• Planetary boundaries research

    Applying planetary boundaries to organisational level performance


    Article 13: Integrating people and planet into business strategy

  • This year's research

    As part of our commitment to practitioner research, we are revisiting and updating our 2013 planetary and social boundaries study. If you would like to be involved in this research, please get in touch below.


    Please see further below for an extract of our 2013 research and further information...

  • By Felix Mueller (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

    Research Question - 2013

    Are organisations translating notions of planetary boundaries and global limits to organisation-level context and performance – and if so what are the drivers and what are the barriers we see arising to system-level change?


  • Research Background - 2013


    The Earth has entered a new epoch, the Anthropocene, in which humans are the dominant driver of change to the Earth System (Steffen et al. 2007). Furthermore, with the world’s population on a trajectory to be over nine billion by 2050, we are facing a critical period in the history of our planet. For instance, more food needs to be grown in the next 70 years than in the previous 1,000 years.


    To stimulate thinking within this global sustainability context, in 2009, 28 environmental scientists led by Johan Rockström (Stockholm Resilience Centre) proposed boundaries for nine Earth system processes, to define a “safe operating space for humanity”. Once human activity has passed these thresholds or tipping points, there is risk of “irreversible and abrupt environmental change”.

  • Current Methodologies / approaches to downscale planetary boundaries

    A sample of those available

    Economic allocation

      • Based on stabilising CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere to 350ppm by 2100 - Apply the emission reductions to individual companies (scope 1 and 2) based on emissions per dollar of contribution to GDP
      • Compare actual emissions to normative targets. Score of less than 1.0 equals sustainable operations (i.e. company’s emissions within science-based targets)

      Per capita allocation

        • 21st century carbon budget of 1456 Gt CO2 would result in a lower than 2°C warming at 450 CO2e (UNEP). Corresponds to annual emissions of 14.5Gt CO2 per year or 2tCO2 per year per capita.
        • Based on national population of 9m, planetary boundaries = 18m tonnes CO2 per year for Sweden

        Regional boundaries

          • Country-dependent boundaries limiting withdrawal to 40% of nationally available freshwater.
          • E.g. Sweden: 73 km3 per year - Limit national conversion of land to cropland to 15% of nationally available land e.g. Sweden: 2.7 mha

          Living Wage

            • Minimum income necessary for a worker to meet needs that are considered to be basic (not necessarily same as subsistence).
            • Needs include shelter; clothing and nutrition – requires stakeholder agreement on what constituents ‘basic needs’. Conversion rate
          • Barriers to innovation: Collective Intelligence - What should be the next steps? (Participant comments)

            • “We need to come up with the boundary for them all as most of them are only described in terms of drivers not final outcomes”
            • “We need to establish the science. This is currently happening through academia (not via industry), but industry needs to take the actions – therefore need to be done together ”
            • "We need a way to understand boundaries in a complex system to reflect complexity of how e.g. technology has and will change”
            • In many ways we need to ignore the lack of certainty on the numbers. Most people know these things are rounded anyway and we just need to act. Need to articulate the ‘big gap’ and use within measurement context
            • Setting goals based on science: we need to flip narrative on its head. Currently it is a ‘cost sink’. We need to think the opposite
            • Consensus on the science and sort the ‘more technical’ aspects.
          • Research Summary - 2013

            The key debates and methodological challenges in putting planetary boundaries into practice

            In downscaling the nine planetary boundaries, the respondents highlighted a series of debates and methodological challenges, ranging from technical through to conceptual and even ethical.

            • Perhaps the most basic challenge is that two of the boundaries are not defined and there remains a lack of agreement on the defined limits for the other seven.
            • Furthermore, the planetary boundaries framework currently includes a mix of drivers (e.g. nitrogen cycle), pressures (e.g. phosphorous cycle), states (e.g. amount of stratospheric ozone) and impacts (e.g. biodiversity loss). For these to be applied at an organisational level, they all need to be translated into an ‘impact’. 
            “CO2 was relatively straight forward to translate into an impact. Some of them can’t be translated. E.g. so what if nitrogen cycle doubled, what is the impact / where can it be observed?” [Energy company]

            How social boundaries are being included - in practice

            A key contribution to the discourse surrounding planetary boundaries has been Oxfam’s work to establish 11 social foundations. The participants within this study were broadly in favour of this work, in particular the recognition that environmental and social sustainability are interdependent.


            “I favour Jonathan Porritt’s model of concentric circles. Natural capital is the outer circle, social development is the middle one and then economic is the inner core. They are all connected, but without environment, social and economic development is threatened.” [Food manufacturer]


            A significant proportion of participants felt that rather than a boundary, a ‘safe space’ was required. “Social capital is the opposite (need to flip on head). Build upwards. Do not want to ‘under-shoot’ or under-capitalise on social capital.” [Apparel Industry]

          • How ethical issues such as fair share are being addressed in practice

            Notions of what is an organisation’s fair share of the global commons raised particularly intense discussions. Debates ranged from the practical challenges of allocating between countries and organisations and also moral judgments relating to to shared and differentiated responsibility, with participants noting, for instance;


            “I don’t think we can even start having a discussion on allocation between organisations. Ultimately it needs to be agreed by national governments, as organisation change too much and move around.” [Energy company]


            “Fair share is exponentially harder as it involves a moral judgment. Really only nation states can do this. A lot of further discussions need to be had at a macro-level – national budget”[Retailer]

            How organisations are linking planetary boundary thinking with sustainability frameworks, materiality, reporting and wider business strategy - in practice

            In responding to how planetary boundaries can be linked to wider business practices, respondents cited a series of internal and external applications. From an organisational perspective, planetary boundaries are seen as providing a valuable scientific framework for:

            • Understanding organisation impact
            • Considering future business strategy and risk
            • Setting longer-term, often ambitious targets
            • Reporting

            “Targets linked to purpose (such as planetary boundaries) are a very powerful force– aspirational, inspiration (e.g. like Kennedy and Moon Landing). For us, a massive driving force has been how we defined our target beyond 2015." [Apparel Industry]

          • Our Research Approach -2013

            Collective Intelligence

            We are adopting a collective intelligence approach to the development and dissemination of this research. We are sharing the emerging findings with practitioners to gain their insight, views and perspectives to collectively build the solutions and tools to address the challenge of applying planetary boundaries at organisational level


            This research adopted a practitioner perspective to examine if “organisations are translating notions of planetary boundaries and global limits to organisation-level context and performance – and if so what are the drivers and what are the barriers we see arising to system-level change”. The research was participative, and sought to understand practitioners’ experience and insight.

            Key questions included

            1. Are organisations exploring how to measure their impact against planetary boundaries – and if so, which boundaries and what are the drivers?
            2. What are the emerging methodologies? And how are organisations looking to downscale planetary limits?
            3. What are the key debates and methodological challenges?
            4. How do debates on planetary boundaries link with wider debates on other reporting and measurement frameworks?
            5. How are organisations linking planetary boundary thinking with their sustainability framework, materiality assessment, sustainability reporting and wider business strategy?
            6. How can notions of ‘fair-share’ and social boundaries be included within this approach?
            7. What should be the next step, and what is required from the sustainability community?
            8. Who are seen as thought leaders and organisations in this space?
            9. What are the barriers to this innovation (behavioural, cultural, scalar and/or other)?

            Methods & Researchers

            The research combined semi-structured key informant interviews with leading practitioners (n=10) including leading academics, corporations, NGO, public policy and think tanks, with a review of publicly available business, academic, consultancy, policy and NGO literature. In identifying participants for the study particular emphasis was placed on engaging leading practitioners and ensuring a spread of representation from across industries. The final participants included representatives from the retail, food manufacturing, telecommunications, apparel, oil and gas and home consumables sectors, with further insight and expert opinion provided by leading academic, think tank and industry associations.



            Jim Ormond (PhD in product carbon footprinting) and Jane Fiona Cumming (director) of Article 13. Peer-reviewed by Article 13 global topic expert associates: Professor Adrian Henriques and Barrett Brown PhD.