The Natural Step

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The Natural Step is a non-profit organization founded in Sweden in 1989 by scientist Karl-Henrik Robèrt. Following publication of the Brundtland Report in 1987, Robèrt developed The Natural Step framework, setting out the system conditions for the sustainability of human activities on Earth; Robèrt's four system conditions are derived from a scientific structured understanding of the socio-ecological system, including the laws of thermodynamics and social studies.

The Natural Step has also pioneered a "Backcasting from Principles" approach meant to advance society towards greater sustainability.[1] The systems thinking and backcasting from sustainability principles form the basis for numerous applications and tools to plan and (re-)design organizational strategy, organizational processes, product/service innovation and business models.

Currently The Natural Step has offices in 11 countries and numerous associates and ambassadors around the world. The Natural Step's Theory of Change is at the core of its activities and is the breeding ground for individual, organizational and multi-stakeholder programs like Adding Sustainable Value and Sustainability Transition Labs.

Natural Step

Towards sustainability

Sustainability essentially means preserving life on Earth, including human civilization; meeting human needs is thus vital in creating a sustainable society. Meeting fundamental human needs (Manfred Max-Neef) is essential. However, the way we go about satisfying those individual needs is a root cause of many of the challenges we face today. It follows that one of The Natural Step's principles of sustainability is to avoid subjecting people to conditions which undermine their capacity to meet their own needs.

The other three principles focus on interactions between humans and the planet. They are based in science and supported by the analysis that ecosystem functions and processes are altered in the following ways:

  • Society mines and disperses materials faster than they are returned to the Earth's crust (examples include oil, coal, minerals such as Phosphors and metals such as mercury and lead).
  • Society introduces and 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).
  • Society encroaches on ecosystems faster than they can regenerate (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).



The 5 Level Framework (5LF) is a comprehensive model for planning and decision making in complex systems based on whole systems thinking. It comprises 5 levels: 1) System, 2) Success, 3) Strategic, 4) Actions and 5) Tools. It can be used to analyze any complex system of any type or scale (e.g. human body, the game of chess or soccer, an organization, a sustainability concept) and helps to plan, decide and act strategically towards success based on principles determined by the working of the system (e.g. treat cancer, win chess or soccer, manage a successful business, design useful tools).

When the 5LF is applied to the socio-ecological system (or society within the biosphere) it is called the Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development (FSSD) and is also known as The Natural Step Framework. As a framework it helps to see the BIG picture of the workings and functions of our ecological and social systems and institutions, current trends and our sustainability challenge, how we as a society negatively influence the functioning of the socio-ecological system (System), what systems conditions should be met for it to not to be negatively influenced (Success) and how to strategically plan towards that (Strategic) with prioritized actions (Actions) selecting (or designing) and applying the appropriate tools for those (Tools).

Since its creation by Dr. Karl Henrik Robert, the framework has been reviewed by many scientists, is under constant development and has been an inspiration to other tools and concepts in the area of sustainable development. The framework has been tested in hundreds of organizations (businesses, governments, neighborhoods, NGO's) around the world. Based on experience with the framework specific guidelines, methods and applications have been developed and refined to accelerate and improve the application of the framework.

FSSD System Level

The Sustainability challenge

To explain the challenge the metaphor of a funnel is used. The walls closing in represent the many (systematic and often exponentially increasing) trends of e.g.; decreasing number and quality of natural resources and ecosystems, the stricter laws and regulations, degrading interpersonal and person-to-person trust, increasing toxicity levels, growing human population, increase in demands for resources, etc. The walls of the funnel are getting closer and closer over time limiting the room to maneuver. Individuals, organizations and society are hitting the walls of the funnel over time e.g.: victims of climate change related weather events, depleting fish stocks, increased number of cancer occurrences, air/water/soil pollution, decreasing trust, bankruptcies due to price increases, fines, stricter regulations, etc.

Overview of the science - Systems functions

Behind the framework there is a science based understanding of the dynamic interrelationships within and between socio-ecological sub-systems and is based (a.o.) on study of ecosystems, laws of nature (including thermodynamics, conservation laws, laws of gravity, biogeochemical cycles, photosynthesis, systems thinking, flows of resources and wastes), social systems, social institutions (including trust and fundamental human needs), psychology.

In order to be able to create a structured overview and not to be confused with more downstream or detailed information only the logic of the concepts are explained here.

Ecological System

Earth's biosphere is an open system with regards to energy. Energy comes in the form of sunlight and energy leaves in the form of heat radiation. Earth's biosphere is a (relatively) closed system regarding matter. Some meteorites and dust enter and limited matter leaves due to gravity (e.g. some rockets, dust).

The First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics (LoTD) and Laws for conservation of matter (LCoM) set limiting conditions for life on earth: The First Law says that energy is conserved; nothing disappears, its form simply changes (e.g. heat, movement). Another way of stating this is: "Energy cannot be created, or destroyed, only modified in form." The implications of the Second Law and second law of conservation of matter, are that matter and energy tend to disperse over time. For matter this is referred to as "entropy." Putting the different laws together and applying them to our planetary system, the following facts become apparent:

  1. All the matter that will ever exist on earth is here now (1st LCoM).
  2. Disorder increases in all closed systems and the Earth is a closed system with respect to matter (2nd LCoM). However, it is an open system with respect to energy since it receives energy from the sun.
  3. Sunlight is responsible for almost all increases in net material quality on the planet through photosynthesis and solar heating effects. Chloroplasts in plant cells take energy from sunlight for plant growth. Plants, in turn, provide energy for other forms of life, such as animals. Evaporation of water from the oceans by solar heating produces most of the Earth's fresh water. This flow of energy from the sun creates structure and order from the disorder.

Social system

Trust is what binds society (economically, politically, socially). Individual fundamental human needs need to be met (as articulated by Manfred Max-Neef, among others).

Human influence

Based on the whole-system understanding and research focusing on the causes rather than the effects of unsustainability within the socio-ecological system lead to 4 main causes of unsustainability:

  1. Systematic increases in concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth's crust (e.g. mining of fossil fuels, metals, minerals)
  2. Systematic increases in concentrations of substances produced by society (e.g. creation of plastics, toxins, purified substances, sugar, nanochemicals)
  3. Systematic increases in physical degradation of ecosystems (e.g. deforestation, over-harvesting, fishing methods, unnatural barriers, introduction of exotic species, leakages of extracted or created substances)
  4. Systematic increases in setting barriers for peoples capacity to meet their needs (e.g. inequality, discrimination, long working hours, access to healthcare, torture, right to demonstrate or vote, land grabbing, corruption, deny education)

Previously these were called system conditions to be met to not to degrade the socio-ecological system.

FSSD Success Level

In 1989, Robèrt wrote a paper describing the system conditions for sustainability, given these laws of nature amongst others. He sent it to 50 scientists, asking that they tell him what was wrong with his paper. On version 22, Robèrt had scientific consensus on what was to become The Natural Step Framework.[2] Since then there have been 2 more rounds of scientific consensus on the Framework, one was initiated by Paul Hawken in the USA (1994), one took place in Australia. Since the initial version several changes to the wording of the principles have been made (2006).

Sustainability principles

The current FSSD's definition of sustainability includes four sustainability principles (first order scientific principles) that describe a sustainable society within the ecological system:

"In a sustainable society nature is not subject to systematically increasing concentrations of …

  1. … substances extracted from the Earth's crust;
  2. … substances produced as a byproduct of society ;
  3. … degradation by physical means;
  4. and in that society… people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs."[3]

The 4 sustainability principles can be reworded, to simplify understanding and to apply to any society, organization or product. In short, to become a sustainable society we must… … eliminate our contribution to the progressive buildup of substances extracted from the Earth's crust; … eliminate our contribution to the progressive buildup of chemicals and compounds produced by society; … eliminate our contribution to the progressive physical degradation and destruction of nature and natural processes; and … eliminate our contribution to conditions that undermine people’s capacity to meet their basic human needs.[4]

The negative wording is often debated as the use of 'not' can have a negative emotional connotation. As in a game with game rules, it doesn't tell you everything you should do, they leave that up to the imagination of the players, they allow you to do anything as long as it is within all agreed rules of the game. The restrictions set by these 'rules of the game' stimulate creativity as they are applied in personal, professional or community planning and decision-making. On the success level organizations, institutes and individuals add their own (secondary) principles of success based on their specific context or needs.

FSSD - Strategic Level


The framework bases its planning approach on the concept called backcasting from principles. Backcasting is the process of moving backwards from an imagined vision of success. One begins with an end in mind, moves backwards from the vision to the present, and moves step-by-step towards the vision. It is essentially placing ourselves in the future, imagining that we have achieved success and looking back to ask the question: “What do we need to do today to reach that successful outcome?”.[4]

Different general strategies can be applied to reach success based on a general understanding of the system:

  • General dematerialization across the entire life cycle of a product or process and substitution of materials that do not comply with the sustainability principles by those that do.
  • Applying the precautionary principle
  • Applying the 'Golden rule'

FSSD - Actions

The actions that you can do within the strategy to reach success within the system e.g. Raise awareness on specific sustainability topics, education programs on what sustainability is and how it could be approached, selecting different suppliers based on sustainability criteria, designing or implementing policies, analyze the life cycle of a product, create a sustainability report, facilitate a dialogue with specific stakeholders around a particular challenge, etc.

FSSD - Tools Level

A variety of tools and concepts can be supportive when addressing sustainability. Informed by the framework and priorities of actions can help to select and implement the appropriate tools. Tools can then be optimally used: for the purpose they were designed to do together with other complimentary tools.

ABCD Method

The ABCD method is the approach with which the framework backcasting from the 4 sustainability principles can be applied to an organization. The letters represent the following steps (FSSD academic ABCD and TNS ABCD method differ slightly):

A: Awareness and visioning. After understanding the system your organization works within and the principles, members of the organization create a vision on how they would like the organization to be. Organisations should also identify the service they provide, independent of the product, sparking more creative goals.

B: Baseline mapping. The organisation analyzes what it has been doing currently and evaluates it based on the 4 principles. It allows for the organisation to identify critical issues, implications and opportunities.

C: Creative solutions. Members of the organisation brainstorm for solutions to the issues raised previously, without constraint. With the vision and potential actions, organisations backcast to develop strategies for sustainability.

D: Decide on priorities. The organisation prioritizes the different actions developed previously that help gear it to sustainability in the fastest and most optimal way, by asking a set of questions: by asking: i) Does this action move us in the right direction? ii) Can this action be built upon in future? iii) Does this action bring an acceptable financial, ecological and/or social return on investment?.[5] This step involves step-by-step implementation and planning.

Backcasting is continually used to assess and evaluate the actions, to determine if the organisation is moving towards the vision set in 'A'.[6]

Interfaces with other tools and concepts

Much research has been done on the interfacing of the FSSD with other known tools and concepts within the sustainable development arena (Interfaces with most sustainability tools and concepts have been described). Below various examples:

Applications of the Framework

The framework is applicable to organisations (of any sector, size, location), processes, products, services, business models. It can be used to analyze other sustainability tools and concepts and strengthens other tools by placing them in the context and focus on what they are designed to do.

On making change happen

In an article in In Context (1991), Robèrt described how The Natural Step Framework would create change:

Eco-municipalities, based on the Natural Step's system conditions, originated in Sweden. Over 80 municipalities and several regions (25 percent of all Swedish municipalities) have adopted the TNS sustainability principles based on the system conditions. There are now 12 eco-municipalities in the United States and the American Planning Association has adopted sustainability objectives based on the same principles.[7] Communities such as Whistler and Dawson Creek,[8]

Next to British Columbia, Canada also corporations such as Interface, Nike, Inc., ICI Paints, Scandic Hotels, Max Hamburgers, and IKEA have adopted the framework and have become more sustainable as a result. Each of these companies have completely re-thought their business and have examined and changed all their processes including purchase of materials, manufacturing, transportation, construction of facilities, maintenance and waste management.[9] The Natural Step was introduced to the Northwest through three one-day conferences introduced by Northwest Earth Institute. The Natural Step's framework for sustainability provides principles that are grounded in science, and thus measurable.

See also


  1. Holmberg, J. and Robèrt, K-H. (2000). "Backcasting from non-overlapping sustainability principles – a framework for strategic planning." International Journal of Sustainable Development and World Ecology 7:291-308.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Robèrt Karl-Henrik (1991). "That Was When I Became A Slave." Excerpts from an interview by Robert Gilman and Nikolaus Wyss In Context, #28
  3. The Four System Conditions.
  4. Backcasting.
  5. Glossary.
  6. Applying the ABCD Method.
  7. James, S. (2003). Eco-municipalities: Sweden and the United States: A systems approach to creating communities.
  8. Pembina Institute (2007). Sustainable Communities: Dawson Creek, British Columbia
  9. Nattrass, B. and M. Altomare (1999). The Natural Step for Business: Wealth, Ecology and the Evolutionary Corporation. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

Further reading

  • Holmberg, J., Lundqvist, U., Robèrt, K-H. and Wackernagel, M. (1999). "The Ecological Footprint from a Systems Perspective of Sustainability." International Journal of Sustainable Development and World Ecology 6:17-33.
  • James, S. and T. Lahti, (2004). The Natural Step for Communities: How Cities and Towns can Change to Sustainable Practices. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers
  • Nattrass, B. and M. Altomare. (2002). Dancing with the Tiger: Learning Sustainability Step by Natural Step. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.
  • Nattrass, B. and M. Altomare (1999). The Natural Step for Business: Wealth, Ecology and the Evolutionary Corporation. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.
  • Robèrt, Karl-Henrik. (2002). The Natural Step Story: Seeding a Quiet Revolution. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.
  • Waage, S. (Ed.) 2003. Ants, Galileo, and Gandhi: Designing the Future of Business Through Nature, Genius, and Compassion. Sheffield, UK: Greenleaf Press. Greenleaf Publishing.
  • "Case Studies" for The Natural Step projects by organizations and governments within the U.S.
  • analysis of Carbon capture by use of the FSSD

External links