Sustainability is on the radar screen of every major organization. Some organizations, such as Interface, Patagonia and Unilever, have made fundamental shifts to redesign their operations behind sustainable principles. These are sustainability leaders. For most organizations, however, efforts have tended to stall out after the easy work of reducing energy and waste.

But there is much more to sustainability. Eventually, designing operations and products with sustainability principles in mind must become the norm in every organization. It is not effective —nor will it achieve the results the planet so desperately needs — if it is a peripheral add-on to existing practices, or, as Bill McDonough often couches it, the effort just goes as far as “doing less bad.” The most sustainable organizations are not ones that try to make marginal improvements on the way business is conducted, but make the sustainable way the normal course of business.

Organizations exist to meet a market need. This creates the conditions for financial sustainability. Increasingly, society expects more from business; that it undertake work to ensure the social and environmental sustainability of their operations and products. According to a recent Cone Communications study, 78 percent of Americans want companies (PDF) to address important social justice issues as well as deliver a product. This should give organizations pause and prompt them to ask tough questions of themselves.

Do products meet real needs without creating new problems?

Purpose is primarily to meet a customer need, but conscious companies understand the full impacts of the products or services they introduce into society. Taking a systems thinking approach to the design and delivery of products or services may allow for the discovery of other unintended impacts — both good and bad. Adding benefits beyond the core value can enhance customer perceived value, expand markets and make positive contributions to the world. Following the growing trend among consumers who expect business to do more than just make a profit, this examination of multiple potential benefits also helps create competitive advantages through brand loyalty and advocacy.

At the other end, products sometimes can meet one customer need while at the same time inadvertently create another problem in the process. Food products, for example, that satisfy consumers’ tastes sometimes contribute to health problems such as obesity and high blood pressure. Other products manufacture needs that may not really exist, creating unnecessary expenses for unsuspecting consumers who may not be able to afford them. These negative side effects can tarnish brand image when they come to the attention of the media, the public, regulators or customers.

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