I’ve recently been obsessed with finding the smartest, most fascinating, inspiring, humorous, or otherwise enjoyable ads that can tell a great story in a minute flat. (I know … it’s strange.) And I’ve come across some gems. My conclusion? Europeans and Kiwis are giving us a run for our money when it comes to creative ad campaigns. Still, last fall, I did catch a great Nissan LEAF commercial, which follows a polar bear as he travels from the melting ice caps all the way across the United States until he embraces an owner of the electric car as a thank-you for helping to save his North Pole home. It’s heartwarming, and a little sad, but the segment’s significance lies in the fact that the LEAF is the first of several electric cars being mass-manufactured for this country.

In the months following the commercial’s debut, I also began to hear of apartment owners and operators announcing the rollout of permanent, dedicated electric-­vehicle charging stations and premium parking spots at mid-rise and high-rise properties across the country, including an Alliance Residential apartment community in Austin, ­Texas, and a luxury tower in Los Angeles. And with gas prices barreling to $5 per gallon, this might be a smart hedge against a more eco-friendly future.

Electric-vehicle stations are just another step in the move toward greener, more sustainable, and energy-efficient multifamily properties. Unfortunately, it’s taken a long while—and several breaks in the momentum—to arrive at this place. During the downturn, development came grinding to a halt. And the interest in investing in green initiatives, products, and services? Practically nonexistent. Even when new multifamily starts began to slowly creep back up, the willingness of apartment owners to hand over hard-earned revenue to the energy-efficiency beast did not return in kind.

Now that green has finally re-emerged as a vital factor in forward-looking development activity, the tone of the agenda is vastly changed. No longer is the goal to achieve certification or lure socially conscious Gen Y rental prospects with glorious green features and comprehensive recycling programs. Sure, those things are important and have value. But more and more, I’m seeing apartment companies that are committed to green turn their focus to internal ROI—the returns and costs, rather than the rents. Indeed, the goal these days seems to be to manage, monitor, and track costs, and do so in a measurable way. Yes, a potential resident might be enamored with the dual-flush toilets and Energy Star–rated appliances in your units, but the bigger selling tool may just be the fact that those upgrades have cut water costs property-wide by a whopping 64 percent.

This revelation has led to the development and emergence of a spate of innovative benchmarking and energy-tracking tools. Consider ­Boston-based WinnCompanies (see “A Winning Formula,” by senior editor Les Shaver, on page 30), which is using utility usage monitoring, along with return tracking, to measure the ROI on every sustainability investment it makes. And as a result, the firm is able to deliver sustainable features—even solar power—with reasonable costs and returns. Meanwhile, energy benchmarking is becoming ubiquitous in the rest of the industry, as well, as apartment owners of all sizes—and from all regions—battle it out to achieve cost savings and drive rents to higher levels. (For more on the adoption of energy benchmarking across the apartment sector, see “Energy Trackers,” by senior editor Chris Wood, on page 36.)

The bottom line is that green can still be a great apartment marketing tool. But more than ever, it’s also got to be a practical one that has a clear impact on the bottom line. And that’s a message that sells—even without polar bears.