The Natural Step

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

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

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,

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

An increasing number of U.S. businesses, including Monsanto and
Odwalla, are studying the Swedish Natural Step as they await the
domestic version. According to Greg Steltenpohl, Odwalla’s co-CEO,
‘Natural Step… is not a politically charged agenda where you’re
bad or evil for cutting down trees. Rather, the approach removes
the emotional charge of the environmental base and puts us on a
common-ground basis… It’s a nonthreatening way to communicate the
need to be rational in how we make decisions.

For more information, contact The Natural
Step (US), 4000 Bridgeway Saulsalito CA 415-332-9394; e-mail:

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