Focus on This Competitive Advantage

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This article is part of ourRising Stars Portfolio series.

A majority of commercial executives have acknowledged one competitive advantage -- sustainability -- as a necessity in this day and age. This competitive edge is also touted by first movers as a contributor to corporate profitability.

Sustainability is making its mark on the management strategies of some of the most well-known stocks available to investors.

Once, the concept of environmental sustainability practice in business was ignored as too esoteric, or a policy that was nice to have, not need to have. However, it's quickly becoming apparent that the most competitive, growth-oriented portfolios will include companies that have their eye on sustainability as the future of good, profitable business.

The sustainability agenda
A recent study from The Boston Consulting Group and MIT Sloan Management Review surveyed nearly 3,000 executives and came to a conclusion: Sustainability is reaching a tipping point. In fact, 70% of the executives surveyed have permanently put sustainability on their management agendas.

Of the total company leaders surveyed, 31% contend that sustainability activities are adding to their profits. This is significant when you consider the conventional wisdom that sustainability is more of a hindrance to profitability than a help, so these first movers are proving such assumptions wrong.

The search for sustainable stock ideas
The Fool's Rising Stars project has allowed me to put real money into a public portfolio that addresses social responsibility and sustainability issues, and data like this help support the decision that this is not only a nice way to invest, but it's a smart way to invest, too.

The report named several major companies as plowing their financial and time resources into sustainability initiatives. Some of them may make possible investments.

For instance, last fall, I looked at Nike's (NYS: NKE) pledge to eradicate hazardous chemicals in its supply chain by 2020. I eventually decided not to buy Nike, although it remains on my watchlist.

At the Investor Summit on Climate Risk and Energy Solutions at the United Nations, General Electric (NYS: GE) recently revealed that its Ecomagination unit is growing at twice the rate of the rest of the company, and has generated $85 billion in revenue.

Foolish community members on my Rising Star discussion board have tipped me off that Cemex (NYS: CX) could be a good choice for a socially upright portfolio. The company says that its building materials are developed with a resource-constrained society in mind. Check out its "7 Priorities" and you'll find areas like carbon strategy, environment and biodiversity, and even stakeholder engagement.

On the other hand, while Wal-Mart (NYS: WMT) has made great strides in environmental initiatives, its labor practices still leave a lot to be desired, so I don't see it making the cut anytime soon. I bought shares of retail rival Costco (NAS: COST) for the portfolio; one of the things that makes Costco a great company (and worthy of responsible investment) is that it treats its workers well.

Good profits
Clearly, the business community increasingly recognizes sustainability as not only the right way to do business, but a profitable way, too. As for my attempts to invest some real money along these lines, the portfolio's 19% return so far shows that nice guys and gals actually don't finish last.

The trend is building, and as more and more business leaders get on board, investors who have sunk their money into companies that are ignoring this competitive advantage will likely be disappointed by their portfolios' future returns. After all, signs indicate sustainable business is the future.

Future growth also resides in emerging markets. Discover opportunities in this special report, "3 American Companies Set to Dominate the World," available for free right now.

At the time this article was published Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned in her personal portfolio. The Motley Fool owns shares of Costco and Wal-Mart. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Nike, Wal-Mart, and Costco, as well as creating diagonal call positions in Wal-Mart and Nike. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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