Skip to content

THRIVE Framework: Context-Based Sustainability Metrics



When it comes to sustainability and how to achieve it, governments and organisations use two main approaches. These are Science-Based Goals/Metrics and Ethics-Based Goals/Metrics. Both can exist in isolation to one another. Firstly, an Ethics-Based Metric may be concerned with addressing a social or environmental issue, informed by a normative ethical standard. However, Science-Based Metrics may attempt to address the scientific impact we are having on the climate. Both allow for huge flaws regarding facilitating action and enabling change to address issues at an organisational level. This is because they are in isolation to one another. Furthermore, they do not take into consideration organisational context (Centre for Sustainable Organisations, 2023). Context-Based Sustainability Metrics offer a solution to the aforementioned issue.

Context-Based Sustainability Metrics is the meeting point between Science- and Ethics-Based Metrics.
Context-Based Metrics is the meeting point between Science- and Ethics-Based Metrics.
Source: Sustainable Brands.

What is Context-Based Sustainability and how are metrics involved?

What Context-Based Metrics (CBM) recognises and addresses is the context these problems exist within and that of the organisations dealing with them. Moreover, organisations use CBM to allocate resources and decide on targets. CMB provides a holistic and systems-based approach to inform the way organisations should run. Furthermore, CBM assists organisations to adhere to sustainability thresholds in their allocation of resources and the targets they drive towards. This guarantees metrics incorporate organisational context, sustainability thresholds, and normative values in tandem with the chosen approach.

Management determines, uses, and reports context-based metrics quantitatively to measure sustainability performance. Stakeholders rely on these measures, which report impacts on vital capital resources for their well-being. In measuring sustainability performance, they compare these metrics to norms, standards, and thresholds defining sustainability requirements. The standards set should be based on the carrying capacity of those vital capitals.

For example, the context-based carbon metric for businesses measures the greenhouse gas emissions of a company against science-based reduction targets. The metric allocates emissions entitlements (and reduction burdens) to individual organisations. This is based upon their contributions to GDP. They adjust them every year, accordingly. The organisations also keep the allocations and thresholds in line with the annual global carbon budgets specified in science-based metrics.

Context-based metrics acknowledge varying priorities, constraints, and factors influencing evaluation criteria across different contexts. Tailoring metrics to specific contexts allows a deeper understanding of performance for more informed decision-making.

Measuring with context-based Sustainability Metrics

Sustainability performance measurement involves evaluating the environmental, social, and economic impact of an organisation or system in regard to its sustainability practices. Indeed, context-based metrics play a crucial role in sustainability performance measurement as they help tailor the evaluation criteria to the specific context of sustainability initiatives.

As the importance of sustainability performance measurement and reporting continues to grow, it is important we distinguish between science-based metrics, ethics-based metrics, and context-based metrics. The three pillars are extremely important in measuring sustainability but none of them are sufficient on its own. Science-based targets provide a clearly defined pathway to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, these targets lack effectiveness without setting specific allocations and thresholds at an individual organisation level. Establishing organisation-specific allocations, thresholds, and limits ensures fair apportionment of vital resources to individual parties. When doing this, it is important that we think about the size of the organisation and its growth over time as well.

As an example, if a company sets a goal in 2005 of reducing its greenhouse gases by 70 per cent by 2050, but grows four-fold in size by then, while the number of global emitters has also increased, it does not make sense to maintain the 70 percent target set back in 2005. In context-based thinking, the allocation side adjusts for changes on the ground, acknowledges accountability differences, and simultaneously adheres to science-based thresholds. Context-based goals and metrics do that well. Science-based metrics on their own are insufficient.

McElroy (2008) established a formula for measuring and reporting Corporate Sustainability Performance called the Sustainability Quotient.  

The Sustainability Quotient.
Denominators represent the norms, standards, or thresholds that an organisation’s impacts on essential capitals must meet to achieve sustainability.
Source: Sustainable Organisations.

Sustainability Quotient Examples

  • In the context of environmental metrics, greenhouse gas emissions of a company (numerator) will be measured against the science-based reduction targets (denominator) tied to the reversal of climate change and the stabilisation of GHGs in the atmosphere to safe levels.
  • When it comes to social context, an example would be corporate gender diversity (numerator) measured against a norm of more than 40 percent of either gender on a board of directors (denominator).
  • In the economic context, return on equity could be measured against earnings sufficient to cover the cost of capital employed in a particular project.

As you can see from the examples, context-based metrics have a very real-time use in the business world.

Corporate Sustainability Management Cycle

The process of sustainability performance measurement in a corporation is usually called the Corporate Sustainability Management (CSM) Cycle. It includes the following steps:

  1. Launch/Orient CSM Function – Involves establishing conceptual commitments according to the carrying capacities of vital capitals for stakeholder wellbeing. This step also involves considering the impact to the triple bottom line. It involves choosing an approach that is context-based and not incremental.  
  2. Identify Stakeholders – Identifying parties to whom the organisations actions will have an impact on (both human and non-human). This process also involves making sure all stakeholders are considered and defining to whom a duty or obligation is owed.
  3. Set Standards of Performance – Setting standards for an organisation is a function of its impact on the carrying capacity of vital capitals to ensure stakeholder wellbeing. Metrics must be developed to manage impacts on each stakeholder group identified in Step 2.
  4. Measure/Assess Performance – Measurement of the individual organisation (numerator in the Sustainability Quotient) must take place against the norms and standards set in Step 3 (denominator in the Sustainability Quotient). This process provides numerical sustainability performance scores and measures the gaps between actual performance and normative performance. This process be a proactive and continuous process.
  5. Plan Strategies and Interventions – Where gaps are discovered in performance, corporate sustainability strategies must be developed to bridge the gaps.
  6. Implement Strategies and Interventions – Strategies developed in Step 5 must be implemented in order to maintain the standards set in terms of the carrying capacity of the vital capitals to ensure stakeholder wellbeing.
Corporate Sustainability Management Cycle and how it ties into Context-Based Sustainability Metrics.
Corporate Sustainability Management Cycle.
Source: McElroy and Van Engelen, 2012.

Context-Based Sustainability Metrics Use Summed Up

By using context-based metrics in sustainability performance measurement, organisations can obtain a more comprehensive and meaningful assessment of their sustainability practices. These metrics allow organisations to align their sustainability goals with the specific environmental, social, and economic conditions they operate in and identify areas for improvement and innovation. Additionally, context-based metrics promote comparability and benchmarking across similar organisations within the same context, enabling better tracking of progress and sharing of best practices.

The idea behind context-based metrics is to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach and instead create evaluation measures that align with the unique needs and goals of a particular context. This approach enables a more nuanced and accurate assessment of performance, leading to better-informed decision-making.

Why Use Context-Based Sustainability Metrics

Organisations use context-based metrics for different reasons in different areas. Here is a list of why organisations find them useful:


When thinking about the specific features and hurdles in a certain situation, context-based metrics give a better, more exact idea of how an organisation’s actions affect the environment, society, and the economy.

Local Relevance:

Companies work in all sorts of places with different social, economic, and environmental setups. Indeed, context-based metrics make sure that sustainability goals and practices match what the local community needs and cares about.

Strategic Decision-Making:

Context-based metrics help organisations make smart decisions by giving a heads-up on what might happen. As a result, they can choose wisely and stay on track with their sustainability goals.

Compliance with SDGs:

Using context-based metrics helps organisations get in sync with Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by focusing on actions that make a real difference in local communities and are sustainable. This connection plays a part in the bigger global effort to tackle important issues like climate change, poverty, and inequality.

Holistic Sustainability:

When organisations use context-based metrics, they can look at sustainability in a big-picture way. It’s not just about the environment; it includes thinking about the social and economic issues too. This broader view helps them run their business in a more well-rounded and responsible manner.


Finally, context-based metrics recognise that things can shift over time. So, organisations can adjust their sustainability plans as things change, making sure they stay relevant and effective.

To sum up, organisations use context-based metrics because they want sustainability assessments that fit their needs, are precise, and make sense in the circumstances in which they operate. It’s all about making smart decisions and going along with the big goals for global sustainability.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Context-Based Sustainability Metrics

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. At its heart are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are an urgent call for action by all countries – developed and developing – in a global partnership.”

United Nations

Context-based metrics matter for several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially those highlighting the significance of local considerations, impacts, and sustainable practices. In fact, here are some SDGs where context-based metrics are especially applicable:

  • SDG 6: “Clean Water and Sanitation“. Context-based metrics can assess and address water usage in a specific context, considering local availability and needs.
  • SDG 7: “Affordable and Clean Energy“. Organisations using context-based metrics may tailor their energy consumption and efficiency measures based on local energy availability and accessibility.
  • SDG 8: “Decent Work and Economic Growth“. Applying context-based metrics allows for the assessment of social and economic impacts of organisations on local communities, ensuring the alignment of employment practices with the relevant context.
  • SDG 12: “Responsible Consumption and Production“. Organisations adopting context-based metrics can evaluate their resource consumption and production practices in a way that is sustainable within the specific context.
  • SDG 13: “Climate Action“. Organisations can use context-based metrics to assess and mitigate their environmental impact, taking into account local climate conditions and vulnerabilities.
  • SDGs 14 and 15: “Life Below Water” and “Life on Land“. Context-based metrics may be relevant for organisations operating in specific ecosystems, helping to ensure sustainable land use practices.

Fundamentally, using context-based metrics lets organisations tailor their sustainability efforts to match the specific conditions and challenges they face. This lines up with SDGs that stress local, impactful, and sustainable actions.

A Thrivable Framework

Systemic Holistic Model

THRIVE stands for The Holistic Regenerative Innovative Value Entity. It forms the basis for the THRIVE Framework, and is a transdisciplinary, holistic modelling system. It models likely outcomes of actions well before they occur. The purpose of the THRIVE Framework is to help measure the potential of initiatives taken today. This is to help transform society towards a ‘better than sustainable’ future. The SDGs are the goals and the THRIVE Framework is the strategy to realise them.

12 Foundational Focus Factors (FFFs) underpin the THRIVE Framework. Furthermore, these FFFs are theories and guidelines. Indeed, they help us navigate ways of living and working through crises, natural disasters and climate change. As a result of several years of comprehensive research, the 12 Foundational Focus Factors identify necessary and sufficient conditions to transition humanity towards sustainability, and indeed, Thrivability.

Sustainability is not just about surviving, but thriving. The 12 FFFs, along with the THRIVE platform, use backcasting to solve problems. Backcasting is like planning your dream future and then figuring out the steps to make it happen. It’s not just predicting the future based on what’s going on now; it’s about working backward to set goals, tackle obstacles, and plan the necessary actions. People often use it in sustainability planning to aim high and find innovative and effective ways to get there.

The Systemic Holistic Model brings together these 12 Foundational Focus Factors, which operate across four quadrants, working together to create Thrivable transformation. These quadrants are significance, shift, scale, and scope.

Context-Based Metrics

Context-Based Metrics is one of THRIVE’s FFFs and measures sustainability by contextualising activities and their impacts. In fact, the more an entity does to ensure their vital capitals are sustainable compared to their impacts, the more sustainable they are. But the ways in which an entity can ease their impacts depends upon what is practical to implement, based on available resources within their context.

Context-Based Metrics is found in the Scale quadrant of the Systemic Holistic Model. This quadrant considers the impact of the use of finite resources, using Science-Based Targets and Context-Based Metrics.

Entity Model

Another FFF, Entity Model, aims to navigate what entities can do. In fact, an entity can be anything from a small single-celled organism to the entire cosmos. Furthermore, these models shape the boundaries that outline their limits. THRIVE’s logo, a ciambella chart, outlines two important boundaries for humanity to adhere to. These boundaries are – a social floor, denoting the minimum for an entity’s survival; and an environmental ceiling, where too many resources are extracted from the environment. The ever changing systemic context in which entities find themselves also links to FFF’s such as Complex-Wicked-Problems and Systems Thinking, within the Shift and Scale Quadrants of the Systemic Holistic Model, demonstrating how these FFF intersect with one another, as with Context-Based Metrics.

Towards a Thrivable Future

THRIVE Project invests interest in issues fundamental to the well-being of our society. With the goal of thrivability in mind, It focuses on the path to overcoming environmental and social injustice.

To learn more about how THRIVE Project is researching, educating and advocating for a future beyond sustainability, visit our website. You can follow our informative blog and podcast series, and learn about our regular live webinars featuring expert guests in the field. If you want to understand further about how Context-Based Metrics as part of the THRIVE Framework can contribute to a Thrivable planet, visit our homepage, sign up for our newsletter, and watch our videos on our YouTube channel.