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The Natural Step
Jeremy Faludi, 13 Jul 06


One of the biggest challenges of making sustainability happen is getting buy-in and getting people to make coherent plans, whether they be a building team, a company, or a city. Knowing about the problems and getting up the gumption to solve them are often separated by a wide gap, especially when green priorities diverge from (or are even in opposition to) traditional priorities like making a profit or having a bigger tax revenue base. In addition, many people don't know that much about how to do things in a greener way; and even when people do, they are often chasing moving targets, where the best option today may not be the best option two years from now. How do you get past these roadblocks? Set up a process for getting decision-makers and implementers on board, with clear goals and project plans to make the goals actually happen.

The Natural Step is just such a process. It is a holistic, consensus-based approach to making change happen, and can operate anywhere from the minor department level in a company to the national government level. It's been around since 1989, and our own Gil Friend is a practitioner of it, so it's a bit of an oversight that we've never gotten around to writing about it before. (Thanks to Eric Ezechieli for the prodding & specific suggestions!) So what can it achieve, and how does it work?

On the business level, companies such as Interface and IKEA (which doesn't get enough credit for its green initiatives), and Electrolux have used it to green their manufacturing. Collins Pine forestry company in Oregon says it has saved over a million dollars by using The Natural Step (TNS, for short) to make their manufacturing more efficient and less waste-producing. Some companies that initially hated TNS have now become vocal converts: according to Gil's 1997 paper, Electrolux first talked to TNS only because they had a large customer say they would leave if Electrolux didn't start using the process. Now, however, "Electrolux calls their billion kroner-plus investment in their Natural Step initiatives the best financial investment they've ever made." TNS has also proved useful for agriculture: Lantmännen, a Swedish cooperative of over 50,000 farmers, used it to guide their sustainability agenda.

On the community and city level, the town of Övertorneå in Sweden (The Natural Step's country of origin) declared itself an eco-municipality in the 80's and managed to wean itself off of fossil fuels over a period of fifteen years, so that now its government uses zero fossil fuels and the town as a whole uses half the amount of a normal town its size. (Roughly a quarter what an American town its size would use.) They boast that this has also improved their public health. Consultant Terry Gips also says TNS “reduces bureaucracy, and saves businesses money and time”. Since then over a dozen other towns in Sweden have declared themselves eco-municipalities and started greening, and the movement is spreading through Europe. Though The Natural Step is huge there, it's barely known in North America. This is changing, however. The eco-towns of Sweden are inspiring people in several cities in the US and Canada, such as Madison, Wisconsin and Whistler, British Columbia, which won a Livable Communities Award for its "Whistler 2020" plan, created using The Natural Step's process. On the national scale, Sweden's Commission on Oil Independence includes TNS practitioners; according to Eric Ezechieli, at least 3 of the council's 8 members "have been partners of TNS for 10 years or more."

The Natural Step's approach to sustainability started from scratch; founder Karl-Henrik Robèrt wanted principles that were incontrovertible, so he started from conservation of mass and energy (a fundamental of physics), and the tendency for everything in the universe to go to disorder unless external energy comes in (the first & second laws of thermodynamics). Based on these, he came to the conclusion there were four principles for sustainability:

- Eliminate our contribution to systematic increases in concentrations of substances from the Earth's crust [into the ecosphere].
- Eliminate our contribution to systematic increases in concentrations of substances produced by society.
- Eliminate our contribution to systematic physical degradation of nature through over-harvesting, depletion, foreign introductions and other forms of modification.
- Contribute as much as we can to the goal of meeting human needs in our society and worldwide, going over and above all the substitution and dematerialization measures taken in meeting the first three objectives.
(For more detail on these, see their principles page or the Wikipedia entry on The Natural Step.)

These principles are targeted at the root of the problem; they keep your priorities set right, but do not specifically prescribe how to accomplish them. The details of how to apply those principles have to be worked out by you. Because of this, Larry Chalfan of Zero Waste Alliance has said that a company's Natural Step initiative can sometimes fall apart into "management game of the month" if it loses momentum; his proposed solution is combining The Natural Step with ISO14000, where the latter provides a definitive structure and the former provides the goals and communication channels. This approach is also used by Susan Burns of Natural Strategies. But there are scores of successful long-term implementations throughout Europe of TNS standing by itself, which use a company's or community's existing management structure as the skeleton that TNS helps animate and move in the right direction.

One tool that The Natural Step does always use is backcasting, the process of imagining your ideal end goal and then making up a plausible storyline of how you could get there from your present situation. Gil describes the use of backcasting in one of his many short papers about TNS on his website.

In the end, The Natural Step can be an effective way of getting a group of people to make coherent plans about their environmental agendas, and to get feedback and buy-in from the people who will be making those agendas into real action. Proven in Europe, it is also beginning to gain ground elsewhere in the world. For those that would like to read up in greater depth, there are a few books out on the organization and its methods: The Natural Step Story, The Natural Step for Business, and The Natural Step for Communities.

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I was recently researching The Natural Step and wondered what happened to the San Francisco office? There's a website that seems to say the national org was here but the whole site looks to be about 2 years out of date.
Is Gil then the best Bay Area resource on this?

Posted by: Ted Ko on 13 Jul 06

The national office has more or less closed its doors, and the torch in the US is being carried by the Oregon Natural Step Network,

I have a hunch we'll be seeing more developments from them. Meanwhile I'm happy to talk with anyone interested. And there are a number of individual practitioners (besides me) available to help with workshops, advice, etc.

Posted by: Gil Friend on 13 Jul 06

They are teaching TNS in my environmental management masters' program at the Illinois Institute of Technology's Stuart Graduate School of Business. Dancing with the Tiger was one of the required texts for my Sustainable Enterprise class.

I'm glad to see more of the word getting out.

Posted by: greg ehrendreich on 18 Jul 06

Karl-Henrik Robert, the founder of The Natural Step, is also co-founder of the Master's in Strategic Leadership Towards Sustainability ( at Blekinge Institute of Technology in Sweden, of which I am a recent graduate. It is a scientifically-rigorous approach to strategic sustainable development, including classes in strategic management, advanced leadership and engineering.

Anyone interested in learning more about the program, or getting in contact with the alumni, who are all well-versed in the TNS Framework, can contact the program manager at

Posted by: Michelle McKay on 24 Jul 06

Need suggestions as to how to bring TNS to my local university. I've read many of the great books out there on the topic of sustainability and want to create a "center or institute" on campus. The school wants to reposition themselves as a business school and I believe they will be very interested in this approach.

Posted by: sue carlson on 2 Aug 06



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