Using “The Natural Step” to close the sustainability gap

The Natural Step was founded in Sweden by one Dr Karl-Henrik Robert as a way to address the environmental and the sustainability issues that impacts businesses. TNS has offices in 10 countries and some of the most respected companies like the Ikea, Interface, Nike use The Natural Step’s sustainability framework. Since the principles are general in nature, they can be adopted by any organization.

TNS sets out the “system conditions” for the sustainability of human activities on Earth. It has 4 principles that are the focus of interactions between humans and the planet. The first principle is to avoid subjecting people to conditions which undermine their capacity to meet their own needs. The other 3 are based in science and supported by the analysis that ecosystem functions and processes are altered in the following ways:

  1. Society mines and disperses materials faster than they are returned to the Earth’s crust (examples include oil, coal and metals such as mercury and lead).
  2. Society produces substances faster than they can be broken down by natural processes — if they can be broken down at all (examples of such substances include dioxins, DDT and PCBs)
  3. Society depletes or degrades resources faster than they are regenerated (for example, over-harvesting of trees or fish), or by other forms of ecosystem manipulation (for example, paving over fertile land or causing soil erosion)

One of the strengths of this framework is its implementation approach. Instead of telling what to do, it calls for defining the boundary conditions and asking the industry experts to come out with their own creative solutions. The sustainability framework of TNS is also absolute, that is, it can be measured and audited to track performance of the companies applying this framework. Also, its sound scientific base lends its credibility.

According to a report “Sustainability Primer” created by TNS, it believes that –

“Many people think of the environment, economy and society as a ‘triple bottom line’ or a ‘three-legged stool’. Instead, it is more useful to think of them as three nested and interde­pendent spheres – the largest sphere representing the environ­ment or Earth, the middle sphere representing society, or human capital and economy as the smallest circle because it is governed by the rules, regulations and structures of the other two spheres. The economy depends on human capital and natural capital to thrive. You can’t have one at the expense of another.”

The Natural Step provides businesses with a deeper understanding of sustainability as a business opportunity – and not a cost. It shows how to use the interdependence of economic, environmental and social systems as a competitive advantage. Because of its scientifi­cally rigorous framework, it allows companies to perform a gap analysis and help close that gap through strategic and efficient planning by giving practical tools and information needed for sustainable business practices.

The Natural Step Framework has evolved over 20 years of experience, successes and challenges, with the influence of many different concepts and lines of thought. It is a comprehensive model for planning in complex systems and is openly published and free for all to use. And because it is freely available, it can expand its reach within the corporate world and be adopted by more and more companies. TNS can be viewed as the ideal first step of any organization lost in the sustainability miasma.

Perhaps, TNS can be the answer to the consumption led models that we are experiencing in today’s emerging economies. 

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2 thoughts on “Using “The Natural Step” to close the sustainability gap

  1. In your experience, have you heard of or seen “The Natural Step” used by publicly traded corporations? Does their requirement of every increasing profit margins allow for considerations such as sustainability?

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