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Sound companies focus on efficiency and control costs. Environmentally conscious sustainability initiatives were long considered expensive, profit-draining strategies -- not exactly conducive to conservative fiscal management. However, today's companies are increasingly viewing these initiatives in terms of cost reduction and even revenue generation.

In other words, these are exactly the initiatives investors look for in attractive stocks.

For too long, negative actions like layoffs and corner-cutting have been viewed as go-to methods of reducing costs and boosting profitability. Over the long term, though, these often weaken companies.

Innovative, environmentally friendly strategies can brighten corporate futures -- and strengthen our overall economy.

Changing business models
Boston Consulting Group and MIT Sloan Management Review have been conducting surveys about sustainability and corporate strategy for several years. In February, they released a new report called "The Innovation Bottom Line," which reported the results of a survey of 2,600 executives and managers worldwide.

The major takeaway that investors should focus on is the increasing number of corporate managers who are reporting profits from sustainability strategies. These managers rose by 23% last year to 37% of the total respondents.

In addition, the practice of tacking on "greenwashed," feel-good programs to boost PR is losing appeal. Green is getting serious attention now. "Sustainability-Driven Innovators," as the report defines them, are companies that are actually changing their business models to include sustainability, and they increased in number by 20% on a year-over-year basis. That's not window dressing; that's world-changing.

A competitive advantage
According to report coauthor and MIT SMR executive dditor David Kiron, "Sustainability-Driven Innovators also bring a strong execution focus to their efforts, are much more likely to place customers at the center and work closely with many stakeholders, and drive sustainability objectives through skillful organizational change." In addition to cutting costs, these help give companies a competitive advantage.

Among the profit-related findings:

  • 50 percent of survey respondents who had changed three or four business model elements said they profited from their sustainability activities, compared with only 37 percent of those who had changed only one element of their business model.

  • When innovations to both target segments and value-chain processes were among the three or four business-model changes, the percentage of respondents who said sustainability added profits climbed from 50 percent to nearly 60 percent.

  • More than 60 percent of respondents at companies that had changed their business model and had sustainability as a permanent fixture on their management agenda said they have added profit from sustainability.

Granted, such changes aren't easy, especially for huge companies that are accustomed to business as usual and focused on what worked before. Convincing both investors and corporate leaders that this type of lofty thinking can be profitable instead of costly isn't always easy.

However, the authors included case studies from quite a few huge companies that have been shifting their businesses to include sustainability. This is a great thing for shareholders who recognize the importance of innovation.

Green initiatives and greenbacks
We see building evidence of green efforts from consumer goods companies and retailers. However, plenty of companies, even in unexpected industries, are increasing their energy efficiency and reducing waste. Here are just a few examples of the companies that are beginning to release figures behind their initiatives.

A massive company like General Motors (NYSE: GM  ) can recycle on a massive scale, and that's exactly what it's doing through common-sense thinking combined with innovation. In fact, the auto giant has been generating $1 billion annually by reusing and recycling plant refuse. This is part of its zero-waste initiative; it now recycles 90% of its waste, and about 100 of its facilities are, in an amazing achievement, operating with zero waste.

Many companies that utilize trucking fleets require energy resources and generate carbon emissions. UPS (NYSE: UPS  ) is a clear example. It's been working to retool its trucking logistics, saving money while it saves fuel costs, which represent an average of 5.6% of its operating revenue.

It now operates 2,000 alternative-fuel vehicles and has worked to change the way its hubs function. Less obvious initiatives include regular preventive maintenance inspections and advanced aviation technology to increase efficiency in the skies.

Sprint  (NYSE: S  ) revealed last year that expansion of its "Retail Energy Management System" will better manage energy use in its retail stores, reducing energy costs by 15%, representing $1.5 million in annual savings. The wireless company expects the initiative to save about $15 million during the next decade.

A healthy environment for great returns
Obviously, investors should always perform their due diligence on all the companies they invest in. A single good factor never makes a good investment. There are many elements at work in the living organism that is any public company.

However, given these developments, investors can ponder some takeaways. First, these strategies represent real innovation and, for the biggest companies, the potential to thwart rival upstarts.

Increasing reports that these strategies can boost profits are reason enough for investors to adjust their opinions on what sustainable, responsible investing really is -- and how it can help boost their stocks' returns.

Check back at for more of Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.

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Read/Post Comments (4) | Recommend This Article (14)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On January 24, 2014, at 12:41 PM, CMFStan8331 wrote:

    I think there is a small but rapidly growing sophistication among investors regarding the short-term tricks that companies have traditionally used to create an illusion of strong performance. Ignoring sustainability and environmental stewardship, like periodic layoffs, can boost short-term profitability but will leave companies weaker and more vulnerable over time.

  • Report this Comment On January 25, 2014, at 7:48 PM, SkepikI wrote:

    <Many companies that utilize trucking fleets require energy resources and generate carbon emissions. UPS (NYSE: UPS ) is a clear example. It's been working to retool its trucking logistics, saving money while it saves fuel costs, which represent an average of 5.6% of its operating revenue.>

    UPS has been doing this for decades. They have had a very sophisticated Industrial Engineering approach to the efficiency of their operations fuel included since well before a friend of mine went to work for them in 1980.

    Alyce you will think this is an argument against "sustainability" and it is not. It irks me just a little to have some new buzz word assigned to what well managed companies have been doing for many years, perhaps with slightly different emphasis. Efficiency is its own reward in reducing costs and making things run better, and if you can delight and entertain your customers by calling it the latest thing, ok, I'm happy to smile politely and say, way to go..

    I see from time to time good solid performers who engage in the same kind of good management but just don't call it the current buzzword. Maybe that is "unsustainable" because they will be left behind in the press to be fashionable. Which probobly means I am a hopeless curmudgeon and should quit reading the fashionable approach. It does interest me however, if any of these discussions and analysis can get beyond the surface of does this outfit or that conform to the "sustainability" or "GMO-free" or "Organic" or "natural" cartel's nomenclature and opinions.

    I'm still waiting to see if you ever investigate WFM prices and deliver analysis of can someone be sustainable and prosocial if only the well heeled can afford to shop there....

  • Report this Comment On January 25, 2014, at 10:30 PM, wjcoffman wrote:

    ". . . can someone be sustainable and prosocial . . ."

    Yes. No. What was the question again?

  • Report this Comment On January 25, 2014, at 10:50 PM, SkepikI wrote:

    ^ Bwahahaha.... toche! wjcoffman a withering critique in two lines....

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Alyce Lomax

Alyce Lomax is a columnist for specializing in environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues and an analyst for Motley Fool One. From October 2010 through June 2015, she managed the real-money Prosocial Portfolio, which integrated socially responsible investing factors into stock analysis.

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