In the world of B2C, consumers form bonds with brands that deliver emotional benefits like security, smarts, and sex appeal.
In the world of B2B, there is a bond of trust between buyer and seller, but the product itself is scrutinized under the harsh light of performance. Is it better, faster, cheaper?
And more and more, is it greener?
How did sustainability make it to this top tier of B2B purchase considerations? To understand that, we can begin by looking at the profound shift to green in B2C.
Ignore Consumers at Your Peril
Today's consumers have more power over brands than ever before. Armed with new media and teamed with NGO's, they're forcing profound changes in the supply chain.
Consider Greenpeace's social media campaign against unsustainably sourced palm oil in Kit Kat bars. The campaign featured a grisly video  that got more than 1.5 million views (even after Nestle had it yanked from Youtube). The video sparked an avalanche of rage , and led to a protest at Nestle's AGM in April 2010. Less than a month after the AGM, Nestle ruled that suppliers--including global giant Cargill--could no longer provide palm oil from unsustainable sources.
What does this mean? The traditional B2B bias that 'consumers aren't sophisticated enough to understand or care about what we do' is dangerously out of date.
Green = Green
Robert Safrata is CEO of Novex Delivery Solutions, a courier company  that boasts a fleet of electric, hybrid and natural gas vehicles.
Safrata doesn't believe greener can be separated from faster, better, cheaper.
"Greener is cheaper. The really good companies are figuring this out. And there's lots of low-hanging fruit for them to pick."
At Novex, the fruits of green are radically higher staff retention, and contracts with clients who need green suppliers to meet their corporate mandate.
Guy McAree of Ballard Power Systems agrees that sustainability needs to be smart business first.
"We're putting our zero-emission fuel cells to work, for instance, in systems used in forklift trucks. Walmart, Coke, BMW and other distribution center operators are deploying these  clean energy systems because they outperform lead acid batteries...plus, battery storage space can be freed up."
The green B2B mandate is here. And it's spreading through the entire supply chain.
Honda, for example, just announced purchasing guidelines  that " ... allow better tracking of emissions and other impacts of products further back in their lifecycles, beyond primary suppliers."
The guidelines will be implemented worldwide, and expand from the environmental impacts of production to all corporate activities. So whether you supply fan belts or stationery to the automaker, your operation will come under the green microscope.
Where Do I Start?
Green is becoming as important as better, faster, cheaper. But it needs to be implemented strategically to be profitable.
For that reason, green can't come without a business value proposition--for yourself, and for your clients. It needs to be considered a strategic issue, and be planned for your company with an eye on profit and competitive advantage.
It also needs to prove itself quickly, in order to be taken seriously. That means your strategic plan needs to outline both low-hanging fruit, as well as rewards down the road. This 'outside the jar'  brainstorm might be the place to bring in fresh thinkers from outside your sector.
Finally, be prepared to fail. But make sure you fail forward. Green is new for business, and there is a great deal of experimentation going on. The good news is, your buyers are finding their way, much like you are. They can appreciate that progress won't be smooth.
Next: The greening of B2B employees
This article is the first in a three part series exploring B2B sustainability issues, culminating in a webinar Tuesday, February 8, 1pm EST (10am PST). To add the webinar to your Outlook calendar, click here .