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The Natural Step

Measuring sustainable development


Being able to measure and assess sustainability is an important step in achieving sustainable development.

Measuring sustainability

Definitions of sustainable development

There are different definitions of sustainable development. This means there are also different ways of looking at it.

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".

World Commission on Environment and Development.

"Sustainable development is a dynamic process which enables all people to realise their potential and to improve their quality of life in ways which simultaneously protect and enhance the Earth's life support systems".

Forum for the Future


Ways of looking at sustainable development

This section describes four ways which sustainability and sustainable development can be looked at and assessed.

The Natural Step framework

Used to assess the sustainability of products and processes by looking at four separate systems: mineral resources, synthetic materials, biological productivity and social equality.

Ecological footprint

Measures the area of land and sea that a person needs to support their life-style. This allows comparisons of equality and indicates the levels of the earth's resources that are being used.

Life cycle analysis

Takes an overall view of a process or activity. It assesses all aspects of the resources needed in production, use and disposal of products.

Quality of life

(Social indicators)

Look at sustainability from the viewpoint of a person's standard of living. It may include measures of things like unemployment rates, access to education and healthcare as well as human rights and life-expectancy. Although some of these can be directly measured, other judgments may be more personal or subjective.