The Natural Step

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The Natural Step (TNS) slices through the confusion about sustainable development and is being applied by businesses and investigated by governments

Devised in Sweden by Dr Karl-Henrik Robért, The Natural Step is a scientifically approved approach to applying sustainable development in practical ways by organisations of every kind. It is being applied in Sweden and tried out in the UK, Australia and the USA by both businesses and governments. The consensus among scientists was agreed first in Sweden and followed by statements agreed among scientists in the USA (the "Wingspread Declaration") and in Australia - as reported in The Natural Step UK, the free newsletter published in July 1998 - see below.

What is The Natural Step?

Dr Robért, a cancer scientist, worked with other scientists from a wide cross-section of disciplines to develop a consensus, based on the laws of thermodynamics, on the four systems conditions that organisations must work towards to achieve sustainable development. These systems conditions are:

  1. Substances from the Earth's crust must not systematically increase in the biosphere. This means that in sustainable society, fossil fuels, metals and other materials are not extracted at a faster pace than their slow redeposit into the Earth;s crust.
  2. Substances produced by society must not systematically increase in nature. This means that in a sustainable society, substances are not produced at a faster pace than they can be broken down in nature or into the Earth's crust.
  3. The physical basis for the productivity and the diversity of nature must not be systematically diminished. This means that in a sustainable society, the productive surfaces of nature are not diminished in quality or quantity, and we must not harvest more from nature than can be recreated.
  4. We must be fair and efficient in meeting basic human needs. This means that in a sustainable society, basic human needs must be met with the most resource-efficient methods possible, including a just resource distribution.

See also the web sites for The Natural Step in Sweden & UK, and as an important global idea.

The Science of TNS

Science lies at the heart of The Natural Step and using the scientific consensus approach developed in Sweden the scientific community in the UK will be engaged and challenged focusing on the TNS Systems Conditions. Advice and assistance will be provided by Dr Eileen Buttle, former Secretary of the Natural Environment Research Council and member of the Advisory Committee for the European Environment Agency; Dr David Fisk, Chief Scientist at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the the Regions; and Dr Jan Pentreath, Chief Scientist at The Environment Agency. A regular briefing paper from a scientific perspective, Stepping Stones, has been well-received and will continue through 1998.

How businesses can apply the systems conditions

To apply these conditions businesses seek to move from linear industrial processes to cyclical and every business can ask itself the following questions:

  1. Does you organisation systematically decrease its economic dependence on underground metals, fossil fuels and minerals?
  2. Does your organisation systematically decrease its economic dependence on long-lived unnatural substances?
  3. Does your organisation systematically decrease its economic dependence on activities which encroach on productive parts of nature?
  4. Does your organisation systematically decrease its economic dependence on using a large amount of resources in relation to added human value?

What progress is being made?

For more information about The Natural Step International contact Magnus Huss at The ideas are being applied in Australia, Canada,  Japan, Sweden, South Africa, Netherlands, New Zealand, as well as the United Kingdom and the United States - see the international web site.

An interview describing how The Natural Step started in Sweden is described on a web site. In Sweden Electrolux, Ikea, Swedish Rail, Scandic Hotels and McDonald's are applying the approach. The Natural Step in the UK is developing its own web site but meanwhile an explanation of applications by the Co-operative Bank, Electrolux and Ikea are included in Building to Last by Colin Hutchinson. In the USA The Natural Step initiative is led by Paul Hawken, author of The Ecology of Commerce.

An Organisational Approach to Sustainable Development in the UK

Pathfinder Programme

The Natural Step UK worked with ten companies and the Environment Agency in a Pathfinder Programme, to help them learn about sustainable development. The objectives of the Pathfinder Programme were to :

Business Partners

The business partners in the continuing TNS network are:

The Model

Although each project has been different, the general model used in all of them is :

  1. Identify the project focus which is related to current work and driven by business needs.

  2. Bring in stakeholders who may be internal or external to the main partner organisation, but are crucial to the success of the project.

  3. Run awareness raising workshops to build understanding of the conditions for sustainability and of The Natural Step’s approach and to establish a shared language and concept of sustainable development within the project team. The core concepts of The Natural Step include the systems thinking, the natural cycle, the system conditions for sustainability, and the process of creating a vision of sustainability and ‘backcasting’ from that the present to build an incremental plan for attaining sustainability.

  4. Run applications workshops using The Natural Step’s approach to review existing practice, create a vision of a future sustainable alternative to it, back-cast and identify small steps as part of the incremental plan that the team can put into practice or recommend to the wider organisation.

  5. Implement the small steps which can include communicating the reasons why the changes are being made to a wider circle of people, sometimes involving further awareness raising workshops.

  6. Review the project, both the process that was followed and the actions or outcomes which resulted.

What we have learnt

The features of The Natural Step’s approach which have been important for people’s learning are :

What some participants have said

  • "Having attended my TNS training, I now understand the urgency of redesigning our products."

  • "I always realised the world was a wonderful place, but I hadn’t realised what a mess we had made of it."

  • "Yes, yes it has [made a difference to me]. TNS has given me a sense of direction I lacked before."

  • "I have used ‘the funnel’ in discussions with people internally and externally."

  • "[The best thing about the project is that it] provided an accessible understanding of the concepts. I knew it in my bones but was unable to articulate it before now."

  • "The overwhelming conclusions by all those involved in the TNS Learning Workshops is that the heightened awareness and understanding of sustainable development has stimulated new business thinking and brought about an impetus for healthy change in the way social housing is approached."

  • "Working with TNS is helping us to achieve continuous improvement in economic, environmental and social performance."

  • "The TNS approach has generated a range of potential solutions - short and long term."

  • The above account of TNS in UK is from a paper by Penny Walker, an independent facilitator and trainer specialising in sustainable development, produced for Green Learning in the Workplace, 1999. For a longer version of this paper, contact Penny Walker direct: Penny Walker Associates, 92 Winston Road, London N16 9LR,  telephone: 0171 254 3500, fax: 0171 275 7675 or email: Alternatively The Natural Step, 9 Imperial Square, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL50 1QB, telephone: 01242 262744, fax: 01242 524445 or email: and website:

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    Last up dated 20 September 1999