NEW YORK: General Electric, Intel and Nike are among the major brand owners making the greatest strides in combining innovation with sustainability, experts have said.

Writing in Forbes, Beth Comstock, chief marketing officer at General Electric, and Andrew Shapiro, president of consultancy GreenOrder, argued that events like the Gulf of Mexico oil spill show how energy, ecological and economic issues can coincide.

The ongoing after-effects of recession and the fact that 2010 was the hottest summer on record in several US regions were also cited by the article as contributory factors.

"Now is the time for business leaders across all sectors to forge an approach to environmental stewardship that will drive growth and prosperity for companies and communities," Comstock and Shapiro said.

General Electric's ecomagination programme, which drew together its eco-friendly products from lighting to wind turbines into a single portfolio, blazed a trail in 2005.

One learning is that "real investment" is required, and GE has spent $5bn (€3.8bn; £3.2bn) on "clean tech" since this date, and will double R&D expenditure to $10bn in the next five years.

This activity has also created 10,000 jobs for engineering and related industries in the US, such as 1,300 roles at GE's Advanced Manufacturing and Software Technology Center in Michigan.

Elsewhere, microchip specialist Intel joined operators like Google, Microsoft, Cisco and Adobe to form the Invest in America Alliance, backing businesses covering areas including clean tech with $3.5bn.

"It would be a long-term mistake to let our future scientists and engineers sit idle after graduation," said Paul Otellini, Intel's chief executive, in February.

"Our collective goal is to continue to drive technology innovation and stimulate economic activity."

Comstock and Shapiro suggested constructing partnerships is vital, given that achieving the necessary transition needs fresh thinking and a sophisticated response.

GE's "ecomagingation Challenge" has seen it work with four venture capital firms, running a contest offering $200m to enterprises generating ideas about modernising the electric grid, receiving 2,400 entries so far.

Carmaker General Motors also recently supplied funding to Bright Automotive, helping develop its IDEA hybrid van.

Last week, GM took a stake in Sakti3, which manufacture batteries powering electric vehicles, predicting such equipment represented a possible "mainstream solution for the future."

"GM Ventures is making strategic investments in new technology to support our core automotive business," said Jon Lauckner, president, GM Ventures.

"Our objective is to identify start-up companies that offer the best future technology for our vehicles."

According to Comstock and Shapiro, establishing goals and measurement processes are essential, as they provide a framework, guide expenditure and research, alongside building internal and external confidence.

Sportswear giant Nike has rolled out a range of initiatives, the GreenXChange, an online service sharing information concerning sustainable innovation.

Its "Considered Design" programme seeks to eliminate toxics and waste, with the aim of implementing this across its footwear division by 2011 and apparel by 2015.

"Sustainability is key to Nike's growth and innovation," said Mark Parker, Nike's president and ceo, when unveiling the organisation's 2010 Corporate Responsibility Report.

"Making our business more sustainable benefits our consumers who expect products and experiences with low environmental impact."

Comstock and Shapiro concluded "eco-innovation" could have an enormous influence on how brand owners approach the market.

"Just as the Internet and digital technology transformed more than computer companies or IT departments, environmental thinking has the potential to catalyse broader shifts in the way companies operate," they said.

Data sourced from Forbes; additional content by Warc staff