Mention corporate "sustainability" and many investors' eyes glaze over. They assume you're talking about a granola, frivolous, maybe even capital-destroying concept for public companies. But even people who don't care about the environment should be able to grasp the real business benefits of increasing efficiency, reducing waste, and cutting costs in the process.

Green in many ways
We recently learned that despite the difficult economic climate, big money is backing social responsibility's rise. A recent article from Greenwire complements that data, pointing out that corporate sustainability initiatives that focus on measures like reducing energy usage, simplifying production, and drying up unnecessary water consumption can save companies money. In addition, navigating such goals successfully often means that a company's got good management at the helm.

For further evidence, look to Goldman Sachs' (NYSE: GS) launch of the GS Sustain research service, which focuses on companies with strong environmental and social initiatives, as well as corporate governance policies. Its GS Sustain Focus List of companies has bested the MSCI All Country World Index by nearly 40 percentage points since the service started in June 2007.

More recently, Nasdaq launched a new family of indexes to track the green economy. The Nasdaq OMX Green Economy Index includes companies such as Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO), Autodesk (Nasdaq: ADSK), Tesla Motors (Nasdaq: TSLA), and VMWare (NYSE: VMW)).

With big Wall Street notables moving into this arena, there's clearly money to be made for investors, too. Doing so by supporting prudent, responsible businesses is a refreshing change of pace from the recent wild speculation of the bubble-era markets.

Clash of the consumer-goods do-gooders
Major corporations are clambering aboard the sustainability boat, dreaming up aggressive goals to grow sales and profits while saving resources. Naturally, they'll put their best minds to work achieving these goals in ways that also boost shareholder capital.

Megacorporation Unilever (NYSE: UL) has signed on to "decouple future growth from environmental impact." CEO Paul Polman stated that there's no conflict between sustainability and generating shareholder value. Unilever aims to slash its water, solid waste, and carbon emissions in half, focusing intently on its production, suppliers, and consumers.

Other significantly aggressive goals include Unilever's desire to find sustainable sources for all of its agricultural raw materials, make 1 billion people healthier -- and double sales in the process.

Not long ago, similarly gigantic consumer goods company Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG) also revealed heady sustainability goals. The lengthy list of P&G's major ambitions for the next decade includes powering manufacturing plants with 100% renewable energy and using recycled and renewable materials for packaging.

Dirty dinosaurs don't pay
Competition is a healthy part of a capitalistic marketplace, and Unilever and Procter & Gamble are both consumer giants vying for similar sustainability goals. Between the trillions now dedicated to socially responsible investing, and companies' competitive desire to both improve shareholder returns and prove their mettle environmentally, the world may indeed become a cleaner, healthier, better place for consumers and commerce.

Investors, take note. The old principle -- and until recently, too often forgotten -- of "waste not, want not" applies to corporations as well. This new drive to preserve resources and reduce inefficiencies will separate corporate leaders from dirty corporate dinosaurs. If you're on the right side of the sustainability trade, you're positioning your portfolio for sustainable profits for years to come.

Check back at every Wednesday and Friday for Alyce Lomax's columns on corporate governance.

VMware is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers choice. Unilever is a Motley Fool Global Gains selection. Procter & Gamble and Unilever are Motley Fool Income Investor recommendations. The Fool owns shares of and has written covered calls on Autodesk and Procter & Gamble. The Fool has a bull call spread position on Cisco Systems. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.