By Jack Rosebro
Sustainable development is easy to aspire to, yet hard to define. Many global and Fortune 500 companies have publicly embraced sustainability in one form or another, and some have even incorporated the concept into their core values, often with no clear definition of what a sustainable world might look like or how to work toward it.
Competing definitions of sustainability range from vague mission statements to dense analytical frameworks with more than 40,000 equations—yet the biosphere becomes more fragile each day.
In 1987, Dr. Karl-Henrik Robèrt, a Swedish cancer scientist, began to develop and to seek input on a science-based framework that would describe all necessary conditions required for a sustainable society, yet be simple enough to be used by the average person. The end product of the work is known as The Natural Step (TNS) framework, after the NGO that promotes it (also founded by Dr. Robèrt).
According to the TNS framework, the four system conditions necessary for a sustainable society are as follows:
In the sustainable society, nature is not subject to systematically increasing...
Concentrations of substances extracted from the Earth’s crust.
Concentrations of substances produced by society.
Degradation by physical means.
...and, in that society...
People are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their needs.
Since then, the framework has been applied by companies such as IKEA, Dupont, Matsushita, Interface, BP, and Norsk Hydro, as well as communities such as Portland, Oregon and Whistler, British Columbia.
Recently, Green Car Congress writer Jack Rosebro sat down with Dr. Robèrt in Karlskrona, Sweden to discuss The Natural Step and the state of sustainability in the global transportation sector:
GCC: Dr. Robèrt, most automakers now produce sustainability reports, and some have publicly embraced sustainable development as a core value. However, I have yet to talk to an executive who has a clear idea of what their company means by sustainability in the first place—only that they are trying to get there, and that they will be a different company by this date or that date. Is this a strategy?
KHR: Most of us would like to see into the future. But forecasting is a difficult art, and does not have the best track record. It is easier to envision the future we want, and then work toward that vision, than to predict it. Chess players do the same thing with every game they play. They create a shared mental model of success, which they call “checkmate”.
From that vision, they then look back to the present, and ask: “How shall I get to my goal?” As they play the game, the game changes, and they adjust their strategy accordingly – but the vision of success remains the same.
GCC: How does this translate into sustainable development?
KHR: By employing a strategy called “backcasting,” which is quite different from forecasting. Backcasting means to envision success in the future, and then to look backwards from that point—backcast—to determine what to do today to get there. Those who use the TNS framework take their vision of success, based on four principles of sustainability, and use backcasting to sketch out a path. This strategy has been successfully used by companies such as IKEA and Matsushita to position themselves ahead of their competitors with respect to real progress toward sustainability. So they became the innovators, the leaders.
GCC: With regard to sustainability, cleaner technologies invariably present new challenges. For example, some of tomorrow’s solutions—hybrid, electric, and fuel cell vehicles—all use components that require a great deal of copper. Given that part of the TNS framework’s definition of a sustainable world is one in which society does not allow concentrations of materials from the earth’s crust, how would one evaluate our future demand for this element?
KHR: To begin with, the amount of copper that we take from the earth each year exceeds that which is weathered away by nature by some 24 times! That relationship alone might inspire us to take a second look at the material flows of copper.
It is known, of course, that our use of copper is not always cyclic—in other words, it's not always managed through resource-saving recycling. On the contrary, our use of copper is often wasteful, as for example copper that is embedded in brake pads to distribute heat. We drive, we apply the brakes, and copper particles are shed from our brake pads, eventually washing into watersheds, disrupting aquatic life and water quality. So there are other systematic problems to consider.
I must point out, however, that the Natural Step framework has nothing negative to say about copper itself. Copper, like any material, is not inherently bad or good. It is only society’s use of copper that creates a concern.
Nor does The Natural Step have an opinion as to how or when the use of copper can be reduced through substitutions with other materials. We leave that up to the experts. There are many brilliant people working in the transportation industry who will undoubtedly create solutions that are infinitely more elegant than anything we could imagine.
GCC: But—assuming, for example, that aluminum could be substituted for copper in some instances—the mining and refining of aluminum, of course, are processes that have their own problems...
KHR: Oh, absolutely. Here we have no worries about increased concentrations, because natural flows of aluminum are much higher than societal flows, and the natural abundance of the metal is so high. So the focus shifts from the first principles of sustainability to principles three and four. Are fossil fuels used in the mining process? Does the production of aluminum degrade the land through strip mining? Does it undermine the ability of nearby communities to meet their own needs? Can we do better? And of course, automobile manufacturers use a lot of aluminum, so they have a golden opportunity to influence the aluminum industry to clean up, using a shared mental model of how to get there, and thus help create a more sustainable end product. And that helps business at all levels.
GCC: It’s easy to discuss principles, but the practical application of principles is where people often get bogged down. When the facilitators have gone home, and Monday morning rolls around, how does a corporation—or a department manager—choose which direction to take, which action to choose first?
KHR: No one knows a company’s business better than that company’s own employees. There are, however, a few strategic questions to ask: Where is the low-hanging fruit? Will the action move the company in the right direction: toward sustainability? Will it provide a flexible platform, a stepping-stone to future solutions, or will it lead the company into a blind alley? There’s no reason to commit to an initiative that will become a dead end. And finally, will it provide a good return on investment—not just of capital, but also the investment of time, the creation of good will?
GCC: The term “sustainable mobility” suggests a world in which companies focus on mobility services, rather than on the machines that carry us around. Yet paradigm shifts such as this are commonly met with resistance from those who worry about profit. How would you answer such concerns?
KHR: It is not a matter of sustainability or profit. We can have both. No company can exist without profit, nor should they be asked to do so. But at the same time, no company can exist outside of the biosphere. Business strategies based on the efficient consumption of natural resources can solve a lot of environmental problems, while increasing profits at the same time. And businesses are starting to realize this.
The Natural Step framework simply creates opportunities for people to work together more efficiently, to become more aligned with their world, and with nature’s resources. By taking a whole-systems view of our interactions with the biosphere, we stand a better chance of getting along with the natural world that gives us life. And as we can see more clearly with every new day, nature cannot be fooled.
 “Socio-ecological indicators for sustainability”; Christian Azar, John Holmberg, Kristian Lindgren; Ecological Economics, Volume 18, Number 2, August 1996, pp. 89-112.
Backcasting from non-overlapping sustainability principles – a framework for strategic planning. John Holmberg and Karl-Henrik Robèrt, 2000.
“Tools and concepts for sustainable development, how do they relate to a general framework for sustainable development, and to each other?” Karl-Henrik Robèrt; Journal of Cleaner Production, Volume 8.
“Sustainability Constraints as System Boundaries: An Approach to Making Life-Cycle Management Strategic”; Henrik Ny, Jamie P. MacDonald, Göran Broman, Ryoichi Yamamoto, and Karl-Henrik Robèrt; Journal of Industrial Ecology; 2006.