The Sustainability Doughnut

The Sustainability Doughnut

Image: Grant Cochrane/

The Sustainability doughnut is a new scientifically based tool for testing whether sustainability is gaining traction. In 2009 a group of 28 international scientists gathered at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. They developed nine ‘planetary boundaries’, including biodiversity, land system change and freshwater consumption. Thresholds have been quantified for each boundary, providing clear limits beyond which we tip into catastrophic environmental change.

Since the model’s publication in Nature magazine, the idea has attracted increasing interest from multiple arenas. The Planetary Boundaries Initiative was born in May last year and took the idea to policymakers at the Rio+20 conference, submitting a proposal for a UN Declaration on Planetary Boundaries. Academic researchers at the Global Sustainability Institute are drawing on the model for their new project examining the relationship between resource use and the economy.

Two other initiatives are making the scientifically complex boundaries useful in a corporate setting. The CEO-led World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) has announced a collaboration with the Stockholm Resilience Centre. They will adapt the boundaries into an actionable framework for companies, and use that information to re-examine their Vision 2050 plan.

Published in 2009 after 18 months of collaboration with WBCSD members including PwC, Procter & Gamble and Toyota, the plan attempts to map out what a sustainable future would look like and how business can get there. By incorporating the boundaries into Vision 2050, they will ensure that a holistic, scientifically robust approach to environmental wellbeing is taken.

Closer to home, the ‘doughnut’ has been born. Developed by Oxfam, this adds an inner circle of 11 social issues, including education, jobs and gender equality. As the diagram shows, between this social circle and the outer environmental boundaries exists the safe space in which humankind and the environment can operate sustainably and fairly. Described by key proponent Kate Raworth as “playfully serious”, the doughnut helps us to visualise the stressors present as we aim for a low carbon, socially just future. Companies can use the doughnut to consider how their products or services are impacting the different boundaries.



How does biomass-focused agriculture affect not only land system change, but also food security? How does one company’s cotton t-shirt impact freshwater availability, and also gender equality? A clothing manufacturer may be a leader on water issues but have neglected women’s employment rates in its supply chain management.

Using the doughnut, we can see the issues as part of a whole rather than as falsely unrelated. Innovative brand consultancy Wolff Olins has picked up on the idea, suggesting that the doughnut can help companies consider the meaning of good growth. It is exactly this recasting of growth that the boundaries enable, helping policy-makers, academics and corporates to re-examine strategies and ask themselves; how do we live within the doughnut?

About the Author Emily Kenway

Emily Kenway works in the third sector promoting responsible practices by companies and investors. Prior to 2011, Emily was a professional opera singer before following her passion for sustainability into this new career. Her particular interests include the circular economy, environmental impacts, and the food industry.

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