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GreenBiz Intelligence Panel

Green Business Forecast Shows Strong Growth Ahead

<p>Our most recent green economy survey shows signs of steady growth in corporate environmental initiatives, a level of optimism that outstrips that of the overall recovering economy.</p>

Our most recent green economy survey shows signs of steady growth in corporate environmental initiatives, a level of optimism that outstrips that of the overall recovering economy, according to the semi-annual “Green and the Economy” survey conducted by our GreenBiz Intelligence unit.

The two best pieces of news: Hiring continues to increase and company environmental budgets are growing.

Twice a year, we ask our 3,150-member GreenBiz Intelligence Panel for their views on key green economic indicators. Our most recent survey, conducted in late June and early July, garnered 483 responses, with 43 percent from companies with revenues of more than $1 billion (which we define as “large companies”). With four such surveys under our belts, we can now see clear trends in the green economy since the beginning of 2009.

Perhaps the biggest shift since our previous survey, in late 2009, is that the economic downturn is no longer driving most large companies’ environmental strategy. For companies with over $1 billion in annual revenue, the economic downturn has taken a backseat to growing customer requirements as the principal driver of corporate environmental strategy. For smaller firms, the economy still looms large.

Here’s what our most recent survey found:

The economy is no longer the green driver. A year ago, when we asked what was influencing companies most in terms of environmental issues, the answer was clear: It’s the economy, stupid. Forty-eight percent of all businesses and 40 percent of large businesses cited the economic downturn as having the single biggest impact on their environmental strategy. Today, for large businesses, this is no longer the case: Only 20 percent cite the economy as driving their green agenda, while 35 percent of large companies name customer requirements as having the largest impact and 25 percent identify company leadership as being the main driver. In fact, company leadership has steadily increased in influence: In early 2009, only half as many large companies -- 12 percent -- identified this as the major impact on their environmental strategy.

Smaller firms are still seeing the effects of the economic downturn. Of those with revenues under $1 billion, 47 percent still cite the economic downturn as having the greatest impact on their company in terms of environmental issues. For all companies, the impacts of carbon regulations as well as energy prices are viewed as negligible.

Spending continues its upward climb. At this point in 2009, only 63 percent of large companies said they would spend either the same or more than the previous year on environmental, health, and safety initiatives. This year, 84 percent of large companies say they are doing so. And 70 percent of companies with revenues under $1 billion report that their 2010 spending will either remain steady or increase over 2009.

Hiring freezes continue to thaw. Large companies, in particular, are increasing headcount for environmental and sustainability roles. In early 2009, 27 percent of large companies reported hiring freezes and only 8 percent planned to increase headcount for environmental departments. Today, only 11 percent report hiring freezes and over 28 percent plan to increase headcount, a major swing. This also represents a significant increase from just six months ago, when 23 percent of the large firms planned to increase headcount. The news isn’t quite as good for smaller firms: only 20 percent plan to hire for environmental and sustainability roles in the short term.

Energy efficiency remains job one. Reducing energy use through efficiency measures continues to be the primary environmental initiative for companies of all sizes. Thirty-four percent of large companies and 26 percent of smaller companies view energy reduction as their most important environmental initiative. It was a slightly different story six months ago, when 23 percent of those surveyed identified their highest priority initiative to be increasing investments in green product development while 22 percent cited energy efficiency. This shift doesn’t mark a decrease in green product investment, but rather a higher priority focus on cost savings.

Where large and smaller companies differ in terms of their key initiatives is their concern about “keeping green on the agenda.” While only 18 percent of large companies are concerned about continuing their green initiatives, 30 percent of smaller companies are trying to make sure green stays on the agenda. That likely reflects the fact that environmental initiatives have made deeper inroads in larger companies, so are no longer seen as optional or expendable. Most smaller firms haven’t yet reached this point.

Investments in innovation continue to grow. One area that has remained steady over the past year and a half is the high level of investments in green product development. Eighty-five percent of large companies report 2010 investments equal to or greater than last year’s, a number consistent for each of our previous surveys. This time, we also asked if companies have a formal strategy for product innovation. The result: 84 percent of large companies and 82 percent of smaller firms say they do. Those strategies are more prevalent among smaller firms. Sixty-nine percent of companies with revenues below $1 billion consider green as a key aspect of their innovation strategy, compared to 60 percent of large companies.

We’ll be taking a deep dive into the intersection of sustainability and innovation at our GreenBiz Innovation Forum, October 19-20 in San Francisco. For now, while the general economy may appear to stagger forward in fits and starts, our research shows a steady forward march in green innovation and investments.

John Davies is vice president of GreenBiz Intelligence, which provides independent and unbiased research regarding green strategies and business operation, and leads the GreenBiz Executive Network, a member-based, peer-to-peer learning forum for sustainability professionals.

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