An Inconvenient Truth will probably go down as the event that signaled the beginning of the “green” boom in the way that the Netscape IPO is seen as the beginning of the dot-com era. In the months that followed An Inconvenient Truth, magazines rushed out their “Green Editions,” clean tech stocks and green funds surged, and Fortune 500 companies desperately looked for ways to enhance and publicize their green credentials. Just as the dot-com craze gave way to business fundamentals when the bubble burst in 2000, green movement irrationality has ended with the economic downturn of the past 18 months. It has separated the wheat from the chaff, putting an end to unsustainable business models like ethanol, solar (in most of the world), and the plethora of other products which lack a clear business case.
This does not mean that the importance of “green” will disappear. Just as the burst of the bubble in 2000 did not mean companies abandoned their Web sites, “sustainable” business practices will continue to be a metric that interests consumers and increasingly one that will be regulated by governments and therefore one that businesses must be interested in.
More importantly, the clean tech bubble, like the dot com bubble, has created innovative new technologies that provide significant opportunities for savvy businesses to reduce costs and increase profit. Toyota has shown that with the right product and the right marketing, consumers are willing to pay a substantive premium for a green product. However, the more significant clean tech business opportunities have come in the form of cost savings. These are innovations that improve efficiency and decrease waste, creating a clear, measurable ROI, as well as having a meaningful environmental impact.
A good example, one close to my heart, is the reduction of waste associated with printing. For Fortune 500 companies, 14-25% of everything that comes out of the printer is unwanted or unneeded and often goes directly into the recycling bin. This includes not only those ubiquitous pages at the end of Web printouts with just a one-line URL, banner ad, or multiple pages of legal jargon, but also printing for the sole purpose of archiving–and the 55-page PowerPoint that was printed out for a couple of slides because the user didn’t realize the size.
Printer ink is now one of the most expensive liquids on the planet at about $10,000 a gallon (roughly 15 times as much as Dom Perignon Champagne per ounce). Technology, like GreenPrint, that eliminates unneeded pages create savings of millions of dollars in printing costs annually for large organizations, as well as saving thousands of trees and millions of pounds of greenhouses gasses. This not only produces impressive metrics for corporate sustainability reports, but also has a significant impact on the company’s financial statements (Gartner’s Research estimates cost savings which range from 1-3% of revenue!)
Printing is just one area where new “green” technologies have provided significant opportunities to reduce costs and increase profits. There are numerous new tools which improve energy efficiency in the office environment. Smart monitoring and optimization of lighting, desktop computers, and HVAC systems can save millions of dollars in energy costs and often companies can implement the products with no upfront cost, creating a positive ROI on day one. Technology that allows companies to store energy when it’s cheap (at night) and use those stockpiles during peak hours, not only saves money but aids in preventing brownouts and reduce the need for new power generation. New solutions that have a significant impact on heating and cooling costs also come in a wide variety of new technologies from innovative bio-insulations to geothermal products.
There is a lot of low-hanging fruit that can be harvested with the help of these new tools. The important thing is to recognize that the real “sustainable” solutions are those that improve the bottom line, not those that impose a false tradeoff between doing good and doing well.