SD Features
Sustainability Concepts
Natural Step
A. Definition

The Natural Step (TNS) framework is based on scientific principles; is focused on the beginning of cause-effect relationships; and incorporates the wider environment-social-economic system in its thinking. Designed to guide actions and behaviours, TNS framework works towards achieving sustainability.

B. Main Features

Used by organisations, government's and local communities worldwide, The Natural Step organisation is an international, non-profit organisation dedicated to achieving ecological, social and economic sustainability; opening and maintaining communication pathways between stakeholders; and consensus building. Solutions are flexible and designed for the long term whilst providing short term profitability. The TNS organisation uses the TNS framework to define its sustainability principles, methodology and strategy.

The Natural Step framework is composed of (a) Four System Conditions, (b) Backcasting and (c) the ideological TNS Funnel.

The Four System Conditions, also known as the principles of sustainability, were developed by scientists world wide. They specify the fundamental conditions to be met if sustainability is to be reached and maintained. Specifically, the Four System Conditions are:

"In the sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing ....
1. ... concentrations of substances extracted from the earth's crust.
2. ... concentrations of substances produced by society.
3. ... degradation by physical means.
and, in that society ...
4. ... human needs are met worldwide."

The first three conditions relate to how humans interact with the planet. The last condition is about achieving a sustainable worldwide society. The Four System Conditions use the premise that matter must be processed in cycles. This cyclic principle aims to use resources efficiently and fairly; substitute rare or toxic materials with environmentally friendly and abundant materials; develop new technologies; and protect ecosystems. The Four Systems Conditions establishes the structure for decision-making and is used for audits; diagnostics; reporting; communication; systems analysis; investment criteria, etc.

Backcasting is used for planning; decision-making; scenarios; innovation; etc. Backcasting:

  • Identifies the need of the product, service or organisation.
  • Identifies stakeholders.
  • Analyses current conditions.
  • Creates future scenarios.
  • Identifies and implements strategies.
The TNS funnel (Figure 1) is a conceptual representation of resource availability and resource use. It illustrates that as the population and resource demand/use increases, the resources available for us to use decreases and freedoms become restricted as we have less room to move. However, there is a point when a level of sustainable supply and demand is reached. The Natural Step aims to go past this equilibrium and open up the funnel where demand is less than supply.

Figure 1 - The Natural Step Funnel (Source: The Natural Step America)

Implementing sustainability is done through the A-B-C-D process:

  • Awareness building and understanding - organisations are aligned with a common understanding of sustainability.
  • Baseline mapping - organisations assess their material and energy flows and the impact of the organisation on society. This step uses the Four System Conditions.
  • Create a vision and strategic plan - a long term vision is created of the organisation in a sustainable society. A strategy is enabled from a point of view of having achieved sustainability and looking backwards. This step uses backcasting and identifies step-by-step solutions to bring the organisation from the current condition to a sustainable condition.
  • Down to action - organisations implement actions. Backcasting is used to continually assess decisions to ensure they meet the vision created above.
The Natural Step international and interdisciplinary research and advisory network extends to Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.

C. Organisational Proponent

Dr. Karl-Henrik Robčrt created The Natural Step organization in 1989. He worked with Swedish scientists to develop a paper outlining ecological issues and principles that underpin sustainability.

D. Case Studies and Examples

1. The Natural Step and Legislation
Connecticut (USA) integrated TNS framework into the definition of sustainability in the 1999 bill "An Act Concerning Exemplary Environmental Management Systems". The Act provides benefits such as system-side permits, fast tracking permits and waving of certain fees once organisations are certified to ISO 14001 and can demonstrate they have adopted TNS framework or another internationally recognised sustainability principle.

2. The Natural Step and EMS
Manningham City Council (Australia) was not satisfied with a traditional environmental management system (EMS) and sought assistance from outside organisations to develop a more comprehensive EMS. TNS and Green Innovations (an EMS implementation specialist) worked with Manningham City Council and other stakeholders to conduct initial planning, identify needs, create scenarios, respond to changes in legislation, trial a TNS/ISO14001 EMS and create an EMS action plan. Manningham City Council has implemented TNS framework into various aspects of Council, including its EMS.

3. The Natural Step and Material Use
The Natural Step UK and Forum for the Future looked at sustainability of materials from the point of view of how materials are used, rather than which materials are used. The 2020 Vision series report examined if current resource use was sustainable, what factors were influencing consumption patterns, what is sustainable resource use and how sustainable resource use can be reached. The report found that political, regulatory and economic obstacles are preventing sustainable development. Technology was not found to be a hindrance.

E. Target Sectors / Stakeholders

TNS is targeted to individuals, communities, academia, businesses (national and multinational), governments, and non-government organisations. Key stakeholders in the framework include scientists, educators, researchers, policy makers and engineers.

F. Scale of Operation

Implementation of TNS framework is possible at any level.

G. Links

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