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Prioritize Sustainability Projects with 4-Step Framework

The framework developed in this article breaks the concept of sustainability into a hierarchy of four levels of issues.

The framework developed in this article breaks the concept of sustainability into a hierarchy of four levels of issues. It can provide organizations, policy makers and researchers with a more consistent and effective method of assessing and prioritizing sustainability initiatives.


Most sustainability frameworks fail to provide managers and policy makers a concrete answer to the question “What is a sustainable organization or society?” The triple bottom line incorporates societal issues such as fair trade and environmental justice, but such a definition is hard to implement. Further, there may be tradeoffs: while fair trade practices may promote just payment for local farmers for their products, such production could involve inefficient or environmentally unsustainable farming practices. This article creates a practical definition of sustainability, in contrast with four popular frameworks: the Triple Bottom Line, The Natural Step, the Ecological Footprint, and Graedel and Klee’s method of calculating sustainable emissions and resource use.


A sustainability hierarchy, similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs used in psychology, provides a comprehensive overview of sustainability. The pyramid consists of four levels, with level 1 being the most important, followed by level 2, etc.

  • Level 1: Actions that endanger the survival of humans.

  • Level 2: Actions that significantly reduce life expectancy or other basic health indicators.

  • Level 3: Actions that may cause species extinction or that violate human rights.

  • Level 4: Actions that reduce quality of life or are inconsistent with values, beliefs, or aesthetic preferences.

Level 4 is not recommended as a necessary condition for sustainability because it relies on values and beliefs.

Implications for Managers

  • Managers can use the hierarchy to prioritize sustainability initiatives. For example: Choosing suppliers who offer safe and healthy working environments (level 2) is more important than freedom of association (level 4).

  • It is difficult to evaluate an organization as a unit at level 1 because an organization, by itself, is unlikely to violate higher-level conditions (e.g. destroy the Earth’s ozone or endanger human survival). To measure sustainability, each organization’s actions need to be scaled to a societal level by assessing what would happen if all organizations behaved the same way.

  • Policy makers can use the hierarchy to prioritize. Level 4 matters tend to carry political weight but, according to the authors, are secondary to the top 3 levels of the hierarchy.

  • Policy must have long-term objectives that go beyond the political lifespan of a person or government. Continuity and long-term commitment are critical.

Implications for Researchers

The concepts in this article can help scholars be more precise when using the term “sustainability” in their research by encouraging specificity in terms of hierarchy levels, unit of analysis (e.g. the product, the firm, the nation), and the boundaries of analysis (e.g., factories, suppliers, product use).


This paper adapts Maslow’s hierarchy of needs based on elements of existing sustainability frameworks. The authors provide a hierarchy of sustainability issues against which an organization’s – or society’s – actions can be evaluated.

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