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8 ways to make products a force for good

Growing global resource constraints — coupled with changing customer, investor and government expectations — are driving companies to change the way they do business.

They are redesigning existing product portfolios to reduce dependencies on dwindling, finite resources and investing in new products and services to increase sustainability.

Particularly innovative companies are re-imagining and re-tooling their business models and product and service designs to minimize adverse social and environmental impacts and generate positive impacts.

They set and invest in targets to improve the sustainability profile of their products and their customers.

This includes environmental and social impacts related to workers, consumers and communities. It also means reevaluating the accessibility, usability and affordability of products, such as applying universal design principles where products are accessible by all people regardless of income, ability, etc.

Rather than a niche green product suite, these organizations express their sustainability commitments through core products and services that measurably improve people’s lives with a significantly smaller environmental footprint.

Here are eight specific approaches companies are taking to provide cleaner, more efficient and socially equitable products:

1. Shelf editing

A large U.K. do-it-yourself chain (B&Q) stopped selling patio heaters because of the negative environmental impacts, while retail pharmacy CVS Health stopped selling tobacco products because of negative health consequences.

2. Divesting unsustainable business lines

Danone sold off a number of junk-food businesses, such as a cookie company, to focus on healthier offerings.

3. Buying up green brands

Unilever bought Ben and Jerry’s, a global leader in mission-driven business.

4. Giving prominent shelf (or online) space to more sustainable products

Walmart’s e-commerce site identifies 3,000 products made by more than 100 companies with a label that reads “Made by a Sustainability Leader.”

5. Products as a service

Virtual e-books and digital music save on materials and packaging, while Philips and Interface have led on leasing lighting and carpeting services, respectively.

6. Cutting down on obsolescence

Whether planned by producers or perceived by consumers, products quickly rendered obsolete — hello, e-waste — could be made more durable and adaptable. Patagonia guarantees that it will repair any of its products for free over their lifetime.

7. Collaborative consumption

Shared-ownership models, such as those of ZipCar or a number of variations on shared equipment in the industrial sector, can lower both impacts and costs.

8. Sustainability at the core

In 2013, L’Oréal committed that, by 2020, 100 percent of its products will have an environmental or social benefit. The company also plans to hone a product assessment tool to evaluate all new products based on their environmental and social impacts. The brands then will make this information available to consumers.

What's driving the change?

Simply put, customers now expect companies to contribute solutions to global social and environmental issues.

Equally, businesses are operating in a resource-constrained world, with growing global competition for finite natural resources and a decline in the quality and integrity of the ecosystems that underpin them.

Companies that pursue strategies to improve the sustainability impacts of their core offerings will reduce and avoid social and environmental risks and enhance their social license to operate and grow, while ultimately helping to create a more sustainable society.

In so doing, they advance an industrial revolution that turns the making of things into a positive force for people, the economy and the planet.

Learn more about sustainable product sales and design during a June 17 webinar. This article is based on "The Qualities of a Transformational Company," a research effort commissioned by Canadian Business for Social Responsibility.

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