03/27/2014 05:34 pm ET Updated May 27, 2014

How Smart Business Can Help Solve 'The World's Largest Environmental Risk'

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We all knew air pollution was a major killer. But the latest research from the World Health Organization is shocking. It has found that in 2012 alone, 7 million people died as a result of exposure to indoor and outdoor air pollution, one in eight of total global deaths.

According to WHO:

This finding more than doubles previous estimates and confirms that air pollution is now the world's largest single environmental health risk.

The new WHO data revealed a stronger link between both indoor and outdoor air pollution exposure and cardiovascular diseases, such as strokes and ischaemic heart disease, as well as between air pollution and cancer. This is in addition, the WHO research explained, to the already proven link between air pollution and respiratory diseases including acute respiratory infections and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases.

Dr Maria Neira, Director of WHO's Department for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health said:

The risks from air pollution are now far greater than previously thought or understood, particularly for heart disease and strokes. Few risks have a greater impact on global health today than air pollution; the evidence signals the need for concerted action to clean up the air we all breathe.

WHO estimated indoor air pollution was linked to 4.3 million deaths in 2012 and 3.7 million deaths as a result of outdoor pollution in the same year.

In cities across the world, smog is becoming an alarming problem. In March this year, the authorities in Paris, desperate to deal with dangerous levels of air pollution in the city, tried to restrict the number of cars going in and out. Even the Eiffel Tower was barely visible behind the white fog. On March 14, the level of PM10 particles per cubic meter in Paris reached 180 micrograms, more than twice the safe limit of 80 micrograms.

In neighboring Belgium, a smog alarm was raised and researchers found an innovative way to measure fine dust in the air using the strawberry plant; the leaves catch the dust and therefore may be a good way to measure air quality.

In buildings such as offices, schools, hospitals, public buildings and more -- where we are estimated to spend 90 percent of our time -- the air that we breathe may be harming us. In offices, it can cause increases in sickness absenteeism and dent productivity as well. For example, a study by William Fisk from the Californian Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory concluded that better indoor air quality boosted worker productivity by 0.5 percent to 5 percent, leading to estimated savings of between $20 billion to $200 billion per year. In schools, teachers off sick can mean missed lessons and so on. The problem is far reaching.

So, what is the role of business in making things better, apart from polluting less themselves and increasing eco-efficiencies? Can R&D departments across the world start developing products and services that help to clear the air? Back in 2011, Harvard Professor Michael Porter described the new impetus for businesses to combine their drive for profits and innovation with products and services that catered to unmet social and environmental needs.

He said:

Capitalism is an unparalleled vehicle for meeting human needs, improving efficiency, creating jobs, and building wealth. The opportunities have been there all along but have been overlooked. Businesses acting as businesses, not as charitable donors, are the most powerful force for addressing the pressing issues we face. The moment for a new conception of capitalism is now; society's needs are large and growing, while customers, employees, and a new generation of young people are asking business to step up.

This idea is as valid as ever today. And there is a clear unmet need of massive proportions: the need to breathe clean air.

One way to create shared value, Porter wrote, is to reconceive products and services. Cradle to Cradle principles -- which our company follows -- places great importance on manufacturing things out of non-toxic materials; this improves the chances of the indoor environment being healthier. But more than that, product designers can actually start thinking how they can add new functions to products -- not associated with them before -- that contribute to health and well-being, such as helping to reduce the indoor air pollution problem. This is where businesses can combine the pursuit of profit with doing good -- not altruism, but smart business meeting unmet needs of huge proportions.

In less than two decades, about 60 percent of the world's population will live in cities, according to McKinsey research. Here is a massive market opportunity and indeed responsibility for businesses: to make the air cleaner. The bustling cities of today and tomorrow need products and services that enable them to live healthy and productive lives. Architects, designers, manufacturers -- we all need to work together to dream up products that lead to a better world.