The State of Green Business 2010: Alive and Kicking

GreenBiz logo2 Joel Makower, GreenBiz, discusses the trends going into 2010. He notes that green business and green professionals maintained their significance despite the economic downturn and in fact, an awareness of efficiency and other green initiatives might have aided some companies making it through to the other side of the recession. He goes on to explain other trends including the increasing need and desire for transparency of green products and initiatives.

Posted Feb. 3, 2010
By Joel Makower, GreenBiz

"We're still here."

That may seem as fitting an epitaph as any for 2009, at least for most green business professionals.

It was a year that began with doom and gloom and ended on only a
slightly more upbeat note. In between, the banks and the auto industry
nearly collapsed, restaurants and retailers were shuttered, and those
who managed to survive their employer's downsizing often received what
is euphemistically called a "haircut" — a reduction in pay, a loss of
benefits, involuntary time off, or all of the above.

Amid all this was something notable — something that made this
economic downturn distinct from all the others we've seen over the past
quarter century: Green professionals weren't among the first to be
thrown overboard. True, their budgets were slashed, their headcounts
frozen, all while their mandates sometimes increased. But they managed
to survive, even thrive, during tough times. That's a sea change. And
as the clock struck a new decade, many stood up, dusted themselves off,
and exclaimed, sometimes with more than a little surprise: "We're still
here."

Their survival is testament to how the greening of business has
transformed in the past few years. What began as a seemingly altruistic
endeavor, then shifted to a way to cut costs and improve reputation,
has become a fundamental business competency, alongside accounting,
finance, human resources, marketing, customer service, procurement,
knowledge management and others. Indeed, in some firms, green thinking
is becoming embedded in each of these other disciplines, increasingly
woven into the corporate fabric. That has made green strategy and
practices ever more valued, seen by top brass as a way to cut costs,
improve operations, foster innovation, engage employees and satisfy
customers — all critical during tough economic times.

The result was that for some companies, environmental improvements and
innovations became a means of surviving lean times, and being more
competitive once things rebound.

So much for the high-level view. How did all this play out during 2009?
To make sense of the year just passed, we combed nearly 2,400 news
stories, blog posts, opinion pieces, resource reviews and podcasts
published during 2009 on our five websites — GreenBiz.com, ClimateBiz.com, GreenerBuildings.com, GreenerComputing.com and GreenerDesign.com
— in search of trends and themes. We will be presenting our top ten
trends in green business for 2009 over the course of the next two
weeks, in no particular order.

Radical Transparency Goes Mainstream

Green consumerism finally seems to be catching up to the Information
Age. In recent months, a confluence of trends has brought more
information about more products and companies to more people than ever
before. Everyone from Washington to Walmart is demanding companies
provide more information about the environmental (and health and
social) impacts of what they do, and much of the information that
results is being made public.
"Radical transparency"
— referring to the virtuous circle that develops when detailed
information about companies, products and ingredients is instantly
available, enabling consumers to make smarter choices, thereby moving
markets toward less-harmful products — comes in many forms. Some of it
is born of social networking, a new generation of blogs, widgets,
websites and apps made available to the tweet-and-text generation. This
includes websites like
GoodGuide.com and HealthyStuff.org,
along with their respective mobile applications that enable shoppers to
get the sustainability backstory on products and companies while in the
aisles.

But that's just the beginning. Detailed information about companies and products are coming from nonprofits, like the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility and Climate Counts, both of which rate companies on their commitments and performance on climate change. It's coming from the mainstream media — Newsweek,
for example — which is finding an avid readership for company ratings.
It's also coming from the companies themselves — sometimes
voluntarily, sometimes not. Over the past year, Apple, Clorox and SC Johnson all agreed to fully disclose product ingredients. Pressure to do this came from activists, Congress, even lawsuits.

And then there is Walmart. The retail giant placed a superstore-sized stake in the ground when it launched a Sustainability Index
in 2009. The multi-phased project began with a questionnaire sent to
thousands of its suppliers asking 15 questions in four categories:
energy and climate, material efficiency, natural resources and "people
and community." Though the questions were relatively simple and did not
delve very deeply into suppliers' practices, its mere introduction sent
both cheers and jeers through Walmart's stakeholder community, as
nearly everyone tried to understand the initiative's impacts and implications.

The Sustainability Index is just the beginning. Walmart also announced
an even more ambitious effort to create lifecycle-based standards for
thousands of its products. To do that, it seed-funded a Sustainability Consortium,
a group of academics and other experts charged with creating the
metrics and, eventually, the standards by which products will be
evaluated. The group has a monstrous task to do and it is unclear when
its work will ever be seen on retail shelves. Even Walmart admitted
that it was taking a long view of the project and that it found itself
in uncharted territory: "Not only do we not have it all figured out, we
don't want to have it all figured out right now, that's why we're
working with all of you," as one Walmart executive explained to
participants in a GreenBiz.com webcast.

There's more to come in the transparency arena, thanks to a new
generation of environmental standard-setting and verification
organizations that have launched new initiatives. They include
established, name-brand players: Green Seal, which launched a company
certification effort that aims to measure, verify and push for
continuous improvement of a company's entire operations; the Good
Housekeeping Institute, which launched a green version of its venerable Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval;
and Underwriters Laboratories, the 115-year-old testing and
certification icon whose "UL" logo is synonymous with product safety,
which launched an environmental spin-off
to provide independent green claims validation, product certification,
standards development and other services. The U.S. Federal Trade
Commission, which has been holding hearings on green marketing claims for more than two years, may eventually weigh in — or not.

Where all this is going remains to be seen — the websites, the
activists, the voluntary disclosures, the Sustainability Index, the new
ratings groups, the feds and all the rest. One thing remains clear: The
amount of information about products and companies is about to grow
exponentially. Whether all these data lead to increased awareness or
increased confusion on the part of consumers is an open question.

Joel Makower

For 20 years, Joel Makower (www.makower.com)
has been a well-respected voice on business, the environment, and the
bottom line. He is executive editor of the acclaimed website
GreenBiz.com and its sister sites, conferences, and research, all
produced by Greener World Media, of which he is co-founder and
chairman; he also serves as a senior strategies for GreenOrder, a
sustainability management consultancy. Joel is author of more than a
dozen book; his newest, Strategies for the Green Economy, has just been
published by McGraw-Hill. He also writes “Two Steps Forward” (www.readjoel.com),
a popular blog on green business, clean technology, and green
marketing. The Associated Press has called him “The guru of green
business practices.”

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