5 Sustainability Issues That Businesses Can Capitalize On

It is often said that necessity is the mother of invention. Sustainability issues such as climate change, lack of clean water and reliance on fossil fuels may seem daunting to address. A closer look reveals that sustainability issues can be turned into business opportunities. Further, these business opportunities can help achieve the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Freshwater production, for instance, is an effective way to reach the sixth SDG (clean water and sanitation for all). Capitalizing on sustainability issues is not only profitable; it can also address them on a global scale.

Extreme Weather Events

Climate change can cause stronger and more frequent natural disasters such as storms, droughts and floods. According to a 2015 report by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, The Human Cost of Weather Related Disasters (1995-2015), there were approximately 335 weather-related disasters every year between 2005 and 2014. The report added that this figure was a 14% increase from 1995-2004, as well as nearly double the number that was recorded during 1985-1995. Moreover, about 90% of the natural disasters that took place between 1995-2015 were weather-related. The countries that experienced the highest number of natural calamities during this time are the US (472), China (441), India (288), Philippines (274) and Indonesia (163).

Extreme weather events significantly damage societies. Typhoon Haiyan, which struck the Philippines in November 2013, left at least 6,000 dead and nearly 2,000 people missing. It is believed to be the strongest typhoon in recorded history. Three thunderstorms that occurred during the 2013 tornado season in the US left behind damages amounting to USD10.3 billion. In 2014, the University of California Davis Center for Watershed Studies predicted that the ongoing drought in California will cost the state's agriculture industry USD1.7 million and leave 14,500 people unemployed.

Extreme weather events can make building a safe and livable environment seem like an overwhelming task. Businesses, however, can provide tools that can help minimize their impacts. The advances in sensor and big data technology, coupled with near-universal access to mobile phones, now make it possible to develop early warning and forecasting services that can save lives, infrastructure and property. Politicians, urban planners and contractors can use weather, climate and hydrological information applications to predict which areas are vulnerable to extreme weather events. By doing so, they will be able to make sound construction and infrastructure despite extreme weather conditions.

In June 2015, the UK government and the Met Office collaborated with the US government, NASA and Google to help improve early warning systems for natural disasters in developing countries. Google committed to provide free access to one petabyte (1,000 terabytes) of cloud storage to house satellite observations, as well as climate and weather data. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the UK Department for International Development (DFID) committed USD10 million each. All in all, the founding organizations contributed at least USD31 million to the partnership in its initial phase.

Inadequate Freshwater Access

Water is essential to almost every human activity. The human body contains up to 60% water. About 71% of the planet's surface is composed of water. Water is needed for the creation and maintenance of everything we use and consume, from food to machinery.

Needless to say, inadequate access to water, particularly freshwater, is detrimental to human existence. According to the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme, there were 663 million people who lacked access to an improved drinking water source in 2015. In the same year, there were 2.4 billion people lacking improved sanitation. As a result, people drink contaminated water and practice open defecation, which, in turn, results in the spread of diseases such as cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis A and typhoid.

Increased water efficiency and conservation help alleviate the problem of inadequate freshwater access, but existing freshwater resources can no longer meet the long-term demand of the world's most arid regions. Businesses can capitalize on this situation through freshwater production, using renewable energy to desalinate saltwater or treat wastewater for reuse. Businesses can profit from this while also helping to conserve existing freshwater resources without using fossil-fuel dependent machinery.

In 2013, students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) travelled to rural India and developed a solar-powered water desalination system. This system uses ultraviolet rays to remove salt from and disinfect brackish water, rendering it safe for drinking and agriculture. Unlike traditional desalination systems which operate on electricity, the MIT system runs entirely on solar energy. Moreover, the MIT system is small enough to fit in a tractor-trailer, making it ideal for communities that have limited access to freshwater and electricity. With the help of the MIT system, these communities can turn brackish water into freshwater without having to use electricity.

Rapid Urbanization

About 200,000 people migrate to cities daily, translating to about 70 million people yearly. Most local authorities are unprepared to accommodate this influx of new arrivals. As a result, many cities must now address problems like breakdown in services and increased poverty. The UN's 2013 World Economic and Social Survey claimed that if rapid urbanization remains unaddressed, the number of people living in slums might triple by 2050.

Rapid urbanization is not without serious social costs. The inability to find decent housing, for instance, forces inhabitants to build makeshift houses along roads and waterways. This practice, in turn, triggers problems like traffic congestion and massive flooding during the rainy season. As residents struggle to cope with a lack of access to education, healthcare and decent livelihoods, the security of entire communities becomes endangered, potentially forcing people and businesses to move to safer locations.

Businesses can help alleviate rapid urbanization by investing in efficient mass transportation systems. People are often more productive when they are able to easily travel from one location to another. First, they do not have to wake up very early just to make it to work or school on time. Similarly, they get home earlier and have more time for rest and recreation. Efficient mass transportation systems can also reduce the number of vehicles on the roads, which reduces traffic congestion and air pollution.

In 2015, the Jakarta city administration announced that it will develop three integrated public transportation terminals in 2016, in Tanah Merdeka in East Jakarta, Dermaga Kali Adem in North Jakarta and Rawa Buaya in West Jakarta. The Jakarta city administration chose these areas because they are situated near residential areas for low-income families. The lack of reliable public transportation drives Jakartans to rely heavily on private cars and motorcycles, which leads to heavy traffic and massive air pollution in the city, resulting in respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, as well as reduced productivity due to long commutes. By building integrated public transportation terminals, the Jakarta city administration expects that Jakartans will patronize public transport, reducing the city's traffic and pollution in the process.

Lifestyle-Related Diseases

Healthy people may be more productive. They work harder because they are free from the risks of illness, injury and death. Moreover, they save money on medicines, hospitalization and rehabilitation. The money saved on these can be used on other expenditures such as housing and education.

In 2015, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that America loses almost USD1 billion daily in medical costs and lost productivity to heart disease and stroke. The CDC added that by 2030, cardiovascular diseases will cost the US more than USD818 billion in annual direct medical costs and at least USD275 billion in lost productivity. While heart attack and stroke victims can be effectively treated, their condition can leave them with long-term disability that can seriously compromise their employability. Employers may also incur additional expenses recruiting and training replacements for employees who have to leave due to poor health.

Businesses can help prevent lifestyle-related diseases by creating healthier workplaces. Companies can encourage healthier eating habits among employees by serving nutritious meals instead of processed foods in canteens. Companies can also provide on-site fitness centers to help employees become more physically active and undo the negative health effects of sitting all day. Creating healthier workplaces costs time and money but is a worthy investment, since it can reduce absenteeism and high staff turnover for the long-term by producing healthy and productive employees.

Continued Reliance on Fossil Fuel

Despite the advent of renewable energy, the world remains dependent on fossil fuels. In 2013, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) projected that the world's energy consumption between 2010 and 2040 will increase by 56%. In addition, almost 80% of the world's energy use through 2040 will be derived from fossil fuels. One of the main reasons behind the world's continued reliance on fossil fuels is that it is more affordable than renewable energy sources. Fossil fuels have several hidden costs, however, including pollution, public health problems, global warming, climate change and resource depletion.

Businesses can help reduce the world's reliance on fossil fuels by producing more energy-efficient goods and services. Producing more energy-efficient goods and services means greater resource conservation which, in turn, ensures business continuity. Basic business principles dictate that a company will not survive if it does not have raw materials that it can transform into products and services.

In May 2015, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) giant, Carrier, launched in Saudi Arabia a new line of energy-efficient residential and light commercial HVAC systems. This new line of HVAC systems uses Puron, the R-410A non-ozone depleting refrigerant. HVAC systems are traditionally regarded as energy guzzlers because they use R-22 (also known as Freon), a hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) that inefficiently absorbs and releases heat. Puron, in sharp contrast, is a hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) that absorbs and releases more heat than R-22. As such, it would be fair to conclude that Carrier's aforementioned line is indeed more energy-efficient than Freon-run HVAC systems.

According to conventional wisdom, sustainability issues cannot be turned into business opportunities. The primary goal of business is typically to generate profit-and this goal can sometimes be the root cause of sustainability issues. Turning sustainability issues into business opportunities can be beneficial for companies. Aside from a potential to increase their bottom line, companies may likewise address and mitigate conditions that impede their continuity.

FirstCarbon Solutions (FCS) helps organizations recognize business drivers for sustainability practices and offers cost-effective sustainability management solutions. FCS provides guidance on industry best practices and can help you with your sustainability programs.