Taking the Pulse: State of Green Business Forum 2010

At the State of Green Business Forum today in San Francisco today, executive editor Joel Makower ran through some of the highlights (and lowlights) of the data beind the green business movement.

Speaking to a sold-out crowd at the PG&E Auditorium, Makower laid out what we found in the course of developing the report, as well as generally taking the pulse of the green economy.

Makower kicked off the Forum with a rundown of some signs of the times: A leading IT manufacturer using its state of the art green data center in Disney's Epcot Center, an apparel company cutting its overall CO2 footprint to 2007 levels, and many other signs of progress from mainstream green businesses.

And each of these announcements happened since January 1, 2010 -- and Makower said he could do the same exercise, with the same level of accomplishment for every month in 2009, in 2008, and earlier. That's a sure sign that the greening of mainstream business is going strong, Makower said.

In addition to listing some of the notable findings from the State of Green Business report -- many of which we also covered in our press conference yesterday, Makower talked about some findings from a survey of green professionals that also offers encouraging signs of green shoots in the green economy.

The vast majority of respondents -- from our GreenBiz Intelligence Panel, representing businesses large and small -- said they are going to keep steady or expand their investments in green product development in 2010 over 2009 numbers. Similarly, 80 percent said their firms are going to spend the same amount or more on EH&S in the new year.

The only downsides are that headcounts in sustainability departments are stagnant or shrinking, although 23 percent of respondents' companies are hiring. And fully 64 percent of Americans can't name a green business, though the remaining 36 percent consistently name Walmart, Clorox, Toyota, Whole Foods, SC Johnson, GE and a small handful of other firms as "green businesses."

Autodesk: Providing the Tools for Greener Decisions

Sustainability has become an important theme for software maker Autodesk, a theme that started off when customers started asking about green issues a few years ago.

Carl Bass, CEO and president of Autodesk, gave a quick history of what has led the 30-year-old company to integrate more sustainability-related tools and information into its products during a conversation with GreenBiz.com senior contributor Marc Gunther at the start of the State of Green Business Forum.

Autodesk makes software used by designers, engineers, digital artists and others to make films, computer games, buildings, consumer products and more.

"The building industry got most interested in it first," Bass said, and companies that make and sell consumer products are mostly getting on board with understanding sustainability issues because of consumer demand or competitive reasons.

But there are still some companies that when Autodesk talks to them about things like toxicity and materials' impacts, "there are still some blank stares," Bass said.

Spurred by customer interest, Autodesk provides a host of information and options in its software to help users understand the impacts of their designs and choices. Sometimes Autodesk will try to nudge customers in the greener direction, and sometimes they push, Bass said.

In the end, the main point is to give users the tools they need to make the most informed decisions they can, and Autodesk is now putting an emphasis on helping customers see the initial costs of products and designs versus lifetime costs. "If you look at lifetime costs, you will make very different decisions," Bass said.

Another big focus is digital prototyping, a less-impactful and quicker alternative to physically making models and prototypes. And with the cost of computing going down so quickly, Bass said he would like to see a shift from designers making digital prototypes and testing them to instead starting off with a goal in mind and using programs that test design after design until it reaches that goal.

In order to expand the accessibility of its software and assist those working in the sustainability realm, Autodesk started its Clean Tech Partner Program, a grant program that provides access to Autodesk software to more than 100 U.S. companies, with plans to expand globally.

Throughout all of that work, Bass said that what has been interesting is how sustainability, more so than any other issue, has captivated and brought the workforce together. "People are willing to spend huge amounts of energy working on it," he said.