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41 Years After the First Earth Day, Sustainability Initiatives are Driving Brand Innovation

In a world increasingly troubled by rising energy costs, a changing climate and a shortage of natural resources – pursuing sustainability has become a means of survival. And in the business world, in the face of the global economic downturn, going “green” is often the way brands are staying in the “black.” We know from our experience working with many brands that sometimes to maintain profit margins and jump-start innovation, you have to think green.

In recent years, selling green products has boosted brands’ bottom-lines in the short term, marketing everything from environmentally friendly cleaning products to green packaging tweaks. But aside from boosting their profit margins by catering their products to environmentally conscious consumers, brands are now greening everything from their business practices, to their company philosophies and even incorporating their eco-friendly values as a pervasive part of their company culture.

Brands such as FedEx, AT&T, UPS and Verizon recently committed to the National Clean Fleets Partnership, a public-private partnership between companies and the government to reduce America’s dependency on foreign oil. The partnership of brands, among the nation’s largest national fleets, pledged to save seven million gallons of diesel and gasoline fuel by switching out 20,000 traditional vehicles in favor of hybrid and electric trucks. Other brands, including Wal-Mart, have focused on reducing their environmental impact by streamlining packaging. This results in less waste on the consumer end and helps Wal-Mart curb the number of shipping containers they use annually, saving shipping fuel and production cost.

Sustainability-minded brands are finding that their efforts to do good by the environment create additional benefits for their business, whether it’s by increasing a brand’s reputation and rapport with a concerned consumer base or avoiding the wrath of environmental regulatory bodies by complying with ever-tightening federal standards. Other benefits are financial, through lucrative tax incentives under the Obama administration’s commitment to green technology and a reduction in energy costs. Simply put, saving the earth can translate into saving money in an uncertain and volatile economic environment.

Some brands are even reshaping their investment priorities and pursuing brand authenticity with consumers by totally committing to newly adopted green philosophies and technologies.

Challenged to be more sustainable, brands such as Anheuser-Busch discovered that if they trimmed their cans an eighth of an inch, they could save 21 million pounds of metal annually, without reducing how much beer was in every can. Brooks, a running shoe manufacturer, developed a running shoe material that would biodegrade once it hit the landfill, saving 29.9 million pounds of landfill waste when just utilized in their brand alone. After refining their product and introducing it to the market, Brooks released the technology to other footwear brands to encourage innovation within the entire industry. Even more recently, Brooks reworked their shoe box, optimizing the dimensions, using recycled materials and switching to single-color printing and water-based inks, saving 150 tons of paper annually.

Brands are moving toward less “talk” and more “do,” to prove themselves to their consumers and investors. This sort of aggressive investing strategy yields innovative, efficient solutions to old problems. In this way, the challenges posed by seeking sustainability are being embraced as an important driver of innovation. As pointed out by the Harvard Business Review, “by treating sustainability as a goal today, early movers will develop competencies that rivals will be hard-pressed to match.”

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