Picture perfect: Top 5 sustainable business Instagram accounts

In the age of digital abundance, companies must compete for their customers' attention. What sets sustainable businesses apart from their competitors are strong core values. Yet too often, these values are lost in a sea of words on a website, Twitter or Facebook.

Instagram is a tool that helps customers connect directly with a company's brand in a unique and purely visual way. It allows business leaders to show rather than tell, to craft a compelling story about their products, and to build a loyal following.

Here are five top sustainable-business Instagram accounts of 2013 — and what business leaders can learn from their approach.

1. @wornwear

@wornwear, the offshoot Instagram feed of Patagonia, highlights vintage garments that have stood the test of time. Patagonia's values of well-made gear, durability and reducing waste come through in the visual storytelling nature of this Instagram handle. As part of a larger campaign, Instagram is one way for the company's customers to connect and interact with the company's core values, by using the hashtag #wornwear and sharing images of themselves and their storied Patagonia pieces.

Worn Wear is on our list because it allows Patagonia's customers to actively connect to the products they already own and become part of a larger community. Through this authentic communications strategy, Patagonia is creating legions of devoted and loyal customers and fans.

2. @in_gredients

Among this list of national and global brands, why did we choose to highlight this tiny, locally-owned natural foods micro grocer? The national buzz around in.gredients' unique zero-waste business model has been growing since before it launched in 2012. From almonds to olive oil to shampoo, it carries a vast selection of bulk products that customers can stock up on using their own reusable containers.

In addition to these commendable principles, the company uses Instagram in savvy ways to reach a wide audience. With nearly 1,200 followers, @in.gredients has captured the attention of both local Austinites and natural-products industry professionals. The company's gorgeous photographs of daily lunch specials and locally-grown produce are enticing, and pictures of concerts, seasonal festivals and other events held at the store provide a visual sense of the community in.gredients is working to build.

3. @nauclothing

The sustainable clothing company Nau was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. Its products are built to help consumers thrive in a unique climate and to move easily through both urban and natural landscapes. Nau's core values include respect for the environment, the spirit of adventure and a strong sense of place.

Nau is on our list because it captures its own authenticity and sense of place through images. On its @nauclothing Instagram page, the company often posts images of sweeping Pacific Northwest landscapes devoid of people, allowing customers to envision themselves in those places while connecting to the environment in a personal and aspirational way. Consumers are transported by Nau's photos to a mountaintop in Colorado, a vibrant cranberry bog in Washington or a coffee farm in Brazil. The company truly understands, and smartly capitalizes on, wanderlust fantasies.

4. @warbyparker

Recently certified B-Corporation Warby Parker has been a disruptive force in the prescription eyewear industry. Its mission to provide fashion-forward eyeglasses for under $100 while giving away thousands of pairs to populations in need has captured global attention and gained more than 85,000 Instagram followers. Like its edgy, stylish frames, the company's @warbyparker account is filled with fun, artistic, attention-grabbing photographs. 

Using the hashtag #pickapair, the company peppers its feed with two-by-two matrix images of staff wearing four different frames, allowing followers to chime in on which pair of eyewear looks the best. Warby Parker's customers have followed the trend by posting images of themselves in WP frames. The site is an excellent example of interactive engagement with customers without overtly trying to "sell" products.

5. @theochocolate

Highlighting a chocolatier feels a little like cheating. Not every company has the advantage of a continuous stream of mouthwatering photos of chocolate and confections to entice customers. We've chosen Theo Chocolate, however, because of its skillful balance of internal and external images — it captures what's happening inside the chocolate factory, outside in the local Seattle community, and abroad in the countries it sources main ingredients from.

In the seven years it's been in business, Theo has had a dramatic impact on the organic chocolate supply chain both locally and abroad. The company's direct-trade model allows it to build strong connections with suppliers and ensure fair wages for farmers. Theo's Instagram account, while filled with photos of melted chocolate, is also peppered with images from Costa Rica and Paraguay, as well as from other local businesses in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle. Followers are allowed an inside glimpse of the entire process from bean to bar, making them feel like they've had a trip inside Willy Wonka's factory.

Lessons from the leaders

These trailblazing accounts provide valuable insights on how to successfully market a sustainable business.

Lindsey Morse, marketing director of Nau Clothing, stresses the importance of not using Instagram to make a direct sales pitch to customers. "We use Instagram as a brand tool, not a sales tool," she said. "We've found that our customers are aspirational adventure seekers and respond best to photos that they can place themselves in."

In his book Zag, Marty Neumeier defines brand as "a person's gut feeling about a product, service or company." Instagram gives sustainable brands the opportunity to connect with their customers at a personal level — authentically communicating their core values without the clutter of words. The most successful Instagram business accounts are those that touch upon our deepest aspirations and tell us a story about ourselves.

We look forward to connecting with your brands on Instagram in 2014.

Lead photo from in_gredients Instagram account via @in_gredients