Every year Forbes releases the list that every company in the world wants to appear on. The list of the 100 most innovative companies. And in the most recent Forbes Innovation Index, we saw a few surprising brands in the top slots. But what is it that makes these companies so great? We investigated three well-known brands to tell you.

Unilever

Unilever is a multinational consumer-goods company that owns over 400 brands. And while a lot of its innovation is related to its use of breakthrough technologies to make the most progressive products, what really stands out is its commitment to sustainability.

In 2010, Unilever committed to help achieve zero net deforestation associated with its four commodities by 2020: palm oil, soy, paper and pulp, and beef. And it has already made substantial changes. About 98% of the palm oil for its European Foods business is now traceable and certified sustainable, while 87% of its wood fibre is sustainably sourced.

Unilever has also partnered with human rights organisations like the UN and Solidaridad in an aim to support sanitation and hygiene, gender equity, improved agricultural and labour practices, young agricultural entrepreneurs and improved land management. It truly is taking a stand for what’s good in the world – something other companies could learn from.

Amazon

Amazon started out as an online bookseller in 1998 and now offers customers more than 100 million items in over 30 product categories. Its innovations have made the online shopping experience as seamless as possible, with advances like the 1-click checkout, product recommendations, product reviews and the Amazon Wish List.

But Amazon hasn’t forgotten its roots either. Kindle has reinvented the online book industry. Now people don’t need to lug heavy books around with them or wait for their book to be delivered – they can buy a new book from anywhere, access it immediately and, with cloud storage, keep hundreds of books on their devices at all times.

Aspen

Aspen Pharmacare is a multinational South African pharmaceutical company with global reach. And it comes in at number 10 on the Forbes Innovation Index – a proud achievement for CEO Stephen Saad. From the little company that started in a converted house in Durban, Aspen Pharmacare has grown into the largest pharmaceutical company in the Southern Hemisphere and the ninth-largest generics company in the world.

Aspen’s driver to the Forbes list has been its people. With the company’s high value for autonomy and work-life balance, Saad says the favourable ranking “bears testimony to Aspen’s employees who always find a way or ‘make a plan’ where others fear to tread.”

It’s clear that there’s no one-size-fits-all recipe for success on the Forbes list, apart from passion, determination and an unyielding dedication to making a difference.