This is part 9 of 11 from “Sustainability: The ‘Embracers’ Seize Advantage,” a report on the findings of the 2010 Sustainability & Innovation Global Executive Study and Research Project.

Like most business trends, sustainability has not emerged in a vacuum. First, it is a reaction to the growing risks and uncertainties companies face, such as scarcity of natural resources, the rising price of carbon and looming environmental legislation, as well as external pressures from consumers, supply chain customers, advocacy groups and investors. Consequently, what the boldest companies are finding is that once they view their business through a sustainability lens, opportunities are emerging that might not have otherwise been identified.

That relates partly to the readiness of some companies to learn while doing, accepting that they do not yet have all the answers or measurement metrics in place, but pushing ahead regardless. In the course of this research, many business leaders described this process as a journey with surprises and discoveries emerging along the way.

Of course, many companies — cautious adopters included — understand that resource efficiency benefits the bottom line. But while measuring resource use and waste efficiency is a good way for companies to start the process of measuring sustainability and basing investment decisions on that information, the more intangible rewards of embracing sustainability, such as employee engagement or the ability to innovate, are equally if not more important to business success.

Companies still have some way to go in measuring these intangibles, and they are wrestling with the financial side of how to use them to make the business case for investing in sustainability. Yet in our research, business leaders say that these are important and beneficial side effects of adopting sustainability, and they are starting to look for ways to assess them.

Moreover, in embracing sustainability, leading companies are shaping the agenda. Cornell’s Hart cites the example of SC Johnson, which removed chlorofluorocarbons before their removal became enshrined in legislation. He points out that this did the company’s financial performance no harm; in fact, the decision ended up driving innovations that later paid off handsomely. “They just rip it,” he says. “They’re a highly, highly profitable company.”

But whether shaping industry landscapes or making new discoveries and innovations in their own operations, companies that are moving most aggressively on the sustainability agenda are doing more than reducing their environmental impact.

These companies are measuring sustainability commitments in the way they would any other investment. They are setting realistic expectations for the return on those investments. And yet by heading down one path — by taking that leap of faith — they are finding that unexpected benefits emerge. Employees are more engaged in meeting environmental goals than had been anticipated. Brand value is enhanced, often in unexpected ways. Partnerships generate unanticipated sources of innovation. In short, sustainability is revealing new paths that will enhance companies’ long-term ability to compete.

Companies hoping to gain advantage in a more sustainability-driven world should therefore be looking at the practices and approaches being adopted by the embracers identified in this survey. Our results show that many cautious adopters are starting to follow these leaders. Embracers provide a crystal ball through which to view the future business landscape — one in which risks and opportunities are going to be increasingly shaped by what it means to be a truly sustainable business.