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Big Impact from Seemingly Small Changes: How Multinationals Are Starting the Sustainability Journey

by Rachel Botsman  |  
December 2, 2008

We are awash in "green" articles that highlight examples and best-practices of companies such as Patagonia, Stonyfield Farm, and Timberland—businesses that have had sustainability as part of their DNA from the outset.

But for large multinational brands (especially suppliers of packaged goods) that are dependent on energy-intensive supply chains and high volumes of raw materials, a different approach is often required.

For such brands, the journey to a more sustainable business usually starts with the entry question of "where (or how) do we start?"—particularly in the case of those brands for which, to put it simply, "selling more stuff" (and more than their competitors) has been the prevailing internal mindset and the business priority, up until now.

This article focuses on leading global brands that are making the transition from treating sustainability as a hot "green topic" to embracing it as a true business strategy. It includes US and European companies that have identified "hotspots" in their supply chain where their environmental impact can be reduced, relatively quickly and inexpensively.

Viewed in isolation, some of these steps may seem minor. However, viewed against the total volume of transactions, their cumulative impact is undeniable.

These seemingly small changes are not quick fixes or marketing makeovers but true sustainable strides that have entered the mainstream marketplace. They also reflect successful collaboration between marketing and operations departments that have worked together to implement genuine environmental changes vs. marketing half-truths that consumers are starting not to believe. These brands recognize that sustainability should not be viewed just as a cost saver but also a sales driver, and that products and services embedded with sustainable practices are attracting more publicity and increased brand loyalty—and in many cases they are selling faster.

A common theme that emerges from the examples that follow is the need to challenge old assumptions around products and packaging, and the processes that link them, in order to deliver rule-bending innovation. While it is true that groundbreaking sustainable innovation that results in totally new business models is still rare, it's also true that brands are starting to move along the eco-innovation spectrum and out of the obvious incremental changes such as carbon offsets and recycling programs—toward looking at the total picture and the rich opportunities environmental challenges can create.

The following six examples from M&S, Wal-Mart, UPS, Unilever, Boots the Chemist, and Whirlpool have been selected because each highlights an innovation across a different part of the sustainability spectrum, from design and packaging, to product formulation, to waste and transportation.

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Rachel Botsman is the director of strategy of OZOlab (, an innovation incubator that identifies, creates, and markets sustainable products and services. She can be reached at

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  • by Randall Montalbano Tue Dec 2, 2008 via web

    Great job on this article, Rachel.

  • by Andrea Learned Wed Dec 3, 2008 via web

    Love the detail and examples, Rachel. Articles like yours are so helpful because they demonstrate that a move toward more sustainable practices need not be done overnight, but that incremental steps can be incredibly effective too (both in aiming toward greater sustainability and in showing consumers that sustainability is indeed a long term priority.)

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