20 sustainability apps that made waves in 2013

Whether it's improving energy efficiency, driving out toxic substances or supporting barters and exchanges as part of the "sharing" economy, sustainable business practices have a lot to do with encouraging the right behavior.

And with more people than ever glued to smartphones, tablets and Web-connected notebook computers, mobile apps and cloud services can influence change for good — and track progress.

Sustainability executives can use dozens of mobile or cloud resources to guide decisions or drive green business change within their companies, their customer base or in their own daily activities. We hear every day about apps or services that can improve home energy consumption, help consumers swap equipment or clothing or stuff that they aren't using, or even pass along potential food waste. But what's emerging in the business-to-business realm is just as compelling.

Here are 20 innovative and influential tools that might fit your team. Some emerged in 2013; others are undergoing their latest refinements.

This list features broadly available resources with a potential industry-wide impact, and it isn't meant to be all-inclusive. Some resources originally were developed for internal consumption at specific companies, but the methodology has been shared so other businesses can adapt them.

We hope you'll find at least one of these resources worthwhile in your mission to run your business — and your life — more sustainably in the New Year and beyond. Suggest your favorites within the comments, and send a note to me to suggest services to cover more in 2014. 

Building materials

1. The Pharos Project — An initiative of the Healthy Building Network, the database is designed to encourage transparency when it comes to the contents of everything from carpets to roofing members. It's used by about 300 companies to manage more than 50 million square feet of real estate. After a 30-day free trial, the service costs $17 per month (there are pricing discounts depending on subscription length).

Chemicals management

2. iStreem — A Web resource for members of the American Cleaning Institute, this tool predicts the concentration of chemicals used in "down-the-drain" products. It covers more than 10,000 wastewater treatment plants and 200,000 river miles across the United States.

Design

3. COMPASS (aka Comparative Packaging Assessment) — Allows packaging designers and engineers to compare the human and environmental impacts of up to four designs side-by-side. The resource was developed by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, part of GreenBlue. The free trial version allows for comparison, but you can't import or save data. 

4. Sim 360 — Autodesk's cloud-hosted service helps designers and engineers test the durability or sustainability of a product's components before it reaches the prototype phase. You can try the entry-level version for free for 90 days.

5. Making — Developed by Nike using the company's Materials Sustainability Index, the software helps designers research the toxicity or environmental impact of fabrics they are considering. It tracks 22 commonly used materials for water consumption, chemistry, energy and waste. The database underlying the apps is part of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition's Higg Index.

Engagement

6. CarbonStory — Unlike other sites focused on allowing businesses to purchase carbon offsets, this one uses social storytelling and gamification to help companies make these projects more real to their employees. The idea is for people to form teams affiliated with certain organizations, display progress through the footprint calculator and other means, and use competition to encourage participation.

7. RecycleBank — With investors including Coca-Cola, Kleiner Perkins and Waste Management, this nine-year-old service focuses on helping communities and businesses get on board with recycling initiatives by offering them rewards with more than 4,000 partners. It hooks people with both a site and an array of mobile apps, such as one being used in London to help ease traffic congestion.

Forestry

8. WRI Forest Cover Analyzer — Palm oil can be found in roughly 50 percent of all food items on grocery store shelves, so making production more sustainable is a big focus for the World Resources Institute (WRI). This online mapping resource helps companies identify risks associated with siting production in certain areas of Indonesian Borneo.

9. WRI Suitability Mapper — Like the Forest Cover Analyzer, this online mapping resource is designed to reduce deforestation associated with palm oil production. The focus is on helping producers, investors and government agencies identify degraded land in Indonesia that may be good sites for plantations, protecting high-value forests.

Food

10. FishOnline — The Marine Conservation Society cultivates several resources to guide procurement of sustainably harvested seafood. You can run searches online, or you can download the new Good Fish mobile app for either iPhones or Android mobile devices. 

11. Wise Up on Waste — This free mobile app developed by Unilever helps professional kitchens track food waste and spoilage within their operations, with an eye toward reducing it by at least 20 percent. It's available for both Android and Apple iOS. 

Green data center

12. Digital Service Efficiency dashboardDeveloped by eBay to measure the number of "buy" or "sell" business transactions completed per kilowatt-hour of electricity consumed by its data center. The metric is being used internally to identify inefficient software design and business practices. eBay also has published its methodology so other businesses can adapt it for their own use.

13. CLEER (Cloud Energy and Emissions Research framework) — Does it make sense from an energy consumption or carbon emissions standpoint to host your data center in the cloud? The CLEER framework enables companies to run scenarios to help them evaluate the green-ness of on-site versus cloud-hosted applications.

Recycling/waste management

14. Aluminate — Alcoa created this free iPhone resource to encourage team or solo recycling of aluminum cans. You can keep track of what you've submitted or use the GPS services on your smartphone to locate the nearest recycling center. 

15. iRecycle — Trying to figure out where or how to get rid of stuff? Earth 911 developed this resource for either Android or Apple iOS to help people find location collection points for everything from paint to electronics to automotive parts.

Supply chain tracking

16. Ecodesk — A series of dashboards that helps companies keep track of their suppliers' emissions, water usage, waste management policies and conflict minerals exposure. It aims to replace the multiple spreadsheets companies often used to track this information. A paid subscription starts at 4000 British pounds. (Updated pricing on Dec. 18)

17. Higg Index 2.0 — In early December, the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) turned its environmental and social self-assessment tool into a Web resource, increasing the potential for more participation by factories and suppliers around the world. It covers materials, manufacturing policy, packaging, transportation and end-of-life options. You have to be an SAC member to access the data. 

18. SourceMap — Originally developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, this is a crowdsourced directory for visualizing supply chains and their environmental footprints. 

Water

19. The Water Risk Filter — Created and curated by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), this resource promotes corporate water stewardship. It includes assessment questionnaires for evaluating facilities and maps that show water-stressed regions around the world.

20. The WBCSD Global Water Tool — The World Business Council for Sustainable Development has facilitated the creation of two water-related assessment resources: a global mapping resource and an add-on focused on local resources from the Global Environmental Management Initiative (GEMI). Both resources are focused on answering questions such as: How many of my company's sites are in water-scarce areas? Or, what percentage of my employees live in regions or countries that lack access to improved water and sanitation?

Tablets photo by Sergey Nivens via Shutterstock