Measuring sustainability – practical techniques for designs and enterprises

Permaculture prides itself on the responsibility it shows toward the environment and claims more ‘sustainability’ than conventional design systems. But how many of us really know how sustainable designs or enterprises are?

This paper proposes a number of approaches to the calculation of sustainability, both physical (positivist) and economic (normative).
The presentation compares the sustainability of a permaculture property with a conventional property using the proposed key indicators and a number of sub-indicators from the Global Reporting Initiative.

Many people collect most of the information required for the calculations as a normal part of their record keeping processes for tax and other purposes.

Key Indicators:
1. Product energy/input energy
2. Income/cost of non-renewable inputs
3. Soil nutrient, pH, organic carbon levels and trends
4. Percentage of  area given-over to effective biodiversity plantings and reserves
5. Income/total water use

The figures collected and analysed are of most use to the manager of the business in tracking trends in each enterprise as management and inputs change. They  also enable benchmarking against other farms and food businesses.

The case study compared actual data from a permaculture property (The Food Forest) and a conventional property growing a similar main crop.. Reasons for the strong performance of the permaculture design are discussed.

A simple graphic technique for mapping the flow of energy and nutrients within permaculture designs is also demonstrated.


Graham is a horticulturist and educator with a long career at the University of Adelaide during which he also built up the certified organic permaculture demonstration farm known as The Food Forest. He and his wife Annemarie cultivate some 150 varieties of fruit, nuts and vegetables and also teach permaculture design on-farm. He is chairman of the Adelaide Showground Farmers active in the area of town and regional planning and is one of Australia’s foremost permaculture designers


Find out more


Conference session: 
Conference strand: