March 19, 2018

Our Triple Bottom Line: It’s Time To Redefine Sustainability | Editorial

RebeccaWebEdit2015Environmentally sound. Socially equitable. Economically feasible. Each of these concepts alone encompasses a worthy goal and each contains a universe of complexity. Considered in tandem, they may just change the face of library sustainability planning. I, for one, am captivated by the potential that they could do just that.

The work has begun. In September, a small group of “co-creators” of the New York Library Association (NYLA) Sustainability Initiative convened an intensive think tank. There, participants dreamt about how to spur efforts around sustainable libraries in light of NYLA’s 2014 adoption of the Resolution on the Importance of Sustainable Libraries. (A modified version was adopted by the American Library Association this summer; see “A Win for Sustainability.”) It was engaging and inspiring to be among like-minded peers, and it is clear that the road ahead is not yet mapped and likely to be challenging.

Maybe owing to the uncertainty of the uncharted territory mixed with the urgency of the era we live in, I came away feeling energized and more certain than ever that now is the time for librarians to step forward and forge a new understanding and application of sustainable thinking. How do we move a profession to think actively about sustainability in the broadest sense and, more important, take action that creates greater sustainability for our libraries and our communities? Working groups such as this one have the potential to propel us from language to the brass tacks of implementation—and kudos to the people who are putting shoulder to plow.

Such a complex problem as “capital S” sustainability requires a comprehensive response. Setting really valuable context was a Venn diagram (pictured) presented by lead conveners Rebekkah Smith Aldrich, coordinator for library sustainability for the Mid-Hudson Library System, and Matthew Bollerman, director of the Hauppauge Public Library and past NYLA president. Smith Aldrich adapted the concept of the “triple bottom line”—coined by John Elkington in 1994 to help articulate a whole picture of the costs of doing business for the private sector—to represent outcomes that align with library purposes. Hence, one circle embodies the goal of social equity, one focuses on economic feasibility, and one stands for environmental sensitivity.


The sweet spot in the center, the “universal set,” is where the three overlap. We are pretty good at thinking about each in its silo, but the challenge inherent in this image is in transcending those silos. Sustainability, for example, has often been thought of simply as a synonym for green design—and misunderstanding of the long-term economic feasibility of green design has often led to friction where there could have been consensus. By thinking of these things together instead of separately, we can home in on the solutions that address all three goals rather than create three solutions that could work for one but hamper one or both of the others. Asking, does it create more social equity, is it environmentally sound, and is it economically feasible fosters a sort of harmony in strategic planning that guides leaders toward a sustainable choice.

If we let these goals together drive our development, we could very well have more robust solutions that address our ongoing societal need for a mechanism to increase equity, our internal institutional need for sustained viability, and the global need to address climate change through systemic commitments. Applied together, across our libraries, this conceptualization could foster a sea change for our society.

I know sustainability can be considered a buzzword or, worse, a pipe dream. It’s neither. I’m willing to believe it’s a real possibility—that the universal set is achievable. It’s our only choice, and the time is here to galvanize our best thinking toward helping our libraries and our communities get there.


This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller ( is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.

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