The Natural Step

Sweden's commonsense environmental scheme comes to America

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You wouldn't think that Monsanto Company, the chemical giant, would have much in common with Odwalla, a Northern California regional, all-natural juice enterprise. But the two companies are among the first American businesses to explore Sweden's newest export, a business-and-life philosophy called The Natural Step. With veteran business visionaries like Paul Hawken, Peter Senge, and architect William McDonough signing on to help lead the U.S. daughter organization, it may become the next step for more and more businesses.

The Natural Step was founded in 1989 by Karl-Henrik R?bert, former head of Sweden's leading cancer institute. R?bert had grown tired of the seemingly endless scientific bickering about the minutiae of environmental problems. 'The simple analogy,' writes Paul Hawken, quoting a favorite R?bert line in In Context (Summer 1995), 'is that scientists are like monkeys arguing about withering leaves in a dying tree, instead of paying attention to facts they can agree on -- i.e., that the tree is dying.' R?bert hoped to cut through scientific doublespeak and encourage business and government to act on a manageable number of generally agreed-upon environmental realities.

R?bert developed a paper on the basic conditions he considered necessary for a sustainable society and sent it to Sweden's science community for comment. ('If there is anything that unites professors, it's that they can't help finding errors in what others have done,' wrote R?bert in In Context [Spring, 1991].) He incorporated their suggestions and recirculated the document. After repeating this process 21 times, R?bert introduced his consensus paper.

At the root of his theory is the cyclic principle, which says that there must be as much reconstruction of material as there is consumption, and that excess waste must not accumulate in nature. R?bert elaborated four conditions for sustainability:

1. Nature cannot withstand a systematic buildup of dispersed matter mined from the earth's crust (minerals, oil, etc.).

2. Nature cannot withstand a systematic buildup of persistent compounds made by humans (e.g., PCBs).

3. Nature cannot withstand a systematic deterioration of its capacity for renewal (e.g., harvesting fish faster than they can replenish, converting fertile land to desert).

4. Therefore, if we want life to continue, we must (a) be efficient in our use of resources and (b) promote justice -- because ignoring poverty will lead the poor, for short-term survival, to destroy resources (e.g., the rainforests) that we all need for long-term survival.

The result was a Swedish national phenomenon. The spring 1991 issue of In Context described it as follows: 'Imagine this. The scientists of an entire nation come to consensus on the roots of our environmental problems and the most critical avenues for action. The nation's head of state then [endorses] their consensus report. An education packet based on that report is prepared and sent to every household and school, so that citizens and students can learn the basics of sustainability. Then a roster of famous artists and celebrities goes on television to promote and celebrate the birth of this remarkable national project -- a project that, in the long run, promises to completely reorganize the nation's way of life to bring it into alignment with the laws of nature.' As unlikely as this may seem, this is what happened in Sweden.

Much of Sweden's business community has signed on. 'More than 25 of the largest corporations have changed operations and production processes to support the productivity of the earth, from linear to cyclical from the Natural Step Training,' says Laraine Lomax, a former professor of economics at Northeastern University and now director of communications and program development for Natural Step in the United States. For instance, IKEA, a leading Swedish furniture company, now offers a line that complies with Natural Step conditions. The products contain no metals and are made of wood harvested by sustainable forestry. McDonald's in Sweden monitors its own compliance and publishes its successes on its biodegradable tray liners.

After generating U.S. interest with a series of West Coast presentations, R?bert introduced his ideas to a selected few in Newburyport, Massachusetts, in December 1994. Paul Hawken signed on as president of the fledgling American Natural Step group, which formed an advisory council of U.S. scientists, businesspeople, and professional organizations, and recently elected a board of directors.

Chas Martin
7/18/2009 5:47:35 PM

Please note that The Natural Step office for the US is now in Portland, Oregon. The new web site is You will find all necessary contact information and schedules for courses, events, etc. at that location.