The longest of journeys begins . . .

Sustainable development is a sound, necessary and widely supported concept. But how does one move from concept to practice, and begin applying it in the messy world in which we live? Dr Mark Everard, Director of Science, The Natural Step UK - launched last month - strides out.

Let’s be clear, sustainable development goes way beyond mere compliance with basic environmental and social obligations, and is substantially different to “greening” (peripheral “end-of-pipe”, “end-of-field”, process optimisation, mitigation, or reputation-building measures). Although sustainability has been the subject of myriad definitions, and seemingly interminable debate about detail, the concept is really quite simple: a sustainable system is one that can continue indefinitely; a sustainable society is one that does not impair or overload the life-support systems that provide for its needs; a sustainable business or other enterprise is one that respects nature’s limits and the rights of those with whom it interacts, however remotely, and that can thereby be sustained indefinitely. It is that basic and, at the same time, very remote from what we do today!

Figure 1.

Figure 2.

How then can one get to grips with sustainable development in the gritty reality of day-to-day decision-making? The first step is a realisation that a commitment to sustainable development is about far more than altruism. A more sustainable business or activity will be less disrupted by resource scarcities, reduced environmental “headroom”, adverse public opinion, more stringent environmental and social regulations, etc, in a future world in which population is set to increase and environmental resources to diminish. In short, a more sustainable enterprise is one that will pre-empt future pressures and future markets, and will thereby be more competitive.

High-level principles

Networking and shared learning with those upon whom we depend, and who depend upon us, is also essential, since sustainable development touches all aspects of human life and is therefore something we can never hope to achieve in isolation. And, because the application of sustainable development pervades all sectors of society, a set of high-level principles are required to offer a generic, yet robust and science-based, framework for the development of a shared vision, and for wise decision-making.

The Natural Step (TNS) was developed in Sweden some nine years ago to address this gap between the idea and its widespread practice. It has proved highly successful in influencing decision-making across Swedish society – in business, in local and central government, in education and in the home. And it is now beginning to spread across the world.

TNS addresses the scientific underpinnings of the sustainable cycles of nature, upon which not only our health and survival but also the totality of human interests ultimately depend. Using a “systems thinking” approach, it addresses the biosphere as an holistic dynamic system, and from the scientific laws that govern this system it derives a set of first-order principles governing how a sustainable society would need to operate. The basic TNS model is illustrated in Figure 1.

Nature’s cyclic flows

Our present developed society, for example, relies substantially upon linear (“mine-use-dispose”) resource flows. Linear resource flows inevitably cause problems since, being alien to nature’s cyclic flows of matter, wastes build up in the biosphere in the longer or shorter term, even if we put them “out of sight and out of mind” in the seas, in landfill or into the air. Using the systems-oriented TNS model, it is possible to determine, in simple yet scientifically well-founded terms, the primary ways in which human practices can contribute to an unsustainable world. The four “system conditions” are first-order principles derived from the TNS model, and define the behaviours that a sustainable society would have to observe. These four system conditions are indicated in Figure 2, and described below.

System condition 1 – “Substances from the Earth’s crust must not systematically increase in nature” – relates to those substances immobilised in the lithosphere (the “rocky” and largely inert earth’s crust) by billions of years of slow sedimentation and biomineralisation. Clearly, modern developed industrial and agricultural processes breach this system condition extensively, relying on inputs of cheap and abundant energy unlocked from fossil fuels, nutrient substances added to soils, and extraction of metals and radioactive substances. The associated problems of climate change, eutrophication, and increasing soil and water contamination are, however, also well known, resulting from production of wastes at rates exceeding nature’s reintegration and deposition processes. As wastes tend systematically to rise in concentration, potentially adverse and unpredictable impacts upon nature and climate also harm the economic and social values deriving from them.

Science-based tool

System condition 2 – “Substances produced by society must not systematically increase in nature” – relates to man-made substances. Substances new to nature are processed inefficiently, if at all, by biochemical systems that have evolved over 4.5 billion years in their absence. Breakdown and reintegration of the estimated 100,000 such substances currently in production is therefore slow, leading to systematic accumulations in the biosphere. Predicting tolerable limits, particularly in mixtures and in complex ecosystems, is difficult given our largely incomplete knowledge of their toxicity. We also know that there is a possibility of unforeseen effects revealing themselves in the future – a recent example is the discovery of endocrine disruption – and it is for this reason that the Swedish Government is considering phasing out persistent bioaccumulative substances, regardless of toxicological data.

System condition 3 – “The physical basis for the productivity and diversity of nature must not be systematically diminished” – addresses the extent and diversity of nature’s productive surfaces. The natural processes and productive capacity of nature are the “engines” of biospheric processing, equipped throughout millennia of evolution with diverse ecosystems providing adaptable and efficient pathways. The consequences of over-harvesting natural resources are well-known from the collapse of the world’s major marine fisheries, from the scarcity of hardwoods, and from the ever-extending list of extinct and critically endangered species, yet over-harvesting still continues. Equally, we are beginning to become aware of the massive scale of the life support “services” provided collectively by Earth’s ecosystems, which we diminish or impoverish at our peril.

Social considerations

System condition 4 – “There needs to be fair and efficient use of resources with respect to meeting human needs” – highlights the social considerations permitting compliance with sustainable resource use. Primarily it addresses issues of resource efficiency and equity. Whilst the need for improved resource efficiency is already accepted (Factor 4, Factor 10, etc), we are less responsive to the international dimension of environmental problems, and the contribution of injustices and inequities to social instability. TNS is a generic, science-based tool to support more sustainable decision-making on a society-wide basis, and as such is applicable across a range of scales. The TNS model is based on nature’s sustainable cycles, and the four system conditions define how a sustainable society must act “ecocyclically”. As such, it provides a readily-understandable framework to get to grips with the practicalities of sustainable development, to predict future pressures, to communicate complex ideas within a business environment, to share these concepts with partners and across social sectors, and to make strategic judgements about the steps we need to take now towards a more sustainable future. It helps us address the fact that we cannot realistically hope to achieve sustainability immediately in a world that is far from sustainable, but enables us to “navigate” increasingly towards sustainability through incremental decisions.

The Natural Step is now operating in the UK as a part of Forum for the Future, the charity established by Jonathon Porritt to promote practical commitment to sustainable development across UK society, and the scientific work of TNS UK is kindly supported by the Environment Agency. There is clearly a great deal more to The Natural Step than is possible to convey in this brief article. We believe that TNS offers an unique tool for getting to grips with sustainable development, for putting it into practice within enterprises, and for doing so as a matter of “enlightened self-interest”.

Strategic value added – a business summary

– The Natural Step can add strategic value to formally constituted environmental management systems such as those specified in ISO 14001 and the European Union’s Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS).

– Environmental management systems are restricted in their scope, particularly in embracing wider business issues; TNS bridges that gap.

– The most efficient use of The Natural Step within environmental management systems relates to its capacity to bring in forward planning and strategic issues.

– The major effect of integrating The Natural Step with the implementation of either ISO 14001 or EMAS will be in such areas of planning as long-term environmental impact identification and evaluation, the development of objectives and targets and generally aligning processes with core business values.

– The Natural Step is based on a systems approach which focuses on content, and thereby helps organisations to recognise the root causes of environmental problems; in that manner it fits particularly well with ISO 14001. The Natural Step is able to bring about a shared understanding within an organisation which enables people at all levels to think carefully and strategically together about the best steps they can take now to invest in a sustainable future. This greatly enhances the company’s ability to make sense of environmental management systems. To get the best return on investment from such systems, people have to know why they are important.

– Adopting The Natural Step as an “other requirement” (as defined by ISO 14001) is the most appropriate way forward for TNS integration.

– The Natural Step materials and organisational projects may be brought within the scope of an external audit used during third party certification of an environmental management system. This discipline may prove beneficial for many organisations.

– Mitsubishi Electric America is the first US company to incorporate the TNS model into its ISO 14001 process, addressing the most controversial aspect of ISO 14001 – its lack of prescription when it comes to quantifying results. The strength of any environmental management system, including ISO 14001 and EMAS, is in systematically moving a company towards a goal. Yet if a company concentrates on complying with existing environmental laws and requirements, within their environmental system, then that system will perpetuate the focus on short term and largely end-of-pipe solutions.

– When asked why Mitsubishi Electric adopted The Natural Step principle, Tom Chapman, former vice-president of communications for Mitsubishi, said: “We were loking for a foundation of principles to tie our ISO 14000 processes together. ISO provides a Management System, including measurement, processes and timetables, but what is missing is a compelling reason why. TNS provides the ‘why’ and a framework upon which to build a programme.”

– A guidance document being developed by TNS in the UK is to be offered as an early contribution to those organisations which may be interested in pursuing The Natural Step further.

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