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MLK’s Triple Bottom Line: The Length, Breadth and Height of a Complete Life and Business

Image credit: Jerónimo Bernot

Sixty-four years ago, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his first sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. We named our son Dexter with this in mind.

In his first sermon — actually it was a trial sermon from which the congregation would consider him as their new pastor — King preached about “the three dimensions of a complete life.” He referred to these dimensions as the Length, Breadth and Height of a life. They represented, respectively, an inward concern for one’s own personal welfare, ends and ambitions; an outward concern for others; and an upward reach toward God.

We at B Lab and in the B Corp community look to King and others for inspiration in our work. King’s framework for the three dimensions of a complete life is similar to the B Corp framework for a complete business — with Length, Breadth and Height replaced by the triple-bottom-line of Profit, People and Planet. It is King’s vision that inspires us to build an inclusive and sustainable economy that creates a shared and durable prosperity for all of us.

The inward concern of a business is for its own personal welfare, namely its profits — in King’s words, it’s Length. Indeed, without profits, the length of the life of a business will be short. If you want your business to have a long life, be profitable.

The outward concern of a business is its concern for the welfare of others, the people — in King’s words, its Breadth. The breadth of a business ought to be measured by how it extends its concerns beyond those of its owners to those of its workers, its suppliers, its customers, and to all the people who are touched by the business.

Lastly, the upward concern of a business — or in King’s words, its Height — might be reflected in its concern for the rest of God’s Creation, the environment. This concern might exist not simply to steward the resources of our planet for our own profitable use over time, but to do so for its own sake, its own beauty, and to safeguard that beauty so that it can be enjoyed by our children’s children.

King concluded his first sermon by saying that “unless these three [dimensions] are [connected], working harmoniously together in a single life, that life is incomplete.” The same can be said for a business. Unless concerns for people, planet and profit are connected, working harmoniously together in a single business, that business is incomplete.

As our country celebrates the birth and legacy of one of our greatest leaders, Dr. King, we celebrate the people who are working to embody his highest aspirations. We celebrate all who are working to connect harmoniously the interdependent concerns of people, planet and profit.

We celebrate all who inspire us to judge a business not just by how well it serves shareholders, but by how well it serves society. We celebrate all who are drum majors for a more just and equitable economy that works for everyone. We celebrate all who are using the power of free and fair markets to manifest Dr. King’s beloved community.

When Dr. King and others led the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, they envisioned not just any jobs, but quality jobs with dignity.

Let’s all honor Dr. King by committing to work for, buy from and invest in businesses that are creating quality jobs with dignity — jobs that enable people to take care of themselves and their families; to grow as individuals and to be in right relationship with others; and to make a meaningful contribution to their community and the world.

Let’s all honor Dr. King, not just by listening to his inspiring vision, but by translating his vision into action — not only with marches for justice, but by building a just marketplace.

This post first appeared on Medium on January 12, 2018.


Jay Coen Gilbert co-founded and sold AND 1, a 250M basketball footwear and apparel company based outside Philadelphia. He led AND 1's product and marketing for 13 years and was AND 1's Chief Executive Officer during its period of most… [Read more about Jay Coen Gilbert]


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