State of Green Business 2009: Greener Design Comes Out of the Lab

State of Green Business 2009: Greener Design Comes Out of the Lab

[Editor's Note: To celebrate the launch of our second annual State of Green Business Report, every day for the next two weeks, we'll be running through one of the big trends that are shaping the future of the greening of mainstream business. You can download the report for free from GreenBiz.com.]

Concerns over toxics in everyday consumer products, as well as in the environment, ramped up during 2008, as companies faced continued threats of tainted toys and other products manufactured both at home and abroad. The threat was at times mind-boggling: A study of 1,500 toys tested for toxic substances found that 1 in 3 had significant levels of lead, mercury, cadmium, or other chemicals. Concerns ranged from lead in lipstick to mercury in medicine to BPA in baby products, among dozens of other problematic products. Highlighting the risks from harmful materials in products, toy maker Mattel settled for $12 million a lawsuit brought by 39 states after some of its toys were found to contain dangerous levels of lead.

Along with the growth of concern has come a growing number of solutions, a small but promising toolkit of chemical alternatives and design strategies aimed at wringing out the most toxic ingredients -- and, at the same time, improving some products' performance characteristics.

An emerging field called"green chemistry" enjoyed the limelight in 2008, as California enacted a law giving its Department of Toxic Substances Control the power to set up a framework for dealing with chemicals of concern, instead of on a substance-by-substance basis, the current model that often leads to contentious legislation or litigation.

The need for green chemistry is clear. There continue to be substantive gaps in understanding the health and environmental effects for the great majority of the 83,000 chemical substances listed in the federal government's inventory. And over the past 20 years, more than 20,000 new substances have been added to the inventory, as global chemical production continues to grow at about 3 percent per year. Green chemistry -- the science of addressing pollution prevention at the molecular level— seeks to find safer alternatives.

A few companies have been doing some version of this for years. SC Johnson, for example, the maker of consumer products ranging from Glade to Raid, has been gradually and systematically substituting safer chemicals for toxic ones, a protocol it callsGreenlist. Using Greenlist, the company managed not only to eliminate a chemical it deemed unacceptable in its Windex glass cleaner, but also to improve the product's cleaning power by 30 percent. All told, Greenlist has enabled SC Johnson to remove more than 61 million pounds of smog-producing volatile organic compounds from its products and earned the company a Presidential Green Chemistry Award. Meanwhile, a smaller competitor, Seventh Generation, aiming to promote full disclosure, introduced adownloadable label-reading guide to help consumers understand ingredients in common cleaning products, a searchable and browsable list that explains what each ingredient is, what it is used for, and what effect it has on the environment and human health.

Another blossoming design principle, biomimicry, also gained attention in 2008. A handful of large companies -- including Boeing, Herman Miller, Interface, and Nike -- have begun utilizing biomimicry, which harnesses nature's design solutions for industrial processes, as a design tool. Carpet giant Interface reportedly reaps about a third of its roughly $1 billion annual revenue from its Entropy line of carpet tiles, which were inspired by biomimicry principles. HOK, one of the world's largest architecture firms, formed a partnership to incorporate cutting-edge ideas from nature into its designs for buildings, towns, and cities.

The promise of greener design strategies is bringing companies together to leverage knowledge and forge solutions. More than 50 leaders from businesses and non-governmental organizations came together last year to focus on making consumer products less toxic and with sustainable ingredients. The group is encouraging companies and their supply chains to adopt its guiding principles, which call for disclosing chemical ingredients, avoiding hazardous chemicals, creating a framework for reviewing chemicals, and supporting appropriate policies and standards.

Such partnerships,among companies as well as with activists and government agencies, represent the hallmark of a healthy green business ecosystem, a platform for innovation -- from which the next generation of cleaner and greener policies, processes, and products will likely emerge.

Next: Green Moves Up, and Down, the Chain of Command