Sustainability can be hard to define, but there are a few concepts that characterize it pretty well. Sustainability is the ability to keep going over the long haul, and one of the key concepts of that mindset is whole-systems thinking. That includes recognition that everything is connected, as well as the willingness to consider and respect all of those connections.

Just a few decades ago, the sustainability movement was thought of as a relatively small number of people working quietly to research eco-friendly ways of living. Today, though, awareness about the importance of sustainability permeates the consumer mindset in virtually every market. Because what's good for the environment is, in many cases, better for the consumer's health, too.

Modern consumers are demanding changes to how products are made and what values companies prioritize. Even large governing organizations like the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the World Bank have officially sanctioned sustainability efforts in agriculture and development, respectively.

Even if you have trouble precisely defining everything sustainability entails, you should have no trouble seeing that it's changing business in many significant ways. Indeed, these four far-reaching changes are becoming more obvious every day:

1. Eco-friendly materials are a must for products.

Whole-system awareness and consumerism were notably felt in 2012 when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the use of bisphenol A (BPA) in baby bottles and children's sippy cups. BPA was used in most plastics for decades, until consumer pressure forced companies to remove it from their products. Since then, consumers have increasingly demanded manufacturers use eco-friendly materials.

That rising demand has proved disruptive for companies, which turn to product designers and materials suppliers to help meet the heightened demand for safer, more eco-friendly products. PopFoam, the leading maker of injection molded EVA closed-cell foam, is a prime example. The company has made nontoxicity a priority, ensuring its EVA foam--which makes its way into a slew of products, including children's highchairs--meets Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) standards, meaning it does not contain lead or phthalates and is safe for children. Eliminating harmful chemicals from products also is beneficial for pets and the environment.

2. Household cleaners are getting the job done with fewer chemicals.

When you think of environmentally hazardous household products, chemical cleaners might be the first things that come to mind. It used to be aerosol sprays that worried consumers the most. Now that consumers know the hazardous chemicals that many common cleaners consist of, though, they are demanding products without them.

This has led to a boom in household products that broadcast their earth-friendliness as proudly as they advertise their cleaning power. Whole-systems thinking is evident in such products as the ECOS line of cleaners, which are pH-balanced, biodegradable, sold in recyclable packaging, and never tested on animals.

3. Sustainability is influencing builders.

And it's not just households that are getting in on the sustainability action. The materials that contractors use to build commercial buildings are also more frequently being chosen with sustainability in mind. The National Green Building Adoption Index in 2017 showed that 38 percent of commercial office space in the 30 largest U.S. markets is classified as "green" by LEED or Energy Star certifications, which is a more than 25 percent jump compared to 2005.

In construction particularly, the drive for eco-friendliness has led to a sort of sustainability race. From foundational drive piles to window films and flooring, sustainability has become the common denominator for most building materials and planning. The city of Seattle has further spurred sustainability efforts through rules that require LEED certification on any new construction or significant renovation of a city building of more than 5,000 square feet. Seattle's King Street Station was LEED Platinum-certified a few years ago after going through a major renovation that quadrupled its size. But even with that large addition, the station uses 68 percent less energy.

4. Companies are operating with less energy (or alternative forms of it).

Energy conservation efforts and use of alternative energy sources are among the most significant changes the sustainability movement is bringing to modern businesses. Some companies are enacting sustainable energy policies, such as using energy-efficient light bulbs and buying energy-efficient office equipment. Not only does this protect the planet, but it also saves companies up to 2-10 percent in energy costs.

Other companies are completely revamping their operations to switch from coal and other fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, such as wind, water, and solar power. The latter has been the case in Nevada, where a few casino companies unplugged from the state utility in order to pursue renewable energy sources.

Whether you call it a buzzword or call it a movement, one thing is certain--the concept of sustainability is revolutionizing nearly every industry. If you aren't taking it seriously already, then market demands may soon force your hand. It's better to get ahead of the curve by following these examples and embracing the change.

Published on: Apr 18, 2018
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