Sustainability Tools and Indicators

Thematic Essay

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Measuring what?

Simon Bell, Open University, UK

The books which sit at the heart of this note are: Sustainability Indicators: measuring the immeasurable? (2000 and 2008), Measuring Sustainability (2003) and Resilient Participation: saving the human project (2011). All three books were written by me, Simon Bell, and my colleague Professor Stephen Morse of the University of Surrey, UK.

There is a world of difference between measurement and the measured. There is often a galaxy of discontinuity between the sustainability indicator and the subject of assessment.

What do I mean?

Indicators are usually made by experts and applied to populations. Think about two of the biggest indicators around nowadays: Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or the Ecological Footprint. We use these indicators to measure national output and ecological change. But, very few people know how they are made up and very few people would be confident to talk about what they are really measuring, but they are used to define the way we think about and measure nations.

It was with these kinds of thoughts in mind that I considered the value of indicators for sustainability back in 2000 prior to the first book, Sustainability Indicators. My concern was (and remains today) the urgent need for sustainability to be measured in a way which means something to those measured and does not leave people feeling remote from the indicator process – and possibly hopeless and in despair. What do I mean?

It is often the case that indicators increase a sense of powerlessness rather than reducing it. How come? The indicators are too powerful in many cases. I am not claiming that this is a nasty conspiracy. Far from it. Most measurement is undertaken with the honest and scientifically clear intention of providing information which is value free and objectively, evidentially verifiable. The science is often the best we have but the result is often negative.

Again, what do I mean? The maths and stats can result in indicators, long formulated by experts, which are incomprehensible without a member of the expert group which formulated them being around to say what they mean. Also, sustainability indicators are often of global significance and are often depressing (in showing continual decline in species, biodiversity or whatever) and un-actionable because they relate to forces beyond the means of any country, let alone anybody, to respond to meaningfully.

The result of many global indicators can be powerlessness and misery.

It was with this formidable background in mind that the three books emerged. They attempt to bring indicator creation, measurement and assessment to the person who cares about it in a personal manner.

The argument is quite simple. If we want sustainability indicators to mean something to real people in the real world, then they need to mean something to that person and they need to allow that person to do something about it. What many indicators do now is to reduce morale and make the problems seem too big to handle. This can cause the despair I talk about.

If we want a child to ‘do’ something, we would never say to the child: ‘oh by the way, there is no value in what you are doing’, or ‘the task I have set you is impossible’, or ‘what you produce will be useless’. We know that this would be ridiculous. We know that any child faced by such a torrent of disincentive would just not bother or bother very badly indeed.

In sustainability we seem to have no issue with providing the individual with gargantuan issues which the individual has not a hope of conceptualising, let alone doing anything about.

Let me be clear. In sustainability work:

We rarely provide a potential of cure with the diagnosis of the disease.

We rarely provide information fit for action at the level of the person.

We never offer a better than 50/50 chance of a recovery.

Standard indicators can, in their very objectivity crush the potential for hope and action.

So, in the three books I mentioned at the start of this essay, the authors have tried to put indicators back in the hands of the people who could develop them and use them … indicators for people!

Since the first book came out on sustainability indicators, I have worked with hundreds of people on dozens of sustainability workshops and projects in lots of countries – from sustainability around much of Europe (see: to coastal sustainability in Spain (see:, from the London Olympics to the future of the Internet (see ‒ and my experience is that the view from the ground is one of energy, hope, vigour and endeavour. This positive side of people is laced with caution, a lack of credulity regarding all things political and measured optimism that ‘we’, the people, can make a difference.

To face a potential global tragedy we need a systemic consciousness. We only get that by nurturing people and providing them with indicators they understand and relate to.

[To know more about a great device for getting people to think together and be creative, look at Rich Pictures at:

To know more about diagramming for group work, see:

To see some interesting material on community, noise and London’s Heathrow airport see:

And, if you would like to learn more about community use of indicators, look at the Open University module on Environmental Management:]

Recommended Routledge Books

Supplementary Reading




Free Journal Articles

Bond, Alan, Angus Morrison-Saunders and Jenny Pope, 2012, ‘Sustainability assessment: the state of the art’, Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal 30(1), pp 53-62
Baard, Patrik, Maria Vredin Johansson, Henrik Carlsen and Karin Edvardsson Björnberg, 2012, ‘Scenarios and sustainability: tools for alleviating the gap between municipal means and responsibilities in adaptation planning’, Local Environment 17(6-7), pp 641-662
Ivner, Jenny, Anna Elisabeth Björklund, Karl-Henrik Dreborg, Jessica Johansson, Per Viklund and Hans Wiklund, 2010, ‘New tools in local energy planning: experimenting with scenarios, public participation and environmental assessment’, Local Environment 15(2), pp 105.120
Tetlow, Monica Fundingsland and Marie Hanusch, 2012, ‘Strategic environmental assessment: the state of the art’, Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal 30(1), pp 15-24
Morgan, Richard K., 2012, ‘Environmental impact assessment: the state of the Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal 30(1) art’, Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal 30(1), pp 5-14
Esteves, Ana, Daniel Franks and Frank Varclay, 2012, ‘Social impact assessment: the state of the art’, Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal 30(1), pp 34-42

Video Links

  1. Ecological footprint: Do we fit our planet?

    Duration: 6:16

    A well-produced introduction to the principles of ecological footprints using animated illustrations.

  2. The Ecological Footprint: Accounting for a Small Planet

    Duration: 2:67

    This is an introduction to ecological footprints featuring Mathis Wackernagel, the originator of the concept and Executive Director of the Global Footprint Network.

  3. Introduction to Design for Lifetime

    Duration: 4:17

    A very well-produced introduction to how Life Cycle Analysis can be used to expand the lifetime of products and maximise recycling. Pitched at companies wanting to operate sustainably with an emphasis on environmental impacts.

  4. Life Cycle Analysis in Six Minute Crash Course

    Duration: 6:11

    A well-produced introduction to LCA with an emphasis on understanding and mitigating the environmental impacts of production.

  5. Life Cycle Assessment as part of Strategic Sustainability for Product Design

    Duration: 3:09

    A presentation which uses animation to introduce the use of LCA for designing products with minimal environmental impacts. This is from the same presenter as the Six Minutes Crash Course video.

  6. Introduction to Cost-Benefit Analysis

    Duration: 4:25

    An excellent, well-produced introduction to Cost Benefit Analysis, moving from financial considerations to social and environmental impacts.

  7. Cradle2Cradle

    A well-produced presentation on the rationale for, and key ideas within, the work of McDonough and Braungart on cradle to cradle design.

  8. Gugler goes Cradle to Cradle

    Duration: 3:52

    A cleverly animated presentation showing how and why an Austrian company used cradle to cradle principles to redesign the production of paper.

  9. Cradle to cradle design, William McDonough

    Duration: 21:55

    A TED talk by one of the co-creators of the concept of cradle to cradle design.

  10. I, Pencil

    Duration: 6:32

    This popular 2012 video examines the components that go into the making of an apparently simple graphite pencil. This is a very well made video about global supply chains which also looks at the history of a taken-for-granted product.

Blogs and Websites