the competitive edge with all ESG matters.

Ideagen partnered with the Chartered Quality Institute (CQI) to ask 30,000 quality and audit professionals whether they think their business is doing enough to protect the environment, what initiatives their business has taken, and to share their examples, ideas and advice for us to share in this report.


As part of our survey, we asked businesses which ISO standards they are certified to. We found that businesses are overwhelmingly focusing more on profit than environment and social responsibility.

Download our full report to learn how this finding impacted other key quality metrics, and discover more about how businesses are embedding sustainable development practices relating to the three pillars throughout their organisation.


Global Sustainability Report

Our report surveys 150+ audit and quality professionals for further insight into how businesses are embedding sustainable development practices.

Ideagen's Sophie Willink
Written by

Sophie Willink

As Ideagen’s Content Marketing Executive, Sophie produces informative content to provide customers with digestible insights into the world of quality, audit, risk and compliance.

With a background in psychology, Sophie is passionate about understanding human behaviour and the role technology can play in measuring, reporting and improving behaviours to create higher quality business environments.