It used to be that caring for the environment was considered something of a luxury. You know -- a "nice to have" thing that everyone wished for, but which few people were willing (or even able) to foot the bill for in order to attain.

Recently, however, there has been a dramatic shift in that attitude. Thanks in part to last year's spike in energy prices, minding the environment has become an important part of minding a company's bottom line.

Cash and the planet can work together
That transformation has been made possible through some tremendous work in research and development into greener technologies. In addition, industrial titans have given environmentally friendly technologies a taste of the economies of scale. One of the most well-known ecological initiatives to leverage a giant company's scale is General Electric's (NYSE:GE) "ecomagination" campaign. GE's not alone, though -- even Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) is ramping up its environmental initiatives and seeing business benefits by taking care of the planet.

These days, even profit-hungry companies like GE and Wal-Mart realize that there's both money to be saved in being energy efficient and money to be made in helping others get there. And the economies of scale that those giants bring have been a huge factor in enabling economic and environmental stewardship to work together gracefully.

There's a reason why the list of the Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporations in the World includes well-known firms like these:

Companies

Sample Environmental Initiatives

Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) and AMD (NYSE:AMD)

"Performance per Watt" standard for energy-efficient computing.

United Technologies (NYSE:UTX)

Energy-efficient elevators that use regenerative braking.

Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO)

World's largest bottle-to-bottle recycling plant.

Toyota (NYSE:TM)

Famous for the Prius. Also involved in the use of ecological, carbon-neutral plastics in automobiles.

It's not just about a public relations coup or a feel-good strategy. These companies are making significant investments in infrastructure and product design to be more environmentally conscious. The business benefits for them and their customers are real -- or else they likely wouldn't be pursuing them as aggressively as they are.

After all, these companies ultimately answer to their shareholders and have to compete in order to thrive. No matter how noble its intentions, no company can survive for long by throwing its money away and wasting its people's time on initiatives that don't add value.

Even charities are contributing
Caring for the environment has become such a smart business decision, in fact, that even charities that aren't directly chartered toward environmental causes are stepping up to the plate.

In Cincinnati, for instance, the local American Red Cross chapter is attempting to achieve LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification for its new disaster operations center, which will also serve as its headquarters. The structure has a legitimate shot at earning Gold status from the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council, which runs the LEED program. (I'm a member of the Green Committee for the Red Cross building project.)

More than anything else, that showcases just how far cost-effective green technology has come. After all, as a not-for-profit entity that relies heavily on donations, the local Red Cross has to be an extremely careful steward of its limited resources. Otherwise, it risks both alienating its donors and being caught unprepared when called upon to provide its critical services.

An investment that pays back
While environmentally responsible activities still often require upfront investments, many of them have become cost-effective enough to be worth that cash. For instance, maintaining indoor air quality during construction is one of the LEED criterium that the Red Cross is trying to meet. While that requires some additional work (and thus expense) during construction, it does protect both the health of the construction workers and the building's climate control systems.

Through longer equipment life and lower maintenance costs, the chapter expects to recoup the upfront investment it will take to earn that extra LEED point. When the environment, people's health, and a charity's limited resources can all be protected at the same time, it truly is a win-win-win situation.

Luxury becomes commonplace
Whether for profit, charity, or personal satisfaction, environmental stewardship is no longer an expensive luxury, but rather a smart strategy toward delivering cost-effective results. That bodes extremely well for the future of business and the planet.

At the time of publication, Fool contributor Chuck Saletta owned shares of General Electric and Intel. Chuck also currently serves as volunteer chairman of Health and Safety for the Cincinnati Area Chapter of the American Red Cross, where he sits on the Green Committee for the new building project.

Coca-Cola is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. Intel, Coca-Cola, and Wal-Mart are Motley Fool Inside Value selections. The Fool owns shares and covered calls of Intel. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool has a disclosure policy.