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Can green firms grow in today's downturn?

A monthly discussion with notable experts.

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Do sustainable firms have an easier path in a downturn – or a rougher one?

Makower: If you're selling a premium-priced product to a consumer right now, you may be in for a rough ride. Consumers are pulling back. We're keeping our wallets in our pockets and we're not spending on discretionary or luxury kinds of things. But that's a very small part of what's going on in the world of green business. If you can think of an iceberg, the tip that's above water is what we see in marketing [products]. But below that is this mass of company practices that they don't even talk about. It has to do with squeezing out waste and inefficiency, the toxicity of products and services, the carbon intensity, and the material intensity. That makes for more affordable business practices that actually can thrive during tough times.

Being green in some ways is being more efficient.

Makower: Yeah, greener businesses at the end of the day – done right and not done for PR reasons – are better businesses. [But] one of the interesting things that's happened in the last few years is that we've gone from this era of doing the right thing – doing well by doing good, which was basically about companies improving their bottom line by new efficiencies ... to a new era, which is simply: How do you grow the top line? How does being green provide a foundation for innovation, new products and services, whole new business models in some cases? And that's where this gets exciting and [becomes] a real business opportunity in any economy.

Can we tell what green means?

Makower: It's actually a big challenge.... We know what it means to be a green building. There's the LEED green-building standard. We don't have the equivalent for companies. So we're a little bit in the Wild West where anybody can say they're a green business.

Let's talk about the tip of the iceberg for a moment – green products. Will sales be tougher in the next few years?

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