What is ‘The Natural Step’ framework?

by Michelle Lasley

Michelle Lasley is a mother, wife in Pacific Northwest learning to balance green dreams with budget realities.

July 23, 2008


Categories: The Green Life

While looking for more secure employment, I have come across a few jobs that require familiarity with ‘The Natural Step’ framework. Considering I took a class based on this framework two years ago, I am now writing about the framework as a refresher course for me and anyone interested in learning more about the framework.

The Natural Step (TNS) framework is a way to frame ‘systems thinking’ and apply it to businesses or community planning. It includes four guiding principles for consideration when addressing policy and planning in business and community planning. The guiding principles of TNS are as follows (taken from James & Lahti):

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

In addition to the more holistic systems-thinking approach, TNS incorporates the 3Es (Triple Bottom Line) and ideas from the Brundtland Report.

The Triple Bottom Line is the idea that instead of simply measuring our economy as a measure of how well we are doing, we should also add equity and the environment to that bottom line. Hence, creating the ‘Triple Bottom Line’ which includes Environment, Equity, and Economy. If each measure is thought of as having the same importance, one wouldn’t weigh more than another. We would consider economy in the same light as people and the environment, so decisions would have to be fair for all three. We wouldn’t choose, for example, to close a plant because it would raise profits if it meant 26,000 people lost their jobs and would face economic hardships of their own within 6 months. Instead, we’d find a different way.

The Brundtland Report states that Sustainable Development meets the needs of today without compromising the needs of future generations. This concept puts into policy the idea of looking at development in an inter and intra generational mindset. If we know, for example, that in order to power our lives we need x amounts of oil per day, and that amount we are able to extract will be lower as years pass, we would adjust how we extract because future generations would not have the same benefits as we do now.

Taking these additional concepts within the systems-thinking approach offered by TNS means we don’t intentionally harm the earth and all of its inhabitants; we use caution when deciding how to live and work. We don’t sacrifice one group of people over another under the guise that it is for the common good because when one group suffers at our expense, it simply cannot be for the common good. So, in the sustainable society we don’t take more than we need, we don’t pollute intentionally nor do we destroy intentionally, and we are mindful of all peoples of this planet both living now and years from now.

James, Sarah and Torbjorn Lahti. 2004. The Natural Step for Communities: How Cities and Towns can Change to Sustainable Practices. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers. Pages 279.

Oregon Natural Step Network. n.d. www.ortns.org

Savitz, Andrew. n.d. The Triple Bottom Line. www.getsustainable.net

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2007. Sustainability: Basic Information. www.epa.gov/sustainability/basicinfo.htm


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