The concept of sustainability is fraught with misconceptions. Among them: Sustainable products are more expensive to make and less profitable in the market. Or, sustainable products simply must be less bad for the environment, rather than good for it.

To learn more about what it really means to be sustainable—a much used but often misunderstood term—I spoke with Tish Tablan from the firm McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry. MBDC provides companies with “Cradle to Cradle” CertificationCM for product sustainability. Cradle to cradle refers to taking from the earth and giving back to it, without harming it. It may be the most comprehensive certification programs that exists in the world. 

According to Tablan, there are five different aspects to making a product sustainable:

Material Health: 

All the materials in the product must be safe and healthy for humans and the environment. Companies that are serious about sustainability build this requirement into their product sourcing from the beginning. Global materials specialist firms such as Materials Connexion and Kvadrat can help guide firms to existing and new sustainable materials suppliers that fit with their cost parameters.

Material Reutilization:

At its ideal, there would be no unusable waste when the product is no longer useful, creating what’s called a “closed-loop system”: Either the components can be reused to make other products, or they are biological nutrients that can biodegrade and go back into the soil.

111 Navy ChairA few examples that I love:

  • Earth Blocks from the Japanese firm MSY.  They’re made from natural sawdust, coffee bean skins, tree bark, and green tea chaff.
  • Chinese candies that are wrapped in rice paper that you can eat or let biodegrade.
  • Steelcase, Herman Miller Chairs are designed to be easily disassembled into component parts that can then be separately recycled. 
  • Shaw Floors’ EcoWorx carpet tiles are designed to be broken down and remanufactured into more tiles over and over. The backing is easily removed from the tiles, so each can be recycled separately. 
  • Coca-Cola worked with Emeco to create the 111 Navy Chair®, so named because it’s made from 111 plastic bottles of Coca-Cola. 

Renewable Energy Use:

Ideally firms should strive to use renewable energy such as solar, wind, or geothermal, during the production process, rather than non-renewable fossil fuels.  They should also use less energy.

A few great examples of this in action:  

  • Mushroom-based packaging from Ecovative Design as an alternative to Styrofoam.  It uses 98% less energy to make and is biodegradable.
  • Nestle’s USA manufacturing facility in Freehold, New Jersey, sells spent coffee grounds to fire log producers.

Water Stewardship:

Ideally, water leaving the factory should leave as clean or cleaner than it arrived. Rohner Corp., the maker of Climatex Lifecycle Fabric that’s made from 100% biodegradable, synthetic fibers, has water coming out of their factory that’s actually cleaner than the water coming in. Additionally, the leftover product scraps are used by local farmers as mulch or ground cover. Dole bananas in the Philippines are now packed in the field by mini, mobile packing plants that use 90% less water than traditional plants.

Social Responsibility:

Social responsibility involves sourcing materials and making products in ways that provide the people who grow, harvest, transport, and produce them with fair wages and benefits, good working conditions, and respect. Brands such as Tom’s Shoes embody these values and make them the core focus of their marketing. The impact has been at least two-fold: Tom’s enjoys a positive corporate image and it inspires others to follow suit.

There are many ways to make products more sustainable, but if you want to do as much as possible and benefit financially as much as possible, sustainability should be the goal at the start of product development.

When that’s the case, sustainability can be a win/win/win/win/win/:

  • Good for the environment
  • Good for consumers who want to “do the right thing”
  • Good for companies that want to both reduce costs and benefit from consumer goodwill that accrues to sustainable brands
  • Good for local communities, since sourcing locally creates jobs and lowers carbon emissions from transportation and manufacturing
  • Good for innovation: Look at all the start-ups that are finding novel new sources of energy in leftover cooking oil and other recyclable materials