Contribution to GTI Roundtable "True Corporate Sustainability"

Mark McElroy

At the outset, I want to say how much I support and agree with the broad strokes of Bob Willard’s thinking, especially the degree to which his concepts are consistent with (if not explicitly based on) context-based sustainability (CBS). The principle to which we both subscribe is that organizational performance should be assessed relative to real social and environmental thresholds in the world and not just in incremental terms. How best to do that, however, may be where our agreement ends.

As Bob Willard explains, his approach is based largely on The Natural Step (TNS) framework. For my part, I see the TNS as comprising an insufficient basis for operationalizing thresholds-based sustainability for two primary reasons:

(1) Its principles, while consistent with the thresholds-based doctrine, are too vague for purposes of operationalizing sustainability management; and

(2) It does not explicitly allow for company-level implementations and the variations that they entail.

Regarding the first point, sustainability performance is best understood as a function of the organization’s impacts on vital capitals—natural, social, human. Such capitals, in turn, can be characterized as resources with finite carrying capacities that must be maintained. Any impacts on vital capitals that have the effect of diminishing or failing to maintain their carrying capacities at levels required to ensure human and/or non-human well-being are unsustainable. Thus, vital capitals take the form of resource stocks and flows that are causally and quantifiably connected to human (and non-human) well-being.

In the case of TNS, however, there is no mention of vital capitals, much less the notion of carrying capacity as a basis for establishing sustainability thresholds that can then be disaggregated and assigned to individual organizations. What we see instead are broad proscriptions that exhort us to not increase certain substances in certain places and refrain from degrading others, as if any level of increase or degradation would be unsustainable. Natural systems (i.e., natural capital), however, do have assimilative capacities to many varying degrees and are quite capable of absorbing human and non-human wastes at levels that can be considerably higher than zero, all while not putting anyone’s well-being at risk. But that is a nuance that seems lost on TNS, which seems content instead to make blanket policy prescriptions that are neither sufficiently granular at the macro level nor practically executable at the micro level to be of any use to us.

In sum, then, TNS is either incomplete in terms of its incorporation of the capital theory foundations of sustainability or simply fails to add anything new to the subject that was not already there before. Worse yet is its failure to provide the kind of additional guidance required to make its own principles executable at the level of individual actors, which is probably why Bob Willard has gone to the lengths he has in order to develop his method.

That said, there seems little more to what Bob Willard is proposing that is not already contained in the CBS concept. If I am wrong about that, it would be interesting and useful to know in what way, so that we could all better understand and debate the differences between our methods to good effect. To this end, he might want to include references to some of the CBS materials that I know contributed to his thinking and share with us the extent to which his approach differs from the ones described in them, and why.

Mark McElroy
Mark McElroy is an accomplished innovator, consultant, author, and educator in the theory and practice of corporate sustainability management, as well as the founder of the Center for Sustainable Organizations.

Cite as Mark McElroy, contribution to GTI Roundtable "True Corporate Sustainability," Great Transition Initiative (June 2014),

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