The world is in flux—the United Nations predicts that in just over a decade, damage to the planet caused by climate change will be irreversible. Social issues also threaten to divide communities and countries, and the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic jeopardizes global health. The need to come together and work toward collective change has never been more pressing.

Consumers contribute to causes they care about by “voting” with their dollars. By choosing to purchase products and services from brands working toward environmental and social sustainability, consumers can make a significant impact. For instance, following the death of George Floyd and the new wave of Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020, Yelp reported a 7,043 percent increase in support for Black-owned businesses on its platform.

This creates a unique opportunity for businesses to pivot their strategies to reflect their values and use budget, resources, and influence to make positive change.

Harvard Business School Professor Rebecca Henderson seeks to debunk the myth that sustainability isn’t a wise investment for organizations. In the online course Sustainable Business Strategy, she explains that the intersection of “doing good” and “doing well”—called the creation of shared value—is often highly lucrative.

“You don’t have to leave your values at the door when you come to work,” Henderson says. “Solving the big problems opens up opportunities that can enable you to have a successful and rewarding business career, while also helping to build a just and sustainable world.”

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Benefits of Running a Sustainable Business

While often expensive, running a sustainable business can pay off in the long run—both financially and environmentally.

Research in the Harvard Business Review demonstrates that sustainable businesses see greater financial gains than their unsustainable counterparts.

The research also shows that consumers’ focus on buying from sustainable brands is on the rise. For instance, products with an on-package sustainability claim delivered nearly $114 billion in sales in 2019—a 29 percent increase from 2013—and products marketed as sustainable grew more than five times faster than those that weren’t.

Additionally, a recent survey conducted by blockchain-based clean energy company Swytch found that nearly 70 percent of employees report that their company’s strong sustainability program impacts their decision to stay with it long term.

Although lofty sustainability goals cost money to implement, strategizing for sustainability can pay off in the long run in the form of product sales and employee retention.

Here are five examples of businesses with successful sustainability initiatives to inspire your organization’s strategy.

Related: 5 Tips for Formulating a Successful Strategy

5 Examples of Businesses with Successful Sustainability Initiatives

1. Rothy’s

One example of a company with sustainability at the heart of its strategy is Rothy’s, a retailer that uses recycled plastic bottles as a production material for shoes, bags, and, recently, face coverings.

“Every minute, one million water bottles are sold globally,” the company states on its website. “Which is why we knit our styles to shape with recycled materials like plastic water bottles.”

On its website, Rothy’s details the process of how used plastic bottles are sliced, pressurized into pellets, and spun into thin, durable thread before they’re knit into shoes, bags, and face coverings. The company reports having recycled nearly 70 million plastic bottles so far.

Rothy’s has also committed to using recycled materials to package products, and it’s partnered with the Envira Amazonia Project to conserve tropical rainforests and offset the carbon emissions released during shipments.

Related: 3 Examples of Corporate Social Responsibility That Were Successful

2. Bank of America

Bank of America is tackling sustainability from the top down by providing other businesses with the funds to reach their sustainability goals.

In 2014, Bank of America launched the Catalytic Finance Initiative, which has directed $10 billion to investments deemed too high risk by many standards but ultimately worked toward the United Nations’ sustainability goals.

By investing in typically high-risk sectors, such as early-stage clean energy companies, Bank of America has effectively de-risked sustainable investments. The success of companies and products funded by the initiative has paved the way for greater cash flow to projects that positively impact the planet.

Since 2016, the Catalytic Finance Initiative has comprised of 12 partners that support investing in high-risk, high-impact sustainability projects, furthering the precedent that investing in sustainability is worth it.

3. Etsy

Etsy is the first major online shopping destination to offset 100 percent of carbon emissions from shipping.

Etsy is a platform that enables individuals to sell their artwork and creations to the public, generating a large number of packages shipped daily.

To counteract carbon emissions released into the environment by package shipments, Etsy has partnered with renewable energy company 3Degrees to fund verified carbon emission reduction projects, such as protecting forests, sponsoring wind and solar farms, and developing greener methods for auto part production.

Etsy’s funding of these projects has been purposeful and helped the company ensure it counteracts at least the amount of carbon emissions its shipping creates.

Related: Why Is Strategic Planning Important?

4. AstraZeneca

Pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca operates with health at the center of its work, which is why funding a project that increases Kenyans' health while aiding the environment made sense for the organization.

AstraZeneca partnered with Kenyan company Biogas International and the University of Cambridge’s Institute for Sustainability to install biogas stoves in rural communities in Kenya. The biogas stoves replaced firewood and charcoal fires, which were releasing harmful CO2 into the environment and causing Kenyans who were standing over the fires cooking—namely, women and girls—to experience detrimental respiratory issues.

By helping fund the installation of biogas stoves in these communities, AstraZeneca stayed true to its value of putting the health of others first. In addition, the company gathered data about the detrimental impact of CO2 on the respiratory system for future pharmaceutical work.

5. Ben & Jerry’s

Ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s has taken a stance on climate change and social justice in recent years, and it stands out as a provider of educational resources for people who want to take action.

“If it’s melted, it’s ruined,” reads a statement on the company's website. “It’s true for ice cream, and it’s true for the planet.”

The Ben & Jerry’s website features facts about the current state of climate change, how it disproportionately impacts underserved communities, and a list of ways to combat it.

The company outlines global goals for everyone to work toward, including:

  • Reduce carbon emissions by at least 45 percent by 2030
  • Transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050
  • Stop using coal entirely
  • Divest fully from the fossil fuel industry
  • Stop deforestation of old-growth tropical forests
  • Ensure support for developing countries’ mitigation and adaptation

The company’s goal is to use 100 percent clean energy by 2025, which it’s on its way to accomplishing through solar panels, bio-digesters that turn emissions into clean energy to power ice cream plants, and new green freezer technology.

“As a food company, many of the partners in our value chain, including our fair-trade suppliers in the global south, are at real risk from a warming planet,” the company states on its website. “And because climate change is a risk to people in our supply chain, it’s also a risk to our business.”

Ben & Jerry’s also implores the public to support clean energy movements, read articles about climate change and climate justice, and learn about other brands and organizations fighting for the same cause.

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Craft a Sustainable Business Strategy

If your organization has yet to set sustainability goals and formulate a strategy to reach them, start by honing your strategic thinking skills and learning about your industry’s sustainability issues before having a conversation with your team.

These five organizations can serve as inspiration and proof that it’s possible to “do well” while “doing good.” They also demonstrate that running a sustainable business can benefit not just your organization but the planet.

Are you interested in making a difference as a purpose-driven leader? Explore our three-week Sustainable Business Strategy course to learn how to create shared value at your organization.

Catherine Cote

About the Author

Catherine Cote is a marketing coordinator at Harvard Business School Online. Prior to joining HBS Online, she worked at an early-stage SaaS startup where she found her passion for writing content, and at a digital consulting agency, where she specialized in SEO. Catherine holds a B.A. from Holy Cross, where she studied psychology, education, and Mandarin Chinese. When not at work, you can find her hiking, performing or watching theatre, or hunting for the best burger in Boston.