The Sustainable Business Council Blog


The Natural Step considers people, planet and profit
July 2, 2009, 7:44 PM
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The Natural Step considers people, planet and profit

By LISA SWALLOW and GENEVIEVE KING
Question: pollination, topsoil creation, carbon sequestration, flood and erosion control – what do any of these natural processes have to do with commerce? Answer: they are all ecological services, valued at trillions of dollars per year, that are provided to us at no cost, by the earth.

Although businesses could not exist without these services, they are not assigned a market value within our current economic model. You’ve heard the saying – what gets measured, gets managed. Preserving natural capital is intrinsic to sustainable commercial success, and increasingly business owners and managers are starting to shift to sustainable development and green principles to guide their enterprises.

The need for businesses to operate within the constraints of the natural environment is becoming more compelling every day. Because this hasn’t necessarily been a basic parameter for many organizations in the past, transitioning to this way of thinking can be difficult. How does a manager or owner begin to look at a business through a green lens? Karl Henrik-Robert, a renowned Swedish oncologist, provides a wonderful sustainability framework to help entrepreneurs do just that. The Natural Step has been used very successfully by major corporations like IKEA, McDonald’s, Electrolux and Sony to guide them in thinking about the inter-relatedness of ecological systems and enterprise.

When Whistler, British Columbia, embraced sustainability, community and business leaders turned to TNS as a simple and scientifically rigorous tool to guide their decisions. As the first destination resort (and municipality) in Canada to embrace the TNS framework, their visionary programs include a transformed transit system, reduced landfill impact, financial returns (which fund an Environmental Legacy Fund), pesticide-free parks and geothermal heat exchange systems for resident housing projects, among many others.

So, what is TNS and how can it be used to guide a small Missoula-based business in making sound triple bottom line decisions? How can we be mindful stewards and commercially successful?

Read on.

TNS speaks primarily about four science-based “systems conditions” within which a business should operate to become sustainable. The model looks deeply at these and acknowledges that there are limits to the vast services the earth provides us and that businesses can make operational choices – to flourish in a way that yields a profit while contributing to clean water and air, socially just systems and wise materials choices.

The four systems conditions and examples of how local businesses have used them to guide decisions follow. In a sustainable society:

• The earth’s biosphere can’t be increasingly subjected to substances that are removed from the Earth’s crust. Materials that took the earth eons to create are being removed and redistributed to the soil, water and air at a rate much faster than the earth can absorb them (such as fossil fuels being converted to carbon dioxide). This parameter helps businesses think about their choice of raw materials – new versus recycled – and energy sources, renewable vs. nonrenewable. Sustainable Business Council member Home Resources collects and sells reclaimed building materials to reduce waste and pollution and create healthier communities.

• The earth’s biosphere isn’t increasingly subjected to substances produced by society. Consumption patterns and population growth have resulted in phenomenal amounts of waste, while new families of toxins are being introduced constantly to “enhance” our lives. The earth’s capacity to assimilate these items into living systems simply can’t keep pace with their disposal. This condition helps a company look at waste reduction, urging the enterprise to explore biodegradable alternatives to hazardous/toxic materials in their facilities and products. For example, Bitterroot Floral carries Veriflora-certified, pesticide-free flowers and has bike delivery available, which is key in reducing toxins and pollution. Green Taxi uses hybrid vehicles to cut back on carbon dioxide emissions. The Good Food Store offers a wide variety of organic products, many of which are from local growers and The Green Light (an eco-department store) carries organic clothing, bedding, housewares and gardening supplies.

• The earth’s biosphere isn’t systematically impoverished by physical displacement, overharvesting or other forms of ecosystem manipulation. Accelerating transition of forests, fisheries, grasslands and wetlands to asphalt and monocultures clearly cannot continue ad infinitum. This system condition engages the manager in identifying which phases of his/her business can be reconfigured to preserve natural systems. SBC 2009 Sustainability Award Winner North Slope Sustainable Woods is a western Montana business improving forest health with each harvest by culling the stunted trees from overcrowded forests and allowing the largest and healthiest trees to thrive.

• Resources are disbursed fairly and efficiently in order to meet the basic needs of all members of the global population. Sustainability isn’t just about being environmentally benign, it’s also about operating in a socially just manner. This fourth condition challenges businesses to explore how they can have positive impacts in their sphere of influence – in the treatment of employees, community members, vendors and customers. Jeannette Rankin Peace Center’s Fair Trade Store is a unique market and educational resource. The organization embraces our global neighbors for whom fair trade means a just, dignified and environmentally sustainable alternative to corporate exploitation. JRPC is also spearheading the movement to make Missoula the next Fair Trade City.

Help the stakeholders in your business become sustainable thinkers by introducing The Natural Step – it can lead to innovative possibilities for your business that you had never envisioned before. Excellent case studies as well as the framework described above can be found at http://www.naturalstep.org.

John Muir astutely observed that, “When we tug at one thing in the natural world, we find it attached to the rest of the world.” It’s becoming more apparent all the time that business decisions cannot be made in an environmental or social vacuum. Sustainable development is all about intrinsically embracing people, planet and profit within the existing business paradigm. Where might The Natural Step lead you?

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