The Natural Step for the Meetings Industry’s Sustainability Transformation

Michael and I often use the the Natural Step as a systematic approach to Sustainability. In this post my friend and GMIC board member Jan Peter Bergkvist wrote a nice article  which I think is worth sharing. It builds on our earlier article.

Many companies, event organizations and associations are currently concerned primarily with the global financial crisis. However, the bigger challenge and problem is unsustainability—and we, as a society, are running faster and faster in the wrong direction. It important to ask the following questions:

  • Does your organization have a robust scientific definition of social and environmental sustainability?
  • If so, what is the current gap to full sustainability?
  • What are you doing at the strategic level to bridge that gap?

People have a hard time seeing the bigger picture and this is often the biggest obstacle to sustainability. For example, a washing machine had to be taken off the market in Sweden only three weeks after it was released—the specialists who designed and built the machine had each been so focused on their own tasks and the technology itself, without understanding the effects in nature that they ended up making big mistakes such as adding silver ions in the last rinse water, which is toxic when spread in nature, and have negative effects on sewage plants. By not understanding how nature works you risk solving old problems with new problems.

This illustrates why sustainability is a question of management competence and strategic, holistic planning. Past modes of thinking about the environment are a “flawed-cylinder” perception. People felt that non-sustainability was a necessary sacrifice to ensure that society would be industrially successful. In fact, society can be viewed as being a funnel in which resources are decreasing for everyone as population continues to increase. Those who succeed in business will be the ones who know how to use sustainable solutions to guide their companies through the hole at the end of that funnel without hitting the walls.



The Natural Step (TNS) is an international not-for-profit research, education and advisory organization, founded in Sweden, by Dr. Karl-Henrik Robèrt. The Natural Step has initiated the development of a scientific and collaborative decision- making framework for leaders to be equipped to solve complex business, environmental and social challenges. The Framework includes four Sustainability Principles – a globally relevant definition of sustainability for organizations and is adopted by companies including: Nike, Scandic Hotels, Interface, and IKEA. The Green Meetings Industry Council recently signed a strategic partnership with The Natural Step to use their sustainability framework, developing and providing sustainability education and research for the meetings and events industry.

 The four Sustainability Principles guide decisions towards compliance with sustainability. The following are examples to show how each of the four principles can be related to the meeting industry:

  1. Eliminate contribution to systematic increases in concentrations of substances from the Earth’s crust. In the meetings industry, an example would be using renewable transportation and energy efficient solutions and phasing out scarce metals.
  2. Eliminate contribution to systematic increases in concentrations of substances produced by society. In the meetings industry, one example would be using bio-degradable chemicals, phasing out pesticides, using no PVC, and offering clear dosage instructions for cleaning products that do have chemicals.
  3. Eliminate contribution to systematic physical degradation of nature. In the meetings industry, the example would be using organic food, FSC-labeled wood, and recycled paper, and banning GMOs.
  4. Eliminate contribution to the systematic undermining of all people’s capacity to meet their needs. In the meetings industry, examples are using fair trade coffee, starting community programs, and sourcing locally.

One of the problems we have in the event and meetings industry is the difference between “sustainability lite” and “ultra-sustainability.” “Sustainability lite” provides no clear consensus and no clear definition of success. In essence, it means doing “less bad.” On the other hand, “ultra-sustainability” involves holistic thinking, a common language, and a clear definition of success. It is doing “more good” rather than less bad.

Source: Jan Peter Bergkvist, Founder of SleepWell 

Dr Karl Henrik Robert – the founder of the Natural Step will be speaking at the GMIC Sustainable Meetings Conference in Portland in two weeks.

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