This paper focuses upon the sustainability of the economy in relation to nature and natural ecosystems. There are two main aspects to this relationship: consumption of natural resources; and generation of pollution and wastes because of economic practices of production, exchange and consumption. The paper addresses the extent to which both consumption of natural resources and production of pollution and wastes can be reduced and the economy and its constituent practices and spaces be made more sustainable, recognizing that sustainability involves cultural, political–economic and social dimensions as well as the impact of human activity on nature. A close and critical reading of the literatures on industrial ecology, industrial metabolism and natural capitalism provides an entry point into these issues. These literatures help identify the ‘natural limits’ to economic practices but are themselves limited in their approach to issues of sustainability. The paper explores these latter limits and their implications. Copyright © 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment.