Section 6.5: The Natural Step

6.5.1: What is the Natural Step Framework?

The Natural Step (TNS) framework is based on systems thinking to help organizations direct environmental, social, and economic actions that are effective and durable.

System thinking recognizes that every action taken in one part of the system has an effect on another part of the system. The NS framework thus provides a shared mental mode or understanding across organizations to work towards creating conditions for meaningful change. It relies heavily on process of organizational learning through dialogue, consensus-building, and incremental changes.

By identifying and forecasting the issues that may occur, and defining conditional principles that govern a company’s success; it creates and upstream approach to sustainability. This enables it to effectively address problems at their source, and create additional opportunities for innovation and profitability.

The TNS framework consist of 3 parts:

– The 4 systems conditions for sustainability
– The resource funnel
– Strategies for action

Focus Box: System Conditions for Sustainability

Left on its own, the Earth and its environment is balanced and sustainable. The impacts of humans and our activities have drastically altered this natural balance.

In a sustainable society and global environment, nature is not subject to systematically increasing:

A) Concentrations of materials from the Earth’s crust

Principle: Fossil fuels, mineral and metal ores, and other materials must not be extracted faster than their naturally slow rate of replenishment. The buildup of these materials on the surface of the earth has the potential to lead to other environmental problems.

B) Concentrations of substances produced by society

Principle: Chemicals, artificial compounds and nuclides must not be produced at a faster rate than they can be naturally broken down and reprocessed into the environment. The accumulation of these substances can cause the contamination and pollution of food chains, water tables, and the environment.

C) Physical degradation of the natural environment

Principle: Society must not harvest more resources than the rate of regeneration. It must also balance activities that cause environmental degradation, with the maintenance of natural areas with sufficient capacity to reprocess wastes created.

And at the same time, it should not:

D) Subject people to conditions that undermine their capacity to meet their needs.

Principle: Resources and services obtained from nature have to be managed in a way that makes them accessible to all in a fair and equitable manner. These resources and services must be used where they are most needed for global equity.

These 4 conditions and the principles they embody, act as a compass to direct human actions – including businesses towards sustainable practices.

6.5.2: The Resource Funnel

The funnel is used as a metaphor to visualize the growing economic, social and environmental pressures that society faces – natural resources and ecosystem services diminish, as population and consumption rates grow.

Source: IIED 2009

By understanding that humanity operates within the limits of this funnel, we are able reduce the impacts of our actions through effective sustainability focused decision making and planning. From a business perspective, companies that anticipate these changes can position themselves to avoid these walls (limits), and invest in new opportunities that allow them to operate as a sustainable business entity.

6.5.3: Strategies for action

Source: The Natural Step 2011

The A-B-C-D process was developed to assist companies incorporate sustainability into their business strategies. The approach consists of 4 phases, which are repeated as the company progresses along pathways to achieve complete sustainability.

Use the tabs below to learn more about each of these phases.

A= Awareness and visioning
This step communicates and fosters a common understanding of sustainability within the organization. It introduces the principles and conditions of TNS, and assists with the identification of ecological, social and economic trends which undermine the sustainability potential of the organization. It encourages the envisioning of what the company would look like in a sustainable future.

B= Baseline mapping
Sustainability Gap Analysis of the operational flows and impacts will be conducted during this step, to determine which activities perform in opposition to sustainability goals and principles. Mapping the state of current operations, allows the organization to identify critical sustainability issues, any business implications of these issues, and the potential opportunities when moving forward.

C= Creative vision and solutions
Key decision makers and stakeholders are required to work together during this step, to create a long-term vision for their sustainable organization. This is achieved by building on the ideas identified during the previous step.

In a technique termed “back-casting”, the company operates with the end in mind and moves progressively towards achieving a shared vision for sustainability. Here, it identifies the value it provides to the wider world, beyond their specific products – and strives to create strategies to achieve them.

D= Decide on priorities and act
Measures to move the organization towards sustainability are prioritized. Back-casting is employed and provides support for the effective implementation of sustainability strategies. Additionally, it functions as a countercheck to ensure decisions and actions applied are moving the organization towards desired sustainability vision.

During this step, the organization develops it creativity and innovation potential. It also incorporates organizational learning and change to effect behavioral changes and sustainability thinking throughout its value chain, its suppliers, and its consumers.

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