Green Innovation Becomes a Great Idea: The State of Green Business 2010

Editor's Note: To celebrate the launch of the third annual State of Green Business report, we will be highlighting over the next two weeks the 10 big trends that are shaping the future of the greening of mainstream business. You can download the report for free here, and read all 10 trends on GreenBiz.com.

The emerging green economy is about much more than green products and services. Behind them are countless materials, processes and technologies. And as the parade of progress marches inexorably forward, a growing number of innovations have a distinctly green tinge, significantly reducing material, chemical, water and energy inputs. Some of the innovations enable closed-loop or cradle-to-cradle products or processes, with little or no problematic waste or emissions.

This isn't exactly new. Such innovations have been coming forth for years, yielding process changes and improvements behind the scenes, things customers can't see and, as a result, that typically aren't marketed as "green." Aluminum beverage cans, for example, contain a roughly third less aluminum than they did a decade ago -- a decidedly environmental improvement, given the environmental costs of mining bauxite and manufacturing aluminum -- though the products contained in them don't boast about it. Many other innovations are even subtler: water-based glues and solvents that replace more toxic petroleum-based ones; plating systems that use a fraction of the chemicals and energy; biobased packaging materials that reduce volume and increase recycling; and thousands more.

Historically, most companies were left to invent their own "wheels," creating or finding such eco-innovations by themselves. But 2009 saw a new spirit of collaboration take hold. The Eco-Patent Commons -- launched in 2008 by IBM, Nokia, Pitney-Bowes, Sony, the World Business Council on Sustainable Development and others to contribute environmental patents to the public domain -- hit its stride last year. Among other things, the group added its 100th "IP-free" technology, meaning the innovations (a.k.a. "intellectual property" or IP) were openly available to all participants.
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Meanwhile, another technology-sharing group called GreenXchange launched with the goal of allowing companies to share intellectual property for green product design, packaging, manufacturing and other uses. Founded by Nike, Best Buy and other companies, the group is partnering with Creative Commons, a nonprofit that has designed licenses that allow creators of intellectual property to share their work. Its licenses are used by everyone from Wikipedia to the White House.

And the Environmental Defense Fund launched an Innovation Exchange to encourage companies to share best practices related to energy, water, climate and a host of other issues. Like the others, it hopes to propagate technologies and best practices.

All of these utilize different models, but their goals are the same: to stimulate and accelerate green innovation, as companies dip into the pool of existing IP to leverage other companies' creativity and successes. And it offers up a new model of sharing, one that recognizes that what works in one sector can be applied, perhaps in an entirely different way, in another.

Tomorrow: Greener Fleets Hit the Streets