Green Manufacturing: Defining sustainability

September 16, 2009
by Brett Wills

As green gains momentum in the business world, manufacturers best positioned to realize the greatest benefits will be those with a solid understanding of what sustainability means.

But as the frog says, it’s not easy being green—it means different things to different people. It’s easier to define what isn’t sustainable. This is the thinking that Swedish doctor, Karl Henrik Robert (founder of The Natural Step Philosophy) uses to provide a clear definition of sustainability: the ability to meet four system conditions.

1. Substances from the earth’s core must not be extracted faster than they’re regenerated. Since fossil fuels take thousands of years to regenerate, the extraction of these resources must stop. This means using other renewable forms of energy and finding ways to re-use materials.

2. Pollutants must not be discharged into the atmosphere faster than the earth’s systems can clean them. Failing to do so will result in pollutants eventually building up to a point where life would be unsustainable.

3. Surface level resources must not be destroyed or harvested faster than they are regenerated. If vegetation and wildlife or soil and water are destroyed or harvested faster than they are being regenerated, eventually there will be none left.

4. The earth’s resources must be distributed fairly and efficiently to meet basic human needs globally. When developing societies can’t fulfil basic human needs, their first priority is immediate survival; so they’re not thinking about the long-term or meeting the first three system conditions. And those conditions won’t be met even if resources are distributed fairly but not efficiently.

From this definition of sustainability, we can define green as: completely satisfying the first three system conditions.

It will take some effort to meet those conditions, but manufacturers that intend to make the green journey now have clear direction to get there.

Link to the Natural Step Canada website at for green solutions.

Brett Wills is the director of the Green Enterprise Movement and a senior consultant with High Performance Solutions in Cambridge, Ont. Contact him at