Experts argue that firms aware of their social and environmental responsibilities stand a better chance of survival. Ethics in business, they say, will increasingly shape our shopping attitudes.
The "Roadmap to Zero" campaign was jointly created a few years ago by global clothing and sportswear manufacturers C&A, Adidas, G-Star, H&M, Li-Ning, Nike and Puma.
By 2020 the major companies aim to stop hazardous chemicals used in their productions from leaking into the environment.
The effort was begun in light of demands raised by global environment organization Greenpeace, which has accused the companies of polluting rivers and drinking water reservoirs in the vicinities of their production sites.
Profits of sustainability
In the past, German sportswear manufacturer Adidas made negative headlines for the poor working conditions prevalent among its suppliers, including the child labor used in its production lines, as well as an ad campaign for a sneaker allegedly supporting a racist bias.
However, the company has been eager to correct its tainted image by outlining its social and environmental aims and successes in a so-called sustainability report, published annually since 2001.
Adidas' efforts have been successful, turning the manufacturer into one of the world's 40 most sustainability conscious companies, according to a series of international surveys on this issue.
Preventing chemical spills has become one of the company's main priorities, along with improving and controlling labor conditions among its suppliers.
In Adidas business policy, sustainability was no longer "an issue on the sidelines," Frank Henke told DW.
The head of the firm's social and environment unit, which employs 65 people, said that a sustainable path of development was the only way to guarantee profits in the long run.
"We believe a strong emphasis on sustainability will make a lasting contribution to the survival of the company. We are in the public spotlight and need to face up to this issue", he said.
Such a policy is also promoted by Hildegard Keller-Kern, head of consultancy firm Icon Added Value.
Since 2008, the firm has been carrying out annual surveys of consumption patterns, showing a growing number of critical consumers who are demanding a more sustainable behavior from businesses.
Keller-Kern told DW that companies can no longer "avoid" the wishes of their customers.
"Consumers are aware of the fact that the global environmental problems cannot be resolved without the participation of companies. People's buying decisions have come to reflect that," she said.
But decisions to consciously buy sustainably produced products are not easy to make. Some businesses use strategies aimed at concealing doubtful production methods, known as greenwashing.
Energy companies, for example, emit huge amounts of greenhouse gases and are particularly anxious to give themselves a green image.
In addition, firms which run global supply networks, like Adidas, make it difficult for European consumers to get information about working conditions in suppliers based as far away Asia and Latin America.
Adidas wasn't accused of "actively pursuing greenwashing," said Jürgen Knirsch, the man heading Greenpeace's Detox Campaign against clothing manufacturers.
However, the absence of aggressive greenwashing wouldn't say much about a company's general position on sustainable production, Knirsch told DW.
Don't buy it!
Knirsch believes that business behavior is indeed changing. "Many companies have realized that we are living on a planet with limited resources, and that it's important to use raw materials and to make products in ways that are socially responsible and don't damage the environment. Anything else will just hurt their own business", he said.
Clothing manufacturer Patagonia has devoted itself to the issue of sustainability in a rather unusual fashion.
The firm runs an advertising campaign under the slogan "Don’t buy this jacket!". It is intended to make customers think twice about whether or not they really need a new outdoor jacket before buying one from the company.
Author: Greta Hamann / uhe
Editor: Martin Kuebler