Environmental awareness is pervasive nowadays, due to anxieties over energy security and global warming. Businesses large and small are embracing sustainability and corporate citizenship. But we have not fully acknowledged the magnitude of the environmental challenges that we face. The throughput of materials in developed economies generates a hidden mountain of waste, depleting natural resources and threatening ecosystem integrity.

Even as we debate the merits of carbon regulations, leading scientists believe that we have already exceeded the "safe operating space" for humanity in three critical indicators-greenhouse gas emissions, nitrogen flows, and biodiversity loss. These pressures, resulting from population and economic growth, threaten the resilience of vital natural resources as fresh water, soil, forests, and wetlands. And the rate of change is accelerating-new products and materials (think bio and nano) are emerging faster than scientists can study their impacts.

Finding a path to sustainable growth will require global collaboration and eco-innovation on an unprecedented scale. To accomplish this, we need to take a fresh look at a business practice called Design for Environment (DFE), which assures that new products are developed with a full understanding of lifecycle environmental considerations.

Early adopters of DFE, such as 3M, DuPont and HP, have enhanced their competitiveness by introducing environmentally responsible products that provide exceptional customer value. But DFE cannot be practiced casually. Companies need to build upon past experiences and assemble a portfolio of systematic design strategies that can be codified, communicated through training, and systematically applied by product design teams. This will encourage a repeatable and consistent innovation process rather than anecdotal successes based on individual ingenuity.

The following summarizes four major categories of DFE guidelines, based on worldwide best practices compiled over a decade.

Design for Dematerialization
-- Minimize material throughput as well as the associated energy and resource consumption at every stage of the lifecycle.

This can be achieved through a variety of techniques such as product life extension, source reduction, process simplification, remanufacturing, use of recycled inputs or substitution of services for products. Dematerialization represents the best opportunity for decoupling economic growth from resource consumption.

For example, in 2008, in response to a challenge from Walmart to reduce packaging, HP introduced the Pavilion dv6929 notebook PC in a recycled laptop bag with 97 percent less packaging than typical laptops. The carrying bag contains no foam, only some plastic bags for consumers to dispose of. The bag itself, save for the buckle, strap and zipper, is made out of 100 percent recycled fabric. HP is able to fit three bags in a box for shipping the product to stores, thus reducing energy use and costs related to logistics.

The most radical approach to dematerialization is to eliminate products altogether and provide services instead. For example, the concept of car sharing, which began in Europe in the late 1980s, offers a convenient alternative to car ownership, enabling people to use the most effective combination of motor vehicles, walking, biking, or public transportation. The largest U.S. provider, Zipcar, claims that each of its cars replaces over 15 privately owned vehicles, thus relieving congestion and changing the urban landscape. Besides reducing fuel consumption and emissions, this reduces the burdens of urban parking infrastructure.

Design for Detoxification
-- Minimize the potential for adverse human or ecological effects at every stage of the lifecycle.

This can be achieved through replacement of toxic or hazardous materials with benign ones, introduction of cleaner technologies that reduce harmful wastes and emissions, including greenhouse gases, or waste modification using chemical, energetic or biological treatment. Note that, while detoxification can reduce environmental impacts, it may not substantially reduce resource consumption.

For example, SC Johnson, the consumer products manufacturer, has established a Greenlist program to classify all the ingredients that go into its products according to their impact on the environment and human health. The company has invested a considerable effort to eliminate chlorine-based packaging, including PVC bottles. In one case, the company reformulated a popular metal polish product so that it could be packaged in a non-PVC bottle (PET), and actually reduced overall lifecycle costs. The new formula uses less chemicals, matches the performance of the old product, eliminates the need for the EU "Dangerous for the Environment" hazard label, and can be warehoused together with other products.

Similarly, BASF, a European chemical manufacturer, has developed a novel line of synthetic plastics, called Ecoflex, that are completely biodegradable, and will decompose in soil or compost within a few weeks. Introduced in 1998, it has become the world's leading synthetic biodegradable material, and is commonly used for trash bags or disposable packaging. Another product line, Ecovio is a blend of Ecoflex and polylactic acid made from corn, and is used in flexible films for shopping bags.