10/05/2012 04:20 pm ET Updated Dec 05, 2012

Leading U.S. Manufacturers Better the Environment

For years, environmentally-friendly practices were often seen as a detriment to companies' bottom line. But now, U.S. companies are adopting green business models for the profit, not just the publicity. According to a recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one-third of the companies surveyed said adopting sustainable practices has increased their profits, and two-thirds said sustainability is now a permanent agenda topic. The MIT Sloan Management Review saw manufacturers as leaders of this movement, citing a strong commitment to the environment by "resource-intensive" producers.

For some companies, being environmentally-friendly can be both a publicity boost and an economic boon. General Electric, one of the world's biggest conglomerates -- with a history of extensive air and water pollution -- began its "Ecomagination" initiative in 2005. The company has sinced invested heavily in clean technologies and brought a variety of green products to the market, including biogas engines and solar panels. All told, Ecomagination products have made the company over $12 billion in revenue, with projections of over $25 billion in the coming years.

Another company that has changed its environmental tune is paper-products manufacturer Kimberly-Clark, which went from cutting old-growth forests to ranking number one in the personal products category of the Jones Sustainability World Index for five straight years. This major user of natural resources recently developed a kind of toilet paper without a cardboard tube center, along with other initiatives, to increase the sales of environmentally-friendly products.

For some, increased profit is just a side-effect of contributing positively to the community -- whether that community is in Marion, Indiana or Tamil Nadu, India. ZIVELO, an Indiana-based kiosk and digital signage manufacturer, not only works to offset its own carbon footprint, but those of its competitors as well. Green production practices have been in place since the ZIVELO's inception, but a new program that plants trees in developing countries makes the company a model for what an American manufacturer can accomplish.

ZIVELO teamed with Trees for the Future, an agroforestry resource center with a mission to restore degraded lands by planting trees. Trees for the Future has already planted 65 million trees around the world, and ZIVELO will add to that number by planting three trees for every kiosk purchased. Already the two have teamed up to plant 11,500 trees in Haiti and Brazil. ZIVELO works with organizations around Indiana to plant locally as well.

Customers wanting to go green already had reason to appreciate the ZIVELO product: The manufacturer uses a minimum amount of post-consumer materials and EPA-approved powder coat finishes, recycles throughout all its facilities, produces their kiosk enclosures with fully recyclable aircraft-grade aluminum, and offers purchase credits to companies that want to trade in their old kiosks for ZIVELO terminals, to be used in third world countries or recycled. But the tree-planting initiative allows customers to see a tangible result -- because of their purchase, at no extra cost to them, the world is literally greener.

As an added bonus, competitors in these industries -- energy, paper, digital signage -- among many others, will be forced to take notice and, perhaps, actions of their own. If industry-leading companies like GE and ZIVELO can commit the time, money and resources necessary to ensure the use of sustainable practices, other companies will hopefully follow suit -- if not for moral, than economic reasons.

It's popular for companies to claim environmentally-friendly practices -- it's quite another thing to dedicate a company's core values to the cause. In the business world, "going green" is not required. But as some of these industry-leading manufacturers are demonstrating, when sustainability is made a priority, the investment results in goodwill, a better environment and, for many companies, profits. It's no wonder so many U.S. manufacturers, looking to shed recent tough environmental and economic history, are leading the way to a greener future.