The accounts are not the organisation

I was an observer in an email debate, until someone said that the fourth bottom line *is * ethics. Well, that raised my hackles.  Here’s why. 

My life, in general, has too many emails pinging into my inbox. But I do look forward to the 2+ or so every day from my Masters Alumni (was in Bath, now in Ashridge). There are 250+ people around the world who share and inquire. A few weeks ago the topic was the quadruple bottom line. People were buzzing back and forth with different fourth bottom lines they had come across. Then one person came in with what they said was The Answer: someone from Big Institution had said the fourth bottom line was ethics. End of.

Now I’m a Chartered Accountant from the ICAEW.  My first job in Forum was to be a sustainability accountant . All the way back in 2003 I co-wrote the SIGMA Sustainability Accounting Guide. (Note: this has a number of environmental P&L’s that predate Puma’s “unprecedented” effort by at least a decade.) So, I have some expertise (though a little dated now; I haven’t done a set of sustainability accounts for quite some time).

So – what raised my hackles? The claim there is a  definitive fourth bottom line. There isn’t. And to definitely claim there is to mis-lead and, maybe, manipulate people.

It turns out some say the fourth bottom line is ethics, some say spirituality, some say other stuff. Fundamentally it is a human construct – as are the other three bottom lines. We can make the fourth bottom line whatever we like. If other people use the same construct then it can become powerful, influential – a convention. Even then it is map, and not the territory. The map reflects the assumptions and political intentions of the map maker and – if it becomes convention – influences the users.

But the map is not the territory. The menu is not the food. The accounts are not the organisation, no matter how many bottom lines you are using. (See Gregory Bateson’s essay “Forum, Substance and Difference” (p318 of this pdf) for a compelling argument that the root of our ecological crisis is thinking the map is the territory.)

Everyone who wants a fourth bottom line of ethics, or spirituality or whatever, will need to work through the likely long-term consequences of expressing such sentiments in an accounting, quantitative metaphor. Maybe it will mean ethics are priced, and so explicitly included in decisions along with other priced elements (probably a good thing). Maybe it will mean people will think they can trade off £5k of poor ethical performance for £10k of good environmental impact (maybe not such a good thing).

So, be sceptical when anyone claims that the fourth bottom line is definitely X. And don’t forget the limitations of using particular metaphors.

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