Industrial ecology represents an emerging interdisciplinary field of studying industrial systems in combination with their fundamental linkage with nature. An eye-catching characteristic at the basis of industrial ecology's scientific profile is its refreshingly unorthodox perspective of understanding nature as model, compared with other disciplines of understanding nature, e.g. in terms of ‘sack of resources’ or ‘biophysical limit’ as opposed to industrial systems. The idea of industrial ecology's appealing perspective is to balance the development of industrial systems with the constraints of natural ecosystems, analogous to an ‘industrial symbiosis’. On the basis of initial efforts to conceptualize industrial ecology's underlying assumptions concerning nature, a philosophically focused approach of its characteristic perspective of understanding nature as model is presented. The contribution may provide industrial ecologists as well as other economists, engineers, scientists and policy-makers involved in the field of sustainability with an opportunity for accessible philosophical reflection, perhaps bringing to the surface their tacit frames regarding nature. Consequently, the goal is to gain greater conceptual clarity and to contribute to laying a solid foundation for industrial ecology's stimulating role when initiating change towards sustainability at large. Copyright © 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment.