Consumers have embraced green products, ranging from hybrid cars to packaging made from recycled materials, in some cases even when they cost more.
But eco-conscious consumers are also growing more demanding about claims of sustainability. They want to know that what's said to be ecologically sound today is honest and will be so for future generations.
“What you're seeing is the evolution of a consumer who is more and more sophisticated,” said David Mattin, lead strategist at consumer research firm Trendwatching.com. “Consumers are asking ‘What is really a sustainable product?’”
Mattin said that for increasingly eco-conscious consumers, the new gold standard in environmental sustainability is a trend his firm calls "super-eco."
“Truly super-eco innovation businesses or brands are those that have thought about their process from start to finish,” he explained, ”and every aspect of it is sustainable, or at least taking significant steps toward sustainability.”
While total sustainability is usually an easier proposition for startups, Mattin noted that multi-national firms like Nike are embracing super-eco when it comes to individual products, such as its Nike GS soccer shoes. (More: Baxter Is Not Your Typical Robot)
“The boots are mainly made from castor beans,” he said, “while the laces and lining are made from a minimum of 70 percentrecycled materials.”
Alcoa’s EcoClean technology is also considered super-eco because it improves the environment. The aluminum maker’s Reynobond building materials, made with EcoClean coatings, use titanium oxide to break down air polluting gases and help a building stay clean.
“It’s a more sophisticated way at looking at what sustainability brings to the table,” that has evolved from early sustainability efforts, said Will Sarni, director and practice leader for enterprise water strategies at Deloitte.
Companies have moved beyond understanding their water and energy consumption, Sarni argued, and are now asking, “’Can I get to zero on some of these so I don’t have an impact?’ And some companies are doing that around waste regeneration, and they’re doing it with respect to water.”
Japanese technology conglomerate TDK Corp is trying to do it around production of its electrical components, and actually trademarked the term "Super Eco Love" last year, to highlight its products developed with minimal environmental impact, like reduced energy manufacturing techniques, and lower use of chemicals.
Companies have long used sustainability to appeal to customers. “There's a market segment where it's worth doing things because you can actually charge a premium price,” said Geoffrey Heal, Co-Director of Columbia University’s Center for Economy, Environment and Society.
But increasingly, Heal said, the need for resources is the driving force behind sustainability in business. “It’s more of a question of wanting to guarantee the continuity of their supplies in the long run,” Heal says. (More: How 3D Printers Are Reshaping Medicine)
“Resource issues are playing a big role in driving sustainability innovation,” said Deloitte’s Will Sarni, pointing to soft drink companies as a prime example.
“They look to things like recycling, so they can have the raw materials,” he said. “They become more energy efficient, more water efficient, so they can make more beverage products with less materials.”
Two-thirds of corporate executives surveyed by Deloitte believe sustainability is necessary to remain competitive. Executives also see communicating environmental issues to investors as well consumers as important.
One reason is that sustainability is a driver for some shareholders. Institutional investors like pension funds tend to value environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues. More than $3 trillion worth of funds under management in 2010 fell under ESG guidelines, according to U.S. Investment Forum data.
Super-Eco could ultimately make a company’s shares more attractive to longer-term investors.