The Sustainability Compass: Nature, Economy, Society, Wellbeing

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Compass is a methodology for orienting people to sustainability. Compass helps you bring people together around a common understanding of sustainability, and a shared vision for getting there. It also helps you monitor progress along the way.  First developed in 1997, the Sustainability Compass has been used by companies, communities, organizations, schools and universities around the world.

The Sustainability Compass is easy to understand. A regular compass helps us map the territory and find our direction. This Compass does the same thing for sustainability. It takes the English-language directions — North, East, South, West — and renames them, while keeping the same well-known first letters:

N is for Nature – All of our natural ecological systems and environmental concerns, from ecosystem health and nature conservation, to resource use and waste.

E is for Economy – The human systems that convert nature’s resources into food, shelter, ideas, technologies, industries, services, money and jobs.

S is for Society – The institutions, organizations, cultures, norms, and social conditions that make up our collective life as human beings.

W is for Wellbeing – Our individual health, happiness, and quality of life.

Those four categories were developed by prominent sustainability theorists. The fact that these four words line up with the four directions of a compass was a happy coincidence, noticed in 1997 by Alan AtKisson while he was attending an international meeting on sustainability. He and his colleagues developed the Compass idea into a complete set of tools, and since then, the Sustainability Compass has been spreading around the world. Compass has been used in very many diverse situations, ranging from corporate board rooms to indigenous community programs.


People use the Sustainability Compass (and related tools developed by the AtKisson Group) to:

  • Explain sustainability in clear, simple language
  • Teach sustainability and sustainable development, in a whole-system way
  • Provide a unifying symbol for sustainability and sustainable development programs
  • Convene stakeholders and manage their involvement in sustainability initiatives
  • Develop sustainability indicators and reports for organizations, companies, cities, etc.
  • Perform sustainability assessments and gap analyses for corporations

The Sustainability Compass is copyrighted, but permission to use it (without charge) is nearly always granted to small non-profit and educational organizations. Commercial licenses are also available, for a paid fee, to companies and larger institutions who wish to adopt it as part of their sustainability or corporate responsibility program.

For more information, please see the examples on this website. You can also contact us at team@compasseducation.org.