COVID-19 Sustainable Lessons 05: People or Economy – What is more important ?

With the recent COVID-19 responses, a question came up regarding what is more important for certain segments of society: people or the economy? The backdrop to this question is something called the Triple Bottom Line (TBL): People, Planet and Profit (or Prosperity).

NOTE: GPM Global believes that each of the parts should be treated with equal consideration and respect.

The triple bottom line (TBL) is a framework that…

… recommends that companies commit to focus on social and environmental concerns just as they do on profits. The TBL posits that instead of one bottom line, there should be three: profit, people, and the planet. A TBL seeks to gauge a corporation’s level of commitment to corporate social responsibility and its impact on the environment over time.

In 1994, John Elkington—the famed British management consultant and sustainability guru—coined the phrase “triple bottom line” as his way of measuring performance in corporate America. The idea was that a company can be managed in a way that not only earns financial profits but which also improves people’s lives and the planet.

Kenton, Will. “How There Can Be Three Bottom Lines.” Investopedia, Investopedia, 5 Feb. 2020,

The traditional TBL model is represented by three overlapping circles of equal proportion.

However, different cultures and political communities perceive the weighting of these circles very differently based on their values or priorities. GPM Global has noticed over the years a clear message during our international travels that each country, region, culture, industry and organization interprets sustainability differently and prioritizes components like these differently.

Here is a representative model of this spectrum for context. In our teachings of sustainability, we recognize that everyone has different perceptions, values and priorities. And that is absolutely okay. It is important to emphasize that we recognize that society needs both sides of this spectrum, the yin and the yang if you will, to identify problems correctly and come up with the appropriate solutions together.


The segment of society on the left perceives that the planet and “mother nature” should be the main and critical priority of humanity. The belief is that if we do not take care of the planet first and foremost it will negatively impact all of us. For those on the right we have historically represented a humanity first model. For this segment, they do not care as much about the loss of polar bears, flying insects or exotic rodents as long as people are taken care of and are prosperous.

So with this background and context, here is the question:

For the right hand side of the image…


… should People have the priority (as we currently represent it)?


… should Profit (Prosperity) have the priority?


… or should both People and Profit have an equal Priority that is greater than the planet?



It is far to soon (as of April 8, 2020) to make any conclusive observations regarding the COVID-19 outbreak.

Regarding this question though, it appears that focusing on people over the economy / profitability makes the most sense based on the lessons learned. We have discovered that societies with the support structures (medical and economic) are fairing better at this juncture.

Those that do not, have had to expend unprecedented amounts of money to protect and stabilize their citizens well being and economy causing enormous additional national debt. For some of these nations, their infrastructure cannot even get this funding in an appropriate or timely manner to the required stakeholders due to their inefficient and weakened systems. The notion of paying a livable wage to suppliers and personnel will most likely become a key discussion item in the near future, as well as paying taxes to ensure that governments have access to the resources and can support the funding of the required national infrastructures in case of similar predictable crises.


Any guidance, perspectives, research is most welcome.



This is a great visual model that is easy to understand and part of the business lexicon for describing sustainability and how society responds to it. GPM Global has incorporated it as part of the primary architecture of the P5 standard.

It should be noted that in June 25, 2018 John Elkington wrote a post in the Harvard Business Review called “25 Years Ago I Coined the Phrase ‘Triple Bottom Line.’ Here’s Why It’s Time to Rethink It.” The rationale for the recall was:

Critically, too, TBL’s stated goal from the outset was system change — pushing toward the transformation of capitalism. It was never supposed to be just an accounting system. It was originally intended as a genetic code, a triple helix of change for tomorrow’s capitalism, with a focus was on breakthrough change, disruption, asymmetric growth (with unsustainable sectors actively sidelined), and the scaling of next-generation market solutions.


Elkington, John. “25 Years Ago I Coined the Phrase ‘Triple Bottom Line.” Here’s Why It’s Time to Rethink It.” Harvard Business Review, 13 Sept. 2018,




Haidt, Jonathan. (2013). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Retrieved on September 1, 2017 at






Hibbing, John R.; Smith, Kevin B.; Alford, John R.. (2013). Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences. Taylor and Francis. Retrieved on September 1, 2017 at






Raworth, Kate. Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think like a 21st-Century Economist. Random House Business Books, 2018. Retrieved on September 1, 2017 at






Epley, Nicholas. Mindwise Why We Misunderstand What Others Think, Believe, Feel and Want. Vintage Books, 2015. Retrieved on September 1, 2017 at
Eberhardt, Jennifer Lynn. Biased: the New Science of Race and Inequality. William Heinemann, 2019. Retrieved on September 1, 2017 at
Stout, Lynn A. The Shareholder Value Myth: How Putting Shareholders First Harms Investors, Corporations, and the Public. Berrett-Koehler, 2013. Retrieved on September 1, 2017 at

Peter Milsom

Peter Milsom is an entrepreneurial advocate for sensible, sustainable change delivery practice. Peter has come to realize that sustainability is the perfect catalyst for Project / Programme / Portfolio / Risk / Value / Business Case and Benefits Management improvement. As an entrepreneurial methodologist Peter's unique value proposition is the vast array of tools and techniques that he brings to every engagement using the most cost effective and efficient methods based on the situation and tailored to meet your needs. This is based on his unique combination of experience and extensive training / certifications in change delivery, value / risk / benefits management business case, and business architecture.

2 thoughts to “COVID-19 Sustainable Lessons 05: People or Economy – What is more important ?”

    1. Paul,

      I loved Doughnut Economics. Brilliant book. After your comment I skimmed through the book realizing that I had forgotten how much she touched on this area.

      Thank you for the reminder!



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