Context-Based Sustainability

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Contextual Citation

"Performance instead is assessed relative to what an organization’s impacts on Vital Capitals must be in order to be sustainable – socially, economically environmentally – with the units of measurement being determined by each capital." (


1. Mark W. McElroy:

"A compelling approach to corporate sustainability management that:

∗ Assesses performance relative to organization-specific norms or standards of performance

∗ Defines such standards relative to thresholds in the carrying capacities of vital capitals

∗ Measures and reports performance in terms of an organization’s impacts on capitals, but only in cases for which there are corresponding duties or obligations owed to stakeholders

A hallmark of CBS is its specification of organizationspecific standards of performance

∗ Takes thresholds in the carrying capacities of vital capitals organizations have (or should have) impact on (e.g., natural, social and economic ones), and then …

∗ Defines or allocates fair, just and proportionate shares of the responsibility to produce and/or maintain them to individual organizations – be they shared or exclusive"


2. Bill Baue:

"CBS is focused on measuring, managing and reporting sustainability performance at the organizational level — primarily, corporations. And CBS is rooted in capital theory, or the idea of multiple areas of capital stocks (natural, human, social, constructed and financial) that yield flows that ideally are harnessed for human well-being and managed to sustainably preserve their so-called carrying capacity. Of course, many (if not most) of these capital stocks are based in the commons as resources shared jointly by diverse individuals and entities.

My sense is that the commons movement could benefit from deeper engagement with the corporate community, including activists who advocate for corporations to take full accountability for their impacts on capitals that are vital to stakeholder well-being. And I know that the sustainability context movement would benefit from expanding its advocacy base beyond the core of the corporate accountability community.

Right now is an opportune moment to mobilize, as there are currently three major new standards being established in the corporate community, and all of them are adhering to capital theory, which arguably compels them to take account of impacts on the commons — or on capital resources that are shared amongst stakeholders.

These three are:



1. David Bollier:

"I don't think the commons would mesh very well with Context-Based Sustainability, at least so far as I understand it. It sounds as if it is trying to quantify or monetize everything into capital stocks so that it can be put on the same discursive plane. But the commons is precisely about breaking up such "universal grid" approaches to understanding the world, including nature, and eschewing standard economic calculuses. Commoners generally insist upon the inherent diversity and localism of resources, people and social systems, and therefore resist quantitative, top-down, purely scientific approaches to nature (a term that itself connotes that nature is objective and separate from humanity).

From the perspective of my work and that of my colleagues, the commons are not simply resources or capital stocks that are shared; they are distinct social communities with their own self-organized governance rules, management practices and cultures that matter, especially in counterpoint to markets and the state. A commons is not the resource alone, in other words. So treating "the commons" as a capital stock would be seen by commoners as a category error and a misunderstanding of what the commons is truly about.

Finally, I am a bit skeptical about the willingness of the corporate community to voluntarily assent to standards that would truly empower commoners to manage resources in the ways they see fit. There would be too many power shifts and "inefficiencies" for most public corporations to accept. For all I know, there may be some constructive middle ground or points of mutual engagement between Context-Based Sustainability and commoners as I know them, but I am skeptical. You can get a better feel for the commons movement and their views from the website of a recent conference that I co-organized in Berlin, the Economics and the Commons Conference." (

2. Martin Thomas:

""Ever since the term Triple Bottom Line (TBL) was first introduced by John Elkington in 1997, managers in organizations have been looking for ways to do it – that is, to operationalize the measurement and reporting of organizational performance in all of its dimensions: social, economic and environmental.

Many attempts have been made to implement the TBL, including the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), the world’s leading sustainability reporting standard. Most such efforts have fallen short, however, largely because of their failure to adequately address Sustainability Context. GRI itself suffers from this shortcoming. Indeed, Sustainability Context is indispensable for measurement and management, too, not just reporting. It requires that social, economic and ecological thresholds in the world be taken explicitly into account when attempting to assess the performance of organizations. Integrated reporting, that is, must be context- and thresholds-based.

The sustainability of water use, for example, cannot be ascertained without first determining how much water is available in a particular place and how much of it should be assigned to a specific user. A rate of use can then be compared to a sustainable rate of supply. Sustainability thresholds can similarly be defined for other areas of impact, including social and economic ones. Performance, in turn, can then be assessed in consistent integrated terms. The MCS makes this possible." (

3. Mark McElroy

David Bollier couldn't be more wrong about the nature of Context-Based Sustainability (CBS), especially his view that CBS tries "to quantify or monetize everything into capital stocks so that it can be put on the same discursive plane." As a general rule, monetization is anathema to us. The only thing we monetize in CBS is financial or economic capital itself. Everything else is quantified in its own native terms using its own native units of measurement. And to that extent, yes, we do quantify things, but not only in terms of stocks but also flows. We see noting wrong with that and make no apologies for it. Capital resources in the world are limited and we ignore them (the limits) at our peril. Our quantifications are conservative, admittedly imperfect and fallible, but at least we try to live within our means and ensure the means to live rather than pretend that resources are unlimited or in some way not quantifiable at all.

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