Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Tax Exemptions for Triple Bottom Line Businesses?

Our favorite eco-lawyer, Stephen Filler, went to the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies conference in Burlington, VT, last week, and all the talk of Triple Bottom Line business models got him thinking. Normally, if you're near a lawyer who's thinking, I'd say move quickly away and hold on to your wallet. But there's not a lawsuit in sight here; rather, Stephen got to thinking about using our tax policy to encourage businesses to adapt triple bottom line missions:

I wonder: what would it mean for our planet if businesses truly had a legally enforceable Triple Bottom Line? What if businesses were legally required, or agreed, to internalize all the costs that many now externalize? What if manufacturers incorporated the true life-cycle costs of their products (production and waste) as part of their business expenses? What if businesses valued their employees as much as they now do their shareholders?

Is it possible?

While it's unlikely -- at the moment, at least ;-) -- that government would legally require businesses to adopt a Triple Bottom Line, there is no legal reason why a business could not voluntarily create such a legally binding commitment in its articles of incorporation and bylaws.

And what should society do for a corporation that puts people and planet on a par with profits? Given the tremendous saving that accrues to society from a business that internalizes its environmental and societal costs, I'd say the business should be given a whopping tax benefit including, at least, tax exempt (or extremely reduced) status for profits, distributions and employee incomes.

Sure, it's possible, and their are businesses adapting triple bottom line missions and practices. The most recent one I've come across is fuel cell manufacturer Plug Power. Such practices make sense at a number of levels, not the least of which is that a triple bottom line can contribute, over time, to a very healthy traditional bottom line. But Stephen's right that the tax incentives should be there, as these companies are doing the right thing by all stakeholders in internalizing their costs and contributing to employee satisfaction and well-being. Paul Hawken discusses the idea in detail in The Ecology of Commerce. Perhaps using the carrot of lower taxes would be enough... or, would someone like to argue that we all need a stick to prod some companies along...?

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