Sustainable materials are a buzzword in many industries as they create fewer long-term environmental problems and lead to a healthier planet. Awareness and use of sustainable materials are important to your small business: Besides being better for the earth, customers like them too.
Materials are sustainable if they don’t strain the environment during their production, use or disposal.
Sustainability, whether in materials, energy or practices, means a limited negative impact on natural resources and people; they avoid depleting or degrading the environment. Because they create few stresses on the environment, society can safely rely on them well into the future. Sustainability isn’t all or nothing; some materials are very eco-friendly, others rank moderately well and some have poor sustainability. Over time, less-sustainable materials tend to be phased out as better ones are introduced.
Products go through a life cycle that begins with production and ends with disposal. Raw materials are extracted from nature, made into useful goods, have a functional life and are eventually discarded. Sustainable practices look at each step in the cycle and seek to avoid negative environmental consequences. For example, carefully managed tree cutting for wood production allows the forest to grow new trees at a rate that can keep up with the need for wood materials.
Wood, bamboo and other plant-based materials are sustainable because they grow naturally. Aluminum, copper and other metals recycle indefinitely. Paper and related products are based on natural fibers, can be recycled and degrade rapidly once disposed of. Common sustainable building materials include cork, steel and recycled plastics.
At the end of a product’s life, the materials it’s made of are sustainable through recycling or repurposing, or if they decompose in a way that’s friendly to the environment. In addition to using sustainable materials, some businesses offer recycling programs that take in discarded products for recycling rather than have them enter landfills. This actively encourages customers to discard their products in a sustainable manner.
The durability that makes certain materials attractive can be a liability at the end of their useful life. Many plastics, for example, consist of long-chain molecules that can take centuries to break down, leading to waste that lasts seemingly forever. To address the problem, chemists have created biodegradable synthetic materials that have a known useful life, after which they disintegrate completely by sunlight and naturally occurring microorganisms. Biodegradable materials such as this have short-term uses such as food packaging.
Recycling is sustainable because it reduces both the need for virgin materials at the start of the life cycle and landfill space at the end. Metals and glass can be melted and reused almost without limit. Most plastics degrade chemically somewhat, but some useful recycling is possible. Paper and cardboard can likewise be recycled a few times, though not forever.
Plastics and many other materials come from oil and petrochemicals, a limited resource whose consumption has come with serious environmental consequences. Most efforts at developing sustainable materials avoid the use of petroleum and other fossil fuel sources.
As a business owner, you can take pride in the fact that sustainable materials reduce long-term problems stemming from limited resources and end-of-life disposal. Many customers seek out businesses that use sustainable materials. If your business uses sustainable materials, it pays to mention it on your website and in ads and social media.