When we talk about the many benefits of sustainability, we often overlook something: innovation. Sustainability has helped industries around the world introduce new products that use less energy, fuel, and water, reduce carbon emissions and waste, and cut costs.

I witnessed this firsthand not too long ago. I had the opportunity to attend a large classic-car show. These cars dated back to the 1920s through the 1960s. Many of them were just beautiful, and of course, their owners made sure they were so glossy, you had to wear sunglasses to look at them.

However, I noticed something else. The engines in many of these cars were massive. The cars themselves were enormous, some weighing over 5,000 pounds. It reminded me that at one time, the amount of fuel these cars consumed was not even an afterthought.

However, everything changed after the oil crisis of the 1970s. Many of the classic cars on display were Cadillacs. Sales of large Cadillacs and similar large cars ground to a halt after the oil crisis. Gas prices soared. Concerns mounted that the world would soon run out of fuel. Sustainability kicked into action and with it, innovation. 

When comparing the engines of the automobiles we have today with those made just 30 years ago, there is no question which ones are Greener. Today’s engines are more fuel efficient, using far less gas or no gas at all. The cars are lighter, allowing them have better gas mileage, but in many ways stronger, and certainly safer than those made years ago. Sustainability went into action, and innovation followed.

Stop and Look

Georgia O’Keeffe, one of America’s most famous painters, is quoted as saying we must all take the time to “stop and look.” She believed people were in such a rush all the time that unless they stopped and looked, they would miss out on all the beauty in the world. When it comes to sustainability and innovation in action, we also should stop and look. It’s everywhere.

In my own business niche, the professional cleaning industry, not only do workers use cleaning solutions made of fewer or no natural resources, helping to promote sustainability, but many of the cleaning tools and equipment used in the industry also use natural resources far more sparingly if at all. 

Floor machines, for example, once required powerful cleaning solutions to clean floors. These are now being replaced with equipment that cleans floors using regular tap water – and doing so quite effectively. Just this one innovation has helped create a chain reaction:

· No floor cleaning chemicals means we are reducing our use of petroleum byproducts and other natural resources often found in these solutions.

· If the chemicals are no longer in use, then there is no need for the millions of plastic containers filled with them.

· Now, we no longer need to transport millions of containers around the country – and around the world – just to clean the floor.

· Without the need to transport chemicals, fuel consumption is reduced significantly and the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere is minimized.

Once again, sustainability and innovation worked together to make this happen.

It’s Even in Flowers

We see sustainability and innovation working together in virtually all industries today. One that O’Keeffe would likely be proud to hear about regards the millions of flowers transported each year from parts of Africa and delivered to Holland. The Dutch flower industry must now adhere to strict regulations regarding the chemicals, fertilizers, and pesticides used to grow flowers, including those imported from Africa. In parts of Africa, chronic water shortages are a way of life. Growers are pressed to use far less water to grow flowers.

To address both of these needs, the Dutch flower industry developed closed-loop water systems for the African growers that use less water and use it much more efficiently. The flowers are now grown hydroponically (referring to nutrient-rich sand and gravel) in large greenhouses. This also lowers the risk of pest infestation. Together, these innovations reduce the use of chemicals, fertilizers, and pesticides, as well as water consumption. And one thing more: growers report the system has improved product quality, enhanced productivity, and reduced costs, not to mention reducing the overall impact the Dutch flower-growing industry has on the environment.

When we think back over the years, it’s amazing how businesses around the world have come to view sustainability. In the 1970s, the American car industry fought tooth and nail to delay or eliminate new-car gas mileage requirements. Now, they have far surpassed those regulations and look forward to building some of the most fuel-efficient cars in the world.

Sustainability is now welcomed in many industries. It has and will continue to benefit us in so many ways, and one that we must never overlook is innovation.

Stephen P. Ashkin is president of the Ashkin Group, a consulting firm specializing in Green cleaning and sustainability. He is considered the “father of Green Cleaning”; is on the Board of the Green Sports Alliance; and has been inducted into the International Green Industry Hall of Fame (IGIHOF). 

He is also helping the professional cleaning industry turn sustainability into cost savings. He can be reached at steveashkin@ashkingroup.com. 

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