Swept Away By Green
Senior Features Editor
Green is, well, everywhere.
What started as a fringe movement of environmental activists and hippie entrepreneurs three decades ago is now largely mainstream for companies, investors and consumers.
We are now living in a world of hybrid autos, corporate sustainability studies, green resorts, hydrocarbon futures and a former U.S. Vice President with an Oscar award and Nobel Peace prize, thanks to his documentary film about global warming.
And it won't stop there. Soon our world will be a place where airline tickets are paperless, clothes have carbon footprint labels, and the tallest skyscraper on the face of the earth is a zero-emissions structure.
And Corporate America is right in the thick of it.
Slideshow: Famous Faces of Green
“Corporations think a lot about their corporate citizenship and green is a part of that," says Booz Allen Hamilton SVP William Jackson. “One, they believe in it and, two, they believe their reputation is on the line with their customers." (See Jackson interview.)
So keep Don Quixote away from those windmills, lest he cause a blackout back in town.
Shades Of Green
When it comes to the green movement these days, it’s a big world out there. The bulk of the activity surrounds energy -- alternative sources and conservation measures –- but green's reach is far and wide, from water purification to sustainable hotels and resorts to earth-friendly materials.
Green is a rapidly growing element of the business model -- as both a profit center and cost reduction tool. As more companies become green users (in saving energy and money), others become producers (in developing profitable products and services).
Here's a look at the ever widening green spectrum in business, investing and consumerism.
Applied Materials entered the solar business in 2006 after a calculated assessment of energy market potential and the company’s capabilities. It has spent more than a billion dollars building its business.
“What we’re really doing is bringing technology to bear on real problems that face the world for the next 50 years,” says CEO Michael Splinter. “The environment and energy are two fundamental problems we face. We have to do some serious thinking, some interesting technology to bring the world forward.” (Read the full interview with Splinter.)
Applied Materials is wedded to reducing the cost of solar panels and making the energy more powerful, cost effective, and competitive.
Many other companies, of course, are sold on solar. BP, for instance, has a major initiative underway.
Other companies are focusing on energy consumption and conservation, whether it is on a manufacturing, distribution or consumer basis.
Take buildings, for instance. They are now designed and constructed for optimum conditions, factoring in sunlight and wind, thus reducing the amount of energy it takes to operate as well as the amount of carbon they emit. The materials used are often from recycled sources and designed to be energy efficient. There’s now a universal, calibrated green standard known as LEED.
"People often go to transportation as the first thing because cars and planes are the most visible symptom of the problem but 70 percent of the energy we use in the US is consumed in buildings,” says Autodesk CEO Carl Bass. “And a lot of it is discretionary, like turning on or turning off a light.” (Learn more about Autodesk, Carl Bass and green building.)
Both small and world-class architectural and engineering firms use Autodesk’s software to integrate energy consumption and conservation into their design and construction plans.
Companies as diverse as JC Penney, Staples, and Sonyare constructing green buildings or campuses, while prominent skyscraper projects such as Pearl River in China and the Freedom Tower on the World Trade Center site in New York City incorporate sustainable construction to varying degrees.
In 2005, the green construction business was a $2 billion a year business. By the end of 2009, it is expected to top $60 billion.
Other companies are going green by using recycled materials, recycling their own production waste and/or conserving energy and materials in the production process.
Retailers such asMatteland Hormel Foods, for example, are reducing packaging and using recyclable materials. Intel , Texas Instrumentsand other chipmakers are recycling silicon. Dell plans to become carbon neutral.
Yet, despite a dizzying list of initiatives, skepticism remains.
"The corporate side is doing it because it has become the big and fashionable thing to do," says Bjorn Lomborg, the Danish political scientist, author and part-time devil’s advocate of the green movement. (See Q&A with Lomborg)
“Corporations are partially right in doing so because it is what people want," adds Lomborg. "It sounds great and it doesn’t cost much. But you have to ask:' What is the benefit of some of this?'”
Lomborg, who supports a carbon tax and sizable research in the area of climate change, is among those who say that the time and resources of green initiatives -– government or corporate – should be subject to more cost-benefit-analysis thinking, such as how much carbon they reduce and at what price.
Green may be serious business but it can also be fun and relaxing.
Take the movie-making business, for example. By some measures, it is a very environmentally unfriendly business -- explosions, lots of lighting, diesel generators for on-location work.
Hollywood is at least putting its best foot forward. The Emmy Awards last year featured a recycled red carpet and the show was subbed the first "carbon neutral" Emmys. Tickets were made of banana leaf-paper.
Producers of movies have been offsetting all or some of their pollution, through carbon credits and other gestures for several years now.
This year, the comedy Evan Almighty -- a co-production of Spyglass Entertainment and Universal Pictures (a unit of NBC Universal, the parent company of CNBC.com) -- funded the planting of 2,000 trees to zero out its greenhouse gas production.
Hollywood stars have gotten into the act. Leonardo DiCaprio, Edward Norton and Cameron Diaz (see slideshow) -- among others -- have embraced the environment and climate change. DiCaprio and Norton support solar power and are pushing for its commercialization.
Slideshow: Famous Faces of Green