As Americans become more concerned about the environment, smart companies have started taking notice. When these businesses invest in environmental improvements, they not only give consumers greener products or services, and take better care of Mother Earth, but also save money and boost their own reputations. The top 100 companies in Newsweek's 2009 Green Rankings beat the S&P 500 by 6.8% over the past year. In the end, that improved performance is great news for shareholders, too.

Be nice to your Mother
These familiar names have each taken meaningful green steps:

  • United Parcel Service (NYSE: UPS) recently announced that it plans to improve the fuel efficiency of its vehicle fleet even more than previously expected. It originally committed to raising its average miles-per-gallon fuel efficiency by 10% between 2000 and 2010. Now it plans to reach a 20% increase above 2000 levels by 2020. That's a big deal, since it applies to some 95,000 vehicles today, and most likely many more by 2020. UPS has invested in more than 2,000 alternative-fuel vehicles already, and also aims to further improve the carbon output of its airplanes by 20% by 2020.
  • Kimberly-Clark (NYSE: KMB) is rolling out "Scott Naturals," toilet paper rolls without cardboard tubes at their center. If this sounds like no big deal, remember that the 17 billion rolls we go through in America produce 160 million pounds of waste. (Environmental critics note that once those tubeless rolls contain recycled paper, there will be even more reason to cheer.)
  • Sysco (NYSE: SYY) recently opened a new 585,000-square-foot distribution facility in Houston, in which all of its palette trucks and forklifts are powered by fuel cells. It has also been significantly reducing its kilowatt-hour usage companywide by installing compact fluorescent lighting. All in all, it's aiming to cut energy usage at the Houston facility by 30% to 40%, and it plans to copy that model in other locations.

Some of the green steps companies take are relatively small. But as eco-friendly projects prove their worth in savings, they're likely to spread. If you notice companies of interest going green in some way, consider taking a moment to share your opinion on such efforts with them. A boost to their reputations gives companies one more reason to be eco-friendly.

Great companies are always looking for ways to be greater -- including getting greener.

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Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian owns shares of no company mentioned in this article. Sysco is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Kimberly-Clark, Sysco, and United Parcel Service are Motley Fool Income Investor picks. The Fool owns shares of Sysco and United Parcel Service. Try any of our investing newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.