Our sustainability principles

The rules of the game to accelerate change

The Natural Step‘s sustainability principles are concrete and comprehensible for everyone. By design they meet the following criteria:

  • Science-based and compliant with the relevant scientific knowledge available to date.
  • Necessary for sustainability and avoid unnecessary requirements and confusion on elements that may be debatable.
  • Sufficient and they cover the most relevant aspects; in this way they help to avoid gaps in our thinking towards sustainability.
  • Universal, so all team members and stakeholders can apply them in any arena, on any scale and in any field of expertise.
  • Concrete and thus able to guide problem-solving and innovation to create a better world.
  • Distinct and non-overlapping, so they facilitate comprehension and monitoring.

All in all, our sustainability principles allow cross-disciplinary and cross-sector collaboration for effective change towards a sustainable world.


… nature is not subject to systematically increasing concentrations of substances from the Earth’s crust, e.g. heavy metals and fossil fuels.

… nature is not subject to systematically increasing concentrations of substances, produced by society, e.g. pesticides and dioxins.

… nature is not subject to systematically increasing degradation by physical means, e.g. overfishing and destroying habitat.
… people are not subject to structural obstacles to health, influence, competence, impartiality and meaning-making.
The first three principles focus on an ecologically sustainable society. The fourth principle gives the condition to be met for a socially sustainable society. The structural obstacles refer to social constructions, like political, economic and cultural ones, which are firmly established in society. Upheld by those with power, and due to a variety of dependencies, these obstacles are difficult or impossible to overcome or avoid by the people exposed to them. To know more about the science behind this, please have a look at our chapter approach.

Social sustainability

What is the meaning of socially sustainable development?

At The Natural Step, we have based our scientific work on a triad of environmental, social and economic sustainability. The causes of ecological unsustainability have been fairly stable over the past 25 years. Hundreds of organisations have investigated and applied them globally. However, ecological and social sustainability have been receiving growing attention worldwide. The awareness of the interrelations between the two has grown. The topic of social sustainability has taken more time to develop. We are proud of the recent developments of our scientists that brought together multi-disciplinary social sciences with the purpose of defining clear, universal sustainability principles that meet the criteria above.

Social Sustainability System
Sustainability Health
People are not exposed to social conditions that systematically undermine their scope for avoiding injury and illness physically, mentally or emotionally, e.g. through the prevention of dangerous working conditions, insufficient wages, structural overwork, or torture.
Sustainability Influence
People are not systematically hindered from participating in the social systems they are part of, e.g. due to suppression of free speech, neglect of opinions or faulty democratic processes.
Sustainability Competence
People are not systematically kept from learning and developing skills individually and collectively, e.g. due to obstacles to education, insufficient opportunities for personal development, language barriers etc.
Sustainability Impartiality
People are not systematically exposed to unequal or biased treatment, e.g. due to discrimination, unsolved gender issues, unfair selection for job positions or inequality.
Sustainability Meaning-Making
People are not systematically hindered from creating individual meaning and co-creating common meaning, e.g. due to suppression of cultural expression, obstacles to co-creation of purposeful conditions, e.g. better, faster and more intelligent ways.
These five sub-dimensions of our social sustainability principle are relatively new. We invite you to join our network to participate in ongoing dialogues on the application and further development in regard to the challenges you see.

Economic sustainability

Economy and growth in the neo-classical sense

Historically, economy has been a term for how to make best use of relatively scarce resources. In Greek, “eco” means house. Hence economy means knowledge about housekeeping and stewardship; economics is the “laws of the house”. Ecology describes the house as such. Our current economy and economics, meaning housekeeping and house laws, are failing as:

  1. our basic needs are not being met;
  2. the natural processes are being disrupted and degraded and;
  3. we are inadequately valuing and encouraging favourable behaviour to tackle these systemic problems

In the neo-classical economic worldview, economic growth is a definition of success, which generally leads to an accelerated use of nature’s capacities and its resources. On the other hand, green activists focus on protecting nature from exploitation at any price. However, with the growing world population, combined with the rightful ambition to improve the standard of living around the world, growth is evident and needed.

From growth of economy to growth of value

At the Natural Step, we talk about value growth rather than economic growth. Why? A simple example: we can create business models, where matters or materials are decoupled from the created value. Within this kind of business, growth can take place within natural limits and hereby provide improved well-being and prosperity in a sustainable manner. According to our understanding, the economic system, including macro- and micro-economics, and public policies are solely strategic instruments and guidelines that we need to evolve.

However, it is simply not possible to modify the current economic system here and there to achieve sustainability. There simply is no silver bullet. To drive change, a revised common understanding of the interdependencies between the economy, including public policy, and the environment is needed in order to guide many short- and long-term measures to make economics ecological.

Classic View

Classic view

Desired View

Desired view

The natural step’s macro-economic studies

In various studies conducted within our network and together with our partners around the globe, we review macro-economic systems though the lenses of The Natural Step’s Framework. The most important and related key research questions that we will discuss in our upcoming studies are:

Obstacles implicit in the economic system itself

What are the major current obstacles resulting from the economic system as such and the way it is applied? Which ones in particular are perceived as preventing faster progress towards sustainability in the short and in the long term?

Quick wins without major system changes

Which of the current obstacles can be handled without changing the economic system as such, and how? One example of how to pick low-hanging fruits: changing the norms by which the system is applied, rather than necessarily changing the system itself.

Options to support proactive leaders

What modifications of the economic system would make it easier for proactive leaders to be supported in making strategic stepwise transitions towards sustainability? What is a realistic timeframe to make changes happen?

Options to encourage late-comers

What modifications of the economic system would better encourage late-comers to make decisions that support sustainable development, in order to significantly increase the pace of sustainable development at large?

The natural step’s micro-economic initiatives

On micro-economic level, our partner organisation Future-Fit Foundation has recently published Release 2 of its Future-Fit Business Benchmark, FFBB, which is based on our sustainability principles. By applying the benchmark, we are able to change the way we value business, as we shift the focus away from today’s best practice towards tomorrow’s required practice.

This leads to a new definition of business value that meets the needs of all stakeholders by identifying how a company can create system value and become future-fit, above and beyond financial return. The requirement for society in this context: to build up trust and trustworthiness by not violating the sustainability principles.

On the one hand, the benchmark facilitates the assessment and articulation of contributions to systems value. On the other hand, it prevents polarisation by reconciling different perspectives on what economic value and value growth actually mean when viewed through a systems lens.

At The Natural Step Germany, we apply the Future-Fit Business Benchmark to a wide range of organisations. We help them understand the strengths and weaknesses of their current business models in consideration of the global challenges. They learn how to apply our sustainability principles to achieve a sustainable competitive advantage and measurable business benefits.

Creating business benefits out of our sustainability principles

Global Challenges
Classical economics has not considered the fact that resources are finite. As a result, we are now facing a wide range of global environmental and socio-economic challenges. We have to address these issues on the way to a sustainable future.
Sustainability Principles
Our science-based principles – three of them focusing on an ecologically sustainable society, the fourth one explaining how we can become a socially sustainable society – tell us how we must operate to become truly sustainable.
FF Business Principles
Organisations have a vital role to play when it comes to developing towards sustainability. The business principles translate the global sustainability principles into business language in order to guide the creation of real value for all stakeholders.
Future-Fit Goals
These goals are based on the various principles explained above and are in fact a concise translation for the business world. They are expressed in single sentences and easy to understand. Altogether, they define the social and environmental break-even point that an organisation or business must reach to become part of the solution instead of the problem.
Future-Fit Indicators
KFIs aim to help any company assess the gap between where it is now and where it needs to be. Depending on the goal, one or two KFIs seek to measure the future-fitness of a company’s goods and services. Other KFIs assess the future-fitness of its own operations and the operations of its suppliers for which the company is mutually accountable. A future-fit scorecard briefly summarises commitments and progress towards meeting the future-fit goals.
Business Benefits
Every organisation or business is part of the economy, society as a whole and the environment. It operates in or near local communities, it sells products and services to customers. Company relations rely on individuals, i.e. employees and physical resources, which are often sourced from suppliers. How a company is run both depends upon and affects society as a whole. Consequently, to stop degradation, benefits to the business should go beyond protecting the social and environmental systems it depends upon.

Business reality and responsibility

Taking our sustainability principles into account and having understood what they have to do differently to make companies sustainable, business leaders quickly recognise that they are not only responsible and accountable for their internal operations. They are part of a value chain, including core and ancillary suppliers, sales partners and consumers. And they collaborate with a broad range of stakeholders.

At The Natural Step Germany, we help organisations and businesses to actively address the challenges and problems of their value chain partners, e.g. service and distribution partners, wholesalers and retailers, and customers. We help business leaders to secure the support of potential and existing investors. This is not easy, because they have to make them understand why a radical change to a systemic view is in their interests.

Our current initiatives and offerings focus on how to best encourage and enable business leaders to take bold action. Thus we equip them with the means to:

  1. identify the nature and scale of the gaps between their current and required levels of performance.
  2. prioritise actions to close those gaps effectively and efficiently.
  3. communicate both their long-term commitments and their short-term progress to investors and other stakeholders in a concise, credible and comparable way.

From a systems perspective, we include stakeholders, society as a whole and the environment. Having done this, we use our sustainability principles for backcasting, the opposite of forecasting, in order to enable organisations to achieve real change towards sustainability.

Ready for more on how to apply our sustainability principles?