Sustainability indicators

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Sustainability indicators are indicators that are determined as part of sustainability management.

Indicators are key figures , i.e. measurable and quantifiable quantities. It is used in the social sciences as a sample from a set of empirically testable facts about a research subject.

Analyze social sciences

in short: they make subsystems their subject of research and analyze them. One tool is indicators (see for example indicators in economics ).

Key figures / indicators are a simplified representation of reality. On their basis, one can make descriptive and normative statements - here especially on the topic of sustainability - for example to


The concept of sustainability indicators was brought into being by the United Nations Commission for Sustainable Standards (UNCSD) as part of the environmental conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 through Agenda 21 : Chapter 40 of the Agenda calls for the development and application of measured variables with which processes can be checked for their sustainability. The transfer of economic, ecological, social and institutional dimensions into a holistic system (as the Brundtland Report 1987 had already called for) is intended to ensure that the various forms of sustainability are taken into account.

In 1995, the Committee on Substainable Development (CSD) decided on a work program with the aim of developing a sustainability system by the ninth CSD conference in 2001. The core element of this program was an indicator list with 134 individual indicators which were to be further developed and tested in 22 pilot countries from 1997 onwards. The indicators were divided into

  • Driving forces,
  • State and
  • Action indicators (response)

instead of. As early as April 2000, the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety presented the “Report on the international test phase of the CSD indicator system”. As some of the original indicators were not relevant and not applicable for Germany, the scope was increased to 218 individual indicators. These are divided into the categories economic, ecological, social and institutional. In 2007, the scope of indicators was reduced to 96 (including 50 key indicators) in order to improve applicability.

scope of application

The area of ​​application of sustainability indicators is wide, and there are also many different approaches that subdivide the indicators according to different aspects. A system of sustainability indicators is usually a flexible system that can be individually adapted to the needs of the respective user. In this way, the selected indicators are also classified and categorized as required; But there are suggestions that can and should be used as a guide.

Sustainability indicators are used at international, state, state, district, regional, municipal level, and are also used to monitor developments in companies , institutions, organizations and to evaluate projects. Regardless of the national level, many municipalities have their own system of indicators as part of Agenda 21 . In this way, each municipality can tailor its system to its own structure and goals, unlike a predefined system of indicators.


Widespread indicator systems are

The latter two are based on the former. The aim of the OECD model was not only to depict a condition, but also to be able to assess the pressure on the environment, the condition and the measures. In its system of indicators, the CSD differentiates between economic, ecological, social and institutional aspects. The AEZR model is based on four levels of impact:

  • the activities and structures,
  • Impacts (on the environment, society, etc.),
  • State (environment, society, economy),
  • Effectiveness of the reactions or measures.

Furthermore, indicators can be classified according to their structure, the thematic area, the desired aggregation, the reference to objectives, the degree of networking with other areas, the analytical scope, the cause-and-effect relationships to which the indicator can be assigned, the temporal or spatial scope that Measurability and the type of assessability (e.g. degree of target achievement).



At the international level there are sustainability indicators for international institutions, including international agreements and international organizations. Indicators for international agreements, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, are, for example, the ratification and implementation , as well as the fulfillment of various obligations.


see main article: Sustainable development in Germany

Function and use

The task of indicators is to depict complex relationships as appropriately as possible using representative measured variables. Sustainability indicators concretize the problems of the topic and enable a visualization of the development through temporal (annual series) or spatial (cities, countries, etc.) comparisons. In a municipality, they can be a means of information and communication about sustainable development. Local decisions that relate to the various fields of action can be supported and local sustainable development becomes evaluable and controllable.


Sensitization, communication, promotion of the understanding of sustainable development Concretize the model of sustainable development with regard to the ecological, social and economic goals, present the development of the environment and its relations and interactions with the economy and social structure at regular intervals, evaluate and thus the Support environmental and sustainability reporting, make the goal of sustainable development understandable, communicable and guide action for the general public, present the need for action and provide the decision-makers with manageable information, measure and review the goals of Agenda 21 in the long term, through the integration of data form a communication bridge in the area of ​​discussion about sustainable development in various administrative and social areas and enable comparability with other municipalities using common core indicators (B. enchmarking).


Sustainability indicators improve communication about complex relationships and trend developments in key areas of sustainability. They communicate deficits , conditions or resource developments. They also open up the possibility of reporting in the media about successes and setbacks in sustainable development. A system of indicators of sustainability improves the information of the public about the progress of sustainable development.

Environmental and sustainability education

Indicators can be integrated into educational projects. Current international and national topics are taken up in the sense of a holistic approach and project-related information packages are put together, handouts for sustainable education and exhibitions are designed, and advanced training courses are organized. The aim of these measures is to take successes as an opportunity to promote the willingness to act in everyday life in the sense of sustainability.

Assessment of sustainable developments

Sustainability indicators describe and specify the state of a system in terms of sustainability. They also allow a comparison of different time periods and geographical areas. Sustainability indicators are an important tool in any sustainable development monitoring system. They allow the effectiveness of a sustainability policy to be assessed and, in particular, allow conditions, changes, performance, measures, activities or behavioral patterns to be monitored. Sustainability indicators can use this type of monitoring to show development trends in certain problem areas.

Assessment, opinion and decision about actions and plans

The development of sustainability indicators can help identify and describe priority fields of action for sustainable development.

Management tool

As part of a communal sustainability management system, sustainability indicators are an important management tool for assessing the effectiveness of political decisions or certain measures with regard to a development towards sustainability.


According to their different functions, sustainability indicators have a wide range of uses in the process of sustainable development:

  • they can show how a project or region is developing in the direction of sustainability
  • they use the representation of improvements already achieved in terms of sustainability
  • they are a legitimate marketing tool - municipalities or institutions can position themselves successfully in competition to present successes
  • are part of the eco- audit - with the help of indicators, the degree of target achievement of environmental programs is tracked and control in the eco-audit system is supported


It is criticized that most of the indicators are based on a snapshot. For example, the gross domestic product of a country at a certain point in time is chosen. It is not possible to carry out a dynamic, but only a static view.

Often indicators are only assigned to individual areas. However, environmental indicators, for example, have an impact on many areas that cannot be viewed across the board. On the other hand, it is repeatedly found that it is difficult to integrate indicators into individual areas. According to the authors, segmentation is a hindrance to a comprehensive result.

Many indicator systems focus on ecological aspects. According to the Brundtland Commission, sustainability indicators are about much more than just ecological aspects. Current indicator systems mostly depict individual states. A system that could map cause-and-effect systems that can record cross-system perspectives would be more effective .

See also


  • Government of the Federal Republic of Germany (Ed.): Perspektiven für Deutschland - Our strategy for sustainable development. As of 2008
  • Andreas Sturm, Norbert Egli: Sustainability Indicators - A Structural Proposal for Switzerland. Ellipson AG, Basel 2000.
  • Federal Statistical Office: Environmental and Economic Accounts - Sustainable Development in Germany. Federal Statistical Office, Wiesbaden 2009.
  • E. Günther: Ecology-oriented management - environment (world-oriented) thinking in business administration. Lucius & Lucius, Stuttgart 2008.
  • City of Hanover, Environment Department, Department of Environment and Urban Greenery, Department of Environmental Protection: Environment-related sustainability indicators for Hanover - a practical report. 2004.
  • Technical University of Ilmenau, Institute for Economics (Ed.); Andreas Bielig: Discussion Paper No. 29, Measuring Sustainability Using Sustainability Indicators. February 2003.
  • Federal Environment Agency, Sebastian Oberthür, Matthias Buck: Conceptual further development of the CSD sustainability indicators on the topic of international institutions. Chapters 38 and 39 of AGENDA 21, final report. December 1997.
  • BMU - sustainability indicators. 2008. As of January 2010
  • M. Born G. Haan: Methodology, development and application of sustainability indicators. 2008. As of January 2010 (PDF; 245 kB)
  • BMU: Testing the CSD sustainability indicators in Germany - Federal Government report. 2000. As of January 2010 (PDF; 358 kB)
  • Hans Diefenbacher , Oliver Foltin, Benjamin Held, Dorothee Rodenhäuser, Rike Schweizer, Volker Teichert, Marta Wachowiak: Towards sustainability - indicators, goals and recommendations for Germany. FEST Heidelberg 2011, ISBN 978-3-88257-061-8

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