These days it seems de rigueur for corporate websites to have sections on social responsibility and sustainability where companies can espouse their commitments to reductions in waste, packaging and emissions, and their efforts to find parts and ingredients in a socially responsible way.
But without concrete stories being shared, the reader's eyes may glaze over and the words may ring hollow.
However, many major brands have some cool—and at times unexpected—policies and programs in place that are making an impact in the real world.
Naturally, in addition to the environmental benefits, it's good for a company's bottom line if its programs or policies result in positive publicity, raised awareness and improved brand perception—all steps that can bring in new customers.
Here are 10 such examples of well-known companies making headway toward helping to reduce their carbon footprints and aid the environment.
—By Colleen Kane, special to CNBC
Posted 26 Sept. 2014
The Swedish retailer H&M falls squarely into the category of "fast fashion," a label that can brand it as a major contributor to a disposable culture. However, in a stated effort to "close the loop on textiles so nothing ever goes to waste," H&M introduced its global garment-collecting initiative in February 2013.
People throw out thousands of tons of textiles annually, and the company's website (with a robust section dedicated to sustainablity) states that as much as 95 percent of that could be reworn or recycled.
Shoppers are invited to bring old clothes to their local H&M for re-use, repurposing into rags, or recycling into new textiles, in exchange for a discount. For each kilogram of clothes received, H&M makes a donation to.a local charity.
TD Bank has been working in conjunction with The Nature Conservancy and the Nature Conservancy of Canada to protect two football fields a day of endangered North American forest habitats. It also helps increase the amount and awareness of urban trees with its TD Tree Days and TD Green Streets programs, and the bank supports MillionTreesNYC.
The Spanish clothing retailer Zara has adopted a different model of recycling. The company often buys and restores historic buildings to house its stores.
In Milan, it has taken a classical theater with marble floors and a gilded ceiling and transformed it. In Salamanca, Spain, it converted a former Baroque convent from the 1700s. In Melbourne, Australia, a neo-gothic, turn-of-the-20th-century building that was formerly Darrods Department Store received a new use. In Rome, one of its stores was a neoclassical palazzo dating to 1889, and is now slated for LEED certification by 2020.
Read more on Zara's environmental policies here.
But the company's plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, goes beyond just making fuel-efficient autos. It is LEED platinum-certified—the only auto factory in the world with such a designation.
The site uses passive cooling, energy-efficient lighting and it employs a 66-acre solar park. Tanks around the site collect rainwater for use in irrigation, toilet water and in cooling towers. The structure is made from 50 percent recycled materials and its components were designed to be reusable and recyclable if it's torn down.
Similarly, since new Starbucks outlets continue to pop up everywhere, it's better when the new coffee shops are designed to have less of an environmental impact.
Beginning in late 2010, many Starbucks stores have been built to obtain the new LEED volume certification program. The company wanted to source materials locally, reduce energy and water use, and create a healthy environment for its customers and employees.
The company now has 452 LEED shops in 18 countries. In 2013, 65 percent of new Starbucks were built to achieve LEED certification. (The previous year, that number was 69 percent, and Starbucks attributed the drop to the complexities of building for LEED certification in countries where it's not as established.)
Here's an efficient policy UPS drivers have been employing for decades, starting when environmentalism was barely a blip on anyone's radar screen: avoiding left-hand turns.
Since left turns use more fuel and time, and are less safe, UPS routes are planned to favor right turns. Since 2004, this practice has been optimized with route-planning technology that's amounted to saving more than 10 million gallons of gas and reducing carbon emissions by 5,300 metric tons, or the equivalent of removing 5,300 cars from the road for a year, the company said.
In the skies, UPS has reduced its flight speeds and flight plans are similarly optimized on its newer, more fuel-efficient aircraft. (Also, older planes are retrofitted to be more efficient.)
One technique used to reduce both fuel consumption and noise pollution is to descend flights in a continuous glide rather than the traditional "stepping down" method.
When Adidas sponsored the 2012 London Olympic Games, it wanted to create "the world's first truly sustainable Olympics." The games' 70,000 volunteers were outfitted with the athletic gear manufacturer's Fluid Trainer shoe, made from 50 percent recycled material in the upper half, and with 20 percent and 10 percent regrind in the sock liner and soles, respectively.
The company developed 165 new performance fabrics for the games, ensuring that volunteers wore Adidas jackets and shirts that were made with 100 percent recycled content and their bags, pants, caps and socks were comprised of recycled material and organic cotton. In addition, 100 percent of athlete village gear, as well as kits for the torch relay were made from sustainable materials.
Seventy percent of what athletes wore in competition contained sustainable materials such as high-performance polyesters formed from recycled water bottles. And in a recycling vice versa, Adidas partnered with Coca-Cola to make sports bottles from recycled polyester that were distributed to volunteers and sold at the games.
The outdoor outfitter Patagonia has a multipronged Common Threads Initiative that pledges to make gear that lasts with reduced energy usage, take back unfixable products, help shoppers re-home gear they no longer use with its "Worn Wear" buyback program and help its customers repair their products.
Patagonia promises to return repaired items within 10 days and to repair them for free if they're responsible or for a fair price if the problem is normal wear and tear. Patagonia shops and dealers will accept worn-out items for recycling, or they can be mailed in.
In 2012, the company famously told consumers in an eye-catching Black Friday ad in The New York Times, "Don't buy this jacket." On its website, it goes further, saying: "As a consumer, the biggest thing you can do is to not buy what you don't really need."
"If the 4.6 billion people using mobile phones recycled just one unused phone at the end of its life, together we will save nearly 370,000 tons of raw materials and reduce greenhouse gases to the same effect as taking 6 million cars off the road," Francis Cheong, senior sustainability manager for Southeast Asia-Pacific at Nokia, told the Malaysian newspaper The Star.
Since the late '90s, the company has encouraged mobile recycling, with a long-established and free mail-in program for its customers' old mobile devices, batteries and accessories. Nokia stores and kiosks have collected old phones for recycling as as well, and its 2011 Nokia NEWTrees program in the Southeast Asia-Pacific region planted a tree for each returned phone to sweeten the deal.
Read more about Nokia's environmental policies here.
Water has been a motif for the house of Armani, with a blue-green color used to represent it in fashion and its fragrances using "acqua" (Italian for "water") in their names. So it's fitting that in 2011, Giorgio Armani launched his Acqua for Life program, in conjunction with the Green Cross, to donate 100 liters of water to children whenever someone purchases his fragrances Acqua di Giò and Acqua di Gioia. Those who bought the fragrance could opt to double their donation online.
The project supported Smart Water for Green Schools in Ghana, where according to The New York Times, 40 percent of the rural population has no safe drinking water.
It later served communities in Bolivia and Mexico, and earlier this year, Sri Lanka, the Ivory Coast and Senegal. In these places, water systems may be compromised by rapid urban population growth, industrial pollution, global warming and natural disasters.