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The Sustainability Tree

Julian Crawford, Carole Young and StJohn Miall


‘The Sustainability Tree’ has evolved through EcoSTEPS’ work with local governments and communities around Australia. It presents a coherent conceptual framework for sustainability that integrates the social, environmental and economic dimensions in a systems approach. Above all, it is a practical and useful tool. It’s easily understood by all stakeholders, who can then appreciate how their particular interests and efforts link in with those of others.

Figure 1: EcoSTEPS Sustainability Tree

It is based on Australian and international principles of Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD). It incorporates a number of well-known concepts and approaches, including: Local Agenda 21, Triple Bottom Line, The Natural Step, Environmental Management Systems (ISO 14001), Ecological Footprinting, Natural Capitalism etc.

We have found this an extremely useful starting point in generating consensus amongst internal and external stakeholders. It allows everyone to gain an appreciation of the different dimensions and components of the sustainability agenda. Starting out at the ‘roots’ (Science, Ethics and Values) and then progressing up the ‘trunk’ first order principles of ESD. The three main ‘branches’ (Triple Bottom Line) lead into the more detailed areas of strategies, plans, management systems and indicators. At the top of the tree, the ‘leaves’ represent the actions and interests of individual stakeholders.

Managing, energising and resourcing the ESD/LA21 process

Organisations that start moving down the path of sustainability are undertaking a task that is at once both simple and complex. It requires the integration of sustainability concepts and systems into the frame of organisational and operational reality. It’s a simple task because sustainability concepts and principles are becoming well known. It’s a complex task because it often requires re-thinking long held assumptions and often significantly re-designing systems, products and services.

Working out the optimal path towards ESD and sustainability is not easy for any organisation. Many practical, organisational, cultural and political issues must be addressed along the way. But ultimately the rewards are many including: greater community engagement, greater operational efficiency, quicker and more accurate responses to community needs, more strategic focus on the future, appreciation of future generations’ needs etc.

Many councils have made considerable progress in terms of outlining the vision and starting to define and articulate a sustainability strategy. Nevertheless, experience indicates that given the various stakeholder pressures, there are often a number of high level organisational needs in relation to developing and implementing an overall ‘Sustainability Framework’, embracing such things as ESD, LA21, environment policy, environmental management plan (EMP), CCP, etc. These may be summarised in regard to the overall process as:

  • How should we Manage the process? — Coordination and Integration

Effective coordination between all relevant internal departments, management, staff and external stakeholders is necessary. On-going and new initiatives and projects must be melded together and integrated into an overall strategy.

  • How can we Energise the process? — Communication, Education and Participation

All stakeholders, both internal and external must be identified and their needs and aspirations understood. Through effective communication and education processes, the full range of stakeholder contribution and participation can be accessed.

  • How can we Afford the process? — Efficient resource allocation

The financial realities and resource constraints within which Council operates must temper all that is done. This requires efficient resource allocation and avoidance of duplication. However, this can also mean that resource constraints can be turned into resource opportunities depending on the strategies adopted. There are a number of examples where organisations have saved money because of the waste or energy savings that have been made. Costs and benefits can be identified and assessed from the ‘triple bottom line’ perspective of social and environmental, as well as the traditional financial aspects.

Lessons learnt

An enormous number of lessons have been learnt over the past few years as local governments have worked towards meeting their legislative and community obligations under ESD.

Lesson 1: New ways — not new things (process v product, journey v destination)

Perhaps the most important lesson is that sustainable development is not about doing additional things, but about doing things in new ways. As long as organisations perpetuate the mistaken notion that sustainable development is an additional, perhaps even retrospective consideration, then barriers will remain. True commitment to sustainable development is recognition that it is about being better prepared for the inevitable changes that will be enforced by a fast-changing world, and, it is about preempting both opportunities and obstacles.

Lesson 2: Context specific (local needs, local approaches)

A second lesson is that LA21 is, by nature and definition, very context and situation specific. The individual circumstances and ‘triple bottom line’ dimensions of a council and community play an essential part in dictating the optimal approach.

Lesson 3: Integration and synthesis (evolution v big bang)

A final lesson is that LA21 and ESD initiatives cannot be introduced de novo but rather have to be grafted onto, and melded into, a complex existing framework of policies, procedures and activities. The optimum approach depends on circumstances, needs and past experiences.


The Sustainability Tree greatly assists in the communication and education of complex Sustainability, ESD and LA21issues to diverse stakeholder groups. A metaphorical tree is constructed using differing hierarchical levels to represent the various dimensions of the sustainability agenda. From core scientific principles through to individual actions. This process allows for a ‘common language’ to be used by all stakeholders which assists understanding of the change management processes necessary to implement ESD.

By mapping existing personal and organisational activities onto the Sustainability Tree, a gap analysis may be undertaken which can then inform the development of a coherent sustainability/LA21 strategy. Linkages are clearly identifiable.

The Sustainability Tree is scalable and adaptable to the differing needs of organisations.


The thinking behind this paper owes much to lengthy debate and discussion with my friends and colleagues at EcoSTEPS Pty Ltd, Environs Australia and The Natural Step.


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EcoSTEPS netletter, Crawford, J. R. (Editor) (2002). Published by, Sydney

Environs Australia newsletter, ‘Local Environs’, Ray, S. and Ramachandran, L. (Editors). (2001) Published by Environs, Melbourne

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World Business Council for Sustainable Development. (2001) The Business Case for Sustainable Development: Making a difference towards the Johannesburg 2002 Summit and beyond.

About the author

Julian Crawford is director of EcoSTEPS, the multidisciplinary consultancy providing strategic advice on sustainability, LA21 and ‘triple bottom line’ issues to local government and business. Julian serves the following organisations: Environs Australia — Executive Committee; Futures Foundation — Director; Institute of Chartered Accountants — TBL Committee; The Natural Step — Accredited Facilitator and Consultant.

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