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The Triple Bottom Line Goal of Sustainable Businesses A profitable startup that can make the world a better place? It's a win-win.

By Grant Davis

Ask 10 people to describe a sustainable business, and you'll get a variety of answers. A banker or shareholder would call it an established business with regular, uninterrupted profits. A college student may point to a company's commitment to zero out its environmental impact. According to Karen Martinsen Fleming, director of Green Mountain College's sustainable business MBA program in Vermont, both are correct. She would also add "people" to the definition to create what's known as running a business with a triple bottom line (TBL).

Specifically, TBL refers to "profit, planet, people," and it's a term often connected to companies that are actively engaged in eco-friendly policies or community outreach (think Toms shoes). And it usually gets a bad rap from the business community.

"A banker or investor might feel that a startup's good intentions are incompatible with success or [are] going to hurt profitability," Fleming says. "But there's enough evidence now that operating a company with an altruistic bent offers considerable strategic advantages, the kind that don't always show up instantly on the books."

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