Thinking Strategically About Sustainability: The Natural Step Canada Offers Unique Course to Drive Corporate Change

img_0582By: Meirav Even-Har, Toronto

There are an ever increasing number of sustainability courses offered in Canada and abroad. Always curious to learn more, I was especially intrigued by courses available through The Natural Step Canada - its Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development is used by hundreds of organizations around the world.

A recent one-day Natural Step workshop, Level 1: Foundations in Strategy, took place in Toronto. Sustainability Advisors Brendan Seale and Karen Miller facilitated the day's activities, designed to guide 33 participants through the application of The Natural Step Framework. I spoke with Brendan Seale to learn more about what makes this workshop unique among the ever-increasing options being offered to sustainability professionals.

Nested systems

Part of transforming the way participants think about sustainability strategy is reframing the concept of "triple bottom line." Seale describes a redesign of the Venn diagram, featuring Environment, Economy and Society as three circles meeting in the middle, portrayed instead as nested circles. "Within the Environment, we have Society and within it, is the Economy," he remarks. "That perception of separation between humanity and nature is at the root of all of our sustainability challenges, because our economic and social systems are designed with that assumption of separation."

This idea seemed to strike a chord with participants. For some, Seale notes, this is their "ah-ha" moment. He further expands on the concept: "Nature provides the fundamental rules of the game. The social element is more fluid. We create it. We have the ability to morph and adapt our social elements around our environment. The economy is the same; it is a human construct."

Asking better questions

"We find it effective to introduce challenging questions," Seale continues. "For example, what if we ask ourselves ‘How can we be strategic about moving our organization toward full sustainability?' instead of asking how we can be a little less harmful than we used to be, or a little bit better than our peer group? It changes the conversation to one about how organizations will innovate, create value, and thrive in the sustainability-constrained future."

Transformative by design

"It can be a challenge to introduce new ways of thinking about sustainability," explains Seale. He continues noting that the course strives to create an environment for learning, networking and support, combined to empower participants to affect positive change. "There's a bit of an art to creating the right conditions," he remarks.

The course is mapped out through various learning tasks, with a group debrief after each one. Roughly three-quarters of the day is spent in small groups discussing and practicing concepts and then raising questions for discussion among the full group. "We facilitate the learning, but it's very much about the participants bringing their experience to the table, sharing with colleagues," says Seale. He explains that the facilitator's job is to contextualize the discussion and offer support where needed. Participant questions are typically posed to the group at large, invoking an open discussion and shared learning.

Seale concludes the course is meant to not only teach participants about the Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development, but also equip them to apply it at work. "It's about creating a shared language and a mental model for being strategic about sustainability."

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Image: Level 1 Sustainability Course: Foundations in Strategy, Toronto (courtesy of The Natural Step Canada)