Many people were disappointed with the recent Rio+20 summit , the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. The 100 international leaders who attended made little progress and few commitments beyond reaffirming the same environmental goals they set 20 years ago at the 1992 Earth Summit.
But the summit did reveal something important: Even as governments and politicians drag their feet on sustainability, businesses continue to take large steps.
At the summit, dozens of companies unveiled plans for how they intend to lower their environmental footprint. Microsoft committed to being carbon neutral by end of fiscal year 2013. Kimberly-Clark, parent of Kleenex and Huggies, unveiled it would cut the amount of wood fiber it uses from natural forests by 50% by 2025. And Coca-Cola pledged to recycle the water it uses by 2020 and increase water efficiency by 20% by 2015.
You can rightly argue that these initiatives aren’t bold enough to counteract global warming or other large-scale environmental problems. However, it’s a good sign that companies are voluntarily taking steps even when they aren’t required to by government regulation.
It shows the tide is turning: Businesses are realizing the benefits to being environmental stewards and setting sustainability goals on their own.
What’s going on? In the past, businesses found few incentives to invest in earth-friendly practices. But in recent years, consumers have started to factor sustainability more into their purchasing decisions as there’s a growing awareness about the health and lifestyle benefits to being green. Governments have provided financial incentives to help companies’ implement eco-friendlier practices. And as companies embarked on these initiatives, they started to realize many benefits from sustainability.
Here’s a look at the benefits big and small businesses alike have reaped by undertaking sustainability initiatives:
– Good publicity. Touting environmental good practices has shown itself as an excellent way to draw positive attention  and more customer loyalty to a business (as long as it’s not “greenwashing.”) Check out any corporation’s web site these days, and you can pretty easily find its page devoted to sustainability initiatives.
– Bottom-line savings. Sustainable business measures often come with upfront costs (think installing new energy-efficient equipment or hiring a sustainability consultant). But the paybacks on many sustainability measures, whether lower energy bills or lower transportation costs, can save businesses a lot of money over the long run. (Coca-Cola  says it saved $90 million in 2010 alone by reducing its packaging waste.)
– Happier people. Whether or not they choose to do business with you because of sustainability measure, many customers feel good knowing they are supporting businesses doing the right thing by being environmentally friendly. This can also spill into employee morale. With many younger workers now seeking to work for socially conscious employers , it’s in a business’s best interest to be that.
Given the many benefits businesses are finding to “going green,” it’s likely that more and more businesses will continue to do so, regardless of what government leaders do.
How have environmental sustainability efforts affected your business? Have you discovered any benefits to being green?
Coca Cola  Photo via Shutterstock