Green enterprises


The term "green enterprise" refers to services, products, and jobs from a number of sectors that focus on sustainability, fewer emissions of greenhouse gases, and slowing climate change. Other similar and commonly used terms are "green economy," "green business," and "sustainable business."

Green enterprise and sustainable business trace their roots to a 1987 paper from the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), titled "Our Common Future." This paper is also referred to as the Brundtland Report, after Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, who was then chair of the WCED. The report's definition of sustainability is as follows: "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

Green enterprise includes a number of business sectors, including renewable energy, construction, transportation, industry, biotechnology, agriculture, forestry, recycling, and waste management. The term "green enterprise" also covers the "greening" or adoption of environmentally sensitive practices by any industry or service provider. Green businesses often center on products that are reusable, have multiple uses, or are made from recycled materials.

Green enterprise and sustainability also emphasize the concept that actions of business involve and affect everyone and everything on the planet, and thus have responsibilities to the planet, people, and communities.

Triple bottom line: Green businesses work toward a triple bottom line, i.e., to make a profit without harming the environment (locally or globally), community, or society.

Examples of how a green business protects the environment include reducing manufacturing waste, using fewer or no harmful chemicals, disposing of hazardous substances safely, using renewable energy, using less paper and packaging, reusing materials, and using recycled materials.

Green enterprises support their communities by requiring employees to volunteer locally, by donating money to local charities, and by sponsoring community events and initiatives.

Green businesses often have current, forward-thinking policies for upholding human rights.

Green-collar jobs: This is a nickname given to jobs that are part of green or sustainable enterprises. Credit for the term is given to Alan Durning, who used the term in 1999 in reference to the logging industry in the Pacific Northwest. The term has been expanded to include a wide range of jobs, from bike repair and park maintenance to solar panel manufacturing and recycling.

Green products: In response to segments of society that have been actively concerned about reducing pollution, conserving diminishing natural resources, reducing waste, and other issues related to overconsumption, many industries have developed environmentally responsible ("green") product lines. Green products are typically made from recycled or renewable materials, manufactured via streamlined production with renewable energy, packaged with recycled materials, and transported minimally. Cleaning products, consumer paper products, and printing ink were early examples of green products, and the trend has expanded to include many other products.

Consumers who buy green products are essentially voicing their recognition of the threats of overconsumption and are making efforts to minimize their impact on the environment.

Overconsumption; Some believe that consumerism may lead to overconsumption, because it involves a higher volume of purchasing without consideration of need or environmental impact. In other words, consumers are marketed to and conditioned to buy products they may not actually need or use without thinking about the impact of their actions. When markets shift toward decisions based on information about need and impact, overconsumption may be reduced.

Products once considered luxuries (e.g., televisions, computers, and recreational vehicles) often come to be viewed as necessities in a consumer economy. This stimulates their production, purchase, and consumption, and ultimately means more waste ends up stressing the environment when these goods are replaced with the next "latest and greatest" items.

Many consumer products are packaged with multiple layers and materials, which may contribute to environmental pollution. According to a 1990 report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), packaging makes up more municipal solid waste than any other type of waste. The cost of a product includes the cost of packaging, which is on average 9% of the total product cost. By weight or volume, the amount of packaging is typically nearly one-third that of the actual product.

Organic food: The growth of the organic food industry, which uses very limited conventional and harmful insecticides, pesticides, and herbicides, may have in part inspired the movement to greener food production. Some people who buy organic food tend to do so in part because they believe in supporting sustainable practices, such as organic farming, that don't put harmful chemicals into the ground and water and tend to be better for the soil in the long term. This concern may be shared by those who start green enterprises. According to the Organic Trade Association, sales of organic foods and other organic products jumped by nearly 20% in 2008. Most of the growth occurred in organic nonfood product sales, which grew by nearly 40%. Organic food sales expanded by almost 16%. Of all foods sold in the United States, 3.5% are organic.

Lifestyle reporters have been giving a lot of attention to green enterprises. This not only shows that green is the current trend, it also helps increase awareness and understanding of green enterprises. For example, products such as reusable shopping bags and water bottles made from recycled materials are often featured in consumer magazines, websites, and lifestyle segments on television shows.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) launched the Green Economy Initiative (GEI) in October 2008. UNEP's goal is to use this initiative to push for economic shifts that will combat climate change, create jobs, and stabilize the world economy in the long term. UNEP plans to operate this initiative for at least two years. Its three parts include the Green Jobs Report (which examines employment trends), the Green Economy Report (which examines the role of public policy and the green economy), and the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, or TEEB (which examines valuation).


Principles of green business: The need to deal with the environmental impact of consumer economies on water quality, natural resources, animal habitats, and waste removal has led to new management approaches for green enterprises. Responsible management practices that give thought to the impact of business, production, and services on the community and society are gaining in popularity. Principles to consider for establishing green enterprises include the following: the whole life-cycle of a product (from raw materials to disposal); the costs and consequences of production; long-term health and social effects; compensation for damage (such as buying carbon offsets to make up for a company's emissions); alternative, innovative methods and products; consumer education; support of programs that reduce consumption and reuse materials; and design of public programs within the framework of sustainability.

Reducing environmental impact: One primary goal of green enterprises is to run a business with less impact on the earth. This is achieved with the following means: power, transportation, construction, packaging, waste, business partners and vendors, and consumer education.

Power: Green businesses buy or use power from renewable sources such as solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass for cooling, heating, and lighting facilities, as well as for operating equipment. By lowering carbon emissions, these steps reduce the businesses' carbon footprint on the planet.

Transportation: Green businesses encourage employees to recycle and use low-impact transportation, such as walking, bicycling, carpooling, or using public transportation, to get to work. They may offer incentives for employees to use hybrid cars. Green businesses also may provide company-issued trucks or cars that are hybrids or electric to reduce pollution associated with transporting goods.

Construction: Green businesses own or rent "green" buildings constructed with recycled materials, such as gypsum board made from recycled paper, recycled plaster, or ceramic tile that contains recycled ceramic. They may reuse salvaged doors or beams from other buildings. They also use energy-efficient construction, which could include installing a green roof (one covered or covered in part with vegetation to reduce heating and cooling costs), high-efficiency windows, and proper insulation.

Packaging: Green enterprises use recycled materials such as cardboard containing some or all recycled fiber, plastic filler containing some recycled plastic, and biodegradable "peanut" filler made with a starch base.

Waste: Green companies take steps such as composting food scraps from their cafeterias and kitchens to reduce waste, and setting up broad recycling programs for paper, cardboard, and plastic. They find environmentally friendly substitutes for harmful chemicals, cleaners, and solvents used in their operations and manufacturing processes.

Vendors and business partners: Green businesses often make an effort to choose vendors and other business partners that share their beliefs, goals, and practices as outlined above.

Consumer education: Green enterprises make an effort to educate the consumers of their products with information on packaging and websites, and other outreach efforts. People in consumer societies tend to be distant from the sources of their food and clothing, unaware of the processes of production, and not responsible for the conditions of the humans and animals involved in their production. Furthermore, consumers tend to be unaware of the overall energy and environmental costs incurred. Green businesses and makers of green products are working to change this by raising awareness and educating consumers with websites and other methods.

Green certification: Green businesses may seek certification from a number of different programs. Because green business is a relatively new segment, some groups have strict requirements for certification, while other certifications are easier to obtain. Examples include the Institute for Green Business Certification (similar to the Better Business Bureau, it requires a fee for certification once a business meets its requirements), Green America Business Seal of America (Green America Today), the Green Business Alliance (Greenify©), the American Consumer Council (Green C™ Certification), and EarthRight© Business Institute's Green Business Certification.

Energy Star©: The U.S. government gives buildings, plants, and homes that have met certain standards for energy efficiency a national mark called the Energy Star©. The Energy Star© program was launched in 1992 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy. The program also certifies appliances, computers, lighting, and other power-driven products used by homes and businesses to help consumers make smart, energy-efficient choices.

Green Power Partnership: U.S. businesses or nonprofit organizations that purchase large amounts of power can do so through a provider that partners with the EPA in the EPA's Green Power Partnership program. This program currently involves more than 1,000 corporations, universities, and other power buyers, which use renewable power such as solar, wind, geothermal, and other kinds. This group collectively buys more than 16 billion kWh (kilowatt hours) of green power every year. In 2009, the EPA recognized the following as their top five partners: Intel Corporation, PepsiCo, Kohl's Department Stores, Dell Inc., and Whole Foods Market.

International: Businesses around the world are encouraged by government agencies that work to protect the environment to lessen their impact on the environment. In Taiwan, for example, the Taiwan Environmental Protection Agency gives retail outlets Green Marketing Awards that consider in-store environment, management, green products available to consumers, and sales figures for these products.

Greening vs. green start-ups: When companies convert to green practices from traditional ones, the process is called "greening." Other green enterprises are conceived, developed, and operated as green from the outset. One example is Environmentally Neutral Design, or END, a new active-footwear company based in Portland, Oregon. END makes running shoes and other active footwear from recycled materials. They have also pared down the manufacturing process so there are fewer steps and materials, which minimizes waste and uses less energy.

Eco-industrial parks: This term is used when businesses involved in manufacturing or services pool resources and work together to reduce their negative impact on the environment. Businesses in such a park cooperate to cut down waste, use less energy and water, and cut down on transportation. They may do this by sharing trucks or delivery runs and sharing the expenses of upgrades to renewable energy.


General: Green enterprises grew out of the awareness that many business practices are unsustainable as well as harmful to humans, animals, and the environment. A heightened awareness of climate change and its impact on the planet also played a major role in the development of green business. To turn this situation around, businesses need to reduce waste, use energy from renewable sources, reduce emissions (which contribute to climate change), use recycled materials, and reuse materials whenever possible, as well as be mindful of how their practices may impact the environment, community, and society, both locally and globally.

Transportation: Transportation and shipping (involving ships, cranes, forklifts, trains, trucks, etc.) are sources of pollution, which may cause threats to air quality and drinking water. One estimate shows that 19% of children in Long Beach, California, have been diagnosed with asthma, a rate that is twice as high as most other areas across the country. This high rate of asthma is attributed to the fact that Long Beach is a port city, where consumer goods arrive in the United States. This means Long Beach often has massive air pollution, including fine particulate matter, ozone, and other diesel pollutants.

Savings: In 2008, the Energy Star© program, run jointly by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy, led to approximately $19 billion in savings in energy and other costs for businesses and consumers in the United States.

Participation: The EPA reports that it has approved 989 industrial and commercial products, such as floor cleaners, carpet cleaners, laundry detergents, inks, septic system cleaners, field marking products, and much more, under its Design for the Environment (DfE) program. DfE forms partnerships with businesses such as nail salons, furniture makers, and textile, automobile, and electronics manufacturers to reduce the impact of harmful chemicals, use cleaner technologies, and improve energy efficiency. The EPA reports that from January 2007 to June 2008, this program helped companies substitute safer alternatives or eliminated from use nearly 270 million pounds of potentially harmful chemicals. Consumers can look for the DfE seal (a globe encircled by "Design for the Environment" text) on cleaning products for the home, laundry, car, boat, and more.

Job growth: The number of U.S. jobs in renewable energy and energy-efficient industries climbed from 8.5 million in 2006 to 9.1 million in 2007, according to Greener World Media. The majority of these jobs is in the private sector, including jobs in ethanol and biomass power, recycling, reuse and remanufacturing, and construction, and in making and selling items that are used up and replaced relatively quickly, such as foods and personal hygiene products.

Green America, formerly Co-op America, is a nonprofit group formed in 1982. Its National Green Pages™ directory provides an online listing of approved green businesses. Its Green Business program includes companies that strive to make life better for the customers, employees, communities, and the environment. Green America's Green Business Network™, launched in 1992, began with 345 small-to-medium-sized member companies and now has almost 4,000 members. Members include a broad range of companies, including alternative energy services and contractors, financial services and investment companies, and construction-oriented businesses.

A study from San Francisco State University that focused on green-collar jobs proposed a list of more than 20 such positions in organic farming or other types of sustainable food production, furniture making with sustainable or recycled wood, creating and maintaining parks and other open spaces, and printing with recycled papers. This study suggested that green enterprises increased the number of available jobs, particularly for low-income workers or those without marketable skills. The author of the study interviewed 20 green businesses in Berkeley, California, and found that almost 90% hired workers with no direct experience and that almost 95% of these businesses provided training for new entry-level hires.

Discount retailer Wal-Mart started a green jobs council by teaming up with many of its goods and services suppliers. Given the vast number of Wal-Mart stores, this should mean that many more buildings are maintained and cleaned in an environmentally beneficial way and that more green products make their way into the mainstream.

A 2008 United Nations report states that the renewable energy sector currently provides jobs to 2.3 million around the globe. One 2008 study predicted the creation of more than four million green jobs in the United States by 2038. Growth in the renewable energy sector may lead to 20 million new jobs around the globe by 2030, according to the United Nations.

Packaging: Companies that manufacture and sell to consumers are shifting toward using less packaging and more environmentally friendly packaging. For example, Hewlett Packard now sells a laptop that comes in a recycled cloth bag instead of a cardboard box, which amounts to a 97% reduction in packaging. Major cola bottlers have also changed the design of their plastic bottles so they hold the same volume but are made with less material.

Construction: Green construction refers to building that considers the impact on the environment, community, and society by choosing appropriate sites, using materials that are partially or completely recycled or salvaged, using energy-efficient materials and design, and powering these buildings with renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, or geothermal power. There are three major programs for certifying green construction: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), Energy Star©, and Green Globes™.

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED): The LEED Green Building Rating System™ is a third-party program that certifies design, construction, and maintenance of green buildings. LEED covers five areas: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, and adequate ventilation. (Some requirements of a sustainable site are that it has long-term access to safe water, will not be threatened by a natural disaster like a landslide or flood, and will not disrupt water drainage and runoff.) LEED is run by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). In the spring of 2009, there were 1,504 LEED-certified homes and another 8,993 homes registered to go through the certification process.

Energy Star©: Energy Star© is a program run jointly by the EPA and the U.S. Department of Energy and it has multiple functions. One of these is to certify homes and buildings for energy efficiency. Energy Star© homes must be at least 15% more energy efficient than homes built according to 2004 regulations, and they are also required to include other elements that improve their efficiency by at least 20% in comparison to conventional housing. The number of buildings with Energy Star© ratings more than doubled from 1,400 in 2007 to 3,200 in 2008.

Green Globes™: This certification program offers tools for commercial builders to design and obtain approval for greener interiors. This certification is available in the United States and Canada. Green Globes™ currently has certified 55 buildings in the United States.

Biodegradables: The Biodegradable Product Institute approves four categories: packaging, resins (raw materials that are then made into bags, packaging, and more), food service (plates, bowls, and other products for serving food), and compostable bags (bags made of breathable materials, such as corn, that break down in soil and or other natural settings without leaving harmful residues or materials such as polyethylene behind; they are intended to help make composting easier by lining compost bins).

Some technological innovations, including using biodegradable materials for packaging, may lessen the negative effects of consumerism on the environment and human health. The Canadian company M2 Formulex, for example, now offers food packaging that breaks down in soil or landfills without leaving harmful residues behind and is compostable. Packagers have recently begun to offer packaging that is corn-based instead of relying on polyethylene terephthalate (PET). The switch is said to be driven by a rise in petroleum and natural gas prices, as these are important to production of PET goods. This biodegradable packaging may be particularly attractive to organic food producers, who take many steps to make food with sustainable, environmentally friendly practices and.

Other innovations have been made in the construction industry. One example is a biodegradable polymer made by a Washington company used to treat storm water runoff. (Storm water runoff is rain or snowmelt that runs along the ground but cannot be absorbed by the ground naturally, because it is blocked by pavement or concrete. This is problematic, because the runoff then picks up trash, chemicals, and other pollutants and sweeps them into water that then flows into drinking water, lakes, oceans, and other bodies of water.) The polymer is made from waste that is left over when fish and other types of seafood are processed. It works by removing suspended sediments, metals, and other contaminants from storm water.

Reusables: Plastic shopping bags, which consumers began using 20-25 years ago, are made with high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and contribute greatly to pollution. The EPA reports that the United States uses more than 380 billion plastic bags and wrappers each year. One report indicated that consumers use these bags at a rate of one million per minute and that a bag will last on earth for 1,000 years, because they are not biodegradable. These facts have opened up business opportunities for companies to sell reusable bags for shopping, toting lunch, and other uses. These bags are often made of recycled PET, organic cotton, and hemp.


General: The processes of manufacturing, packaging, shipping, and disposing of consumer products may pose various health threats to factory employees, farmers, and drivers, as well as consumers and communities, by polluting water, air, and other natural resources, harming animal and vegetation habitats, and wasting resources. These threats may be reduced if more businesses shift to greener practices, such as those that use fewer or no harmful chemicals, reduce waste, rely on renewable energy sources, use recycled and salvaged materials, and recycle materials.

Waste: When the manufacturing and delivery of services generates pollution (either at the production site or once the goods are consumed), the pollution harms human and animal health. Waste occurs throughout the manufacturing process (energy loss, pollutants discharged), in transport (exhaust, gasoline), in inventory (warehousing, heating, cooling), in packaging (boxes, plastics), and in selling (display, advertising). Once goods have been bought by consumers, that packaging is then discarded, and eventually the product itself is thrown out, creating more waste. Companies that employ greener practices in these areas may lessen the negative impact of all of these practices on the environment and on the health of humans, plants, and animals.

Plastics: Toxic chemicals such as phthalates and bisphenol-A (BPA) are commonly found in plastics. Both chemicals can harm hormone systems, particularly for pregnant women. Animal studies of BPA have shown that the chemical led to obesity, cancer, early puberty, hyperactivity, diabetes, and other health problems. Products with these chemicals may directly harm humans and animals, and these products may continue to leech the chemicals after they are thrown out. At this point, the chemicals can do further damage by seeping into the ground and water.

Agricultural chemicals: Unlike conventional farmers, organic farmers limit or refrain entirely from using insecticides, pesticides, and herbicides, by using methods like composting, crop rotation, hand weeding, and mulching. This means there is little or no chemical residue on fruits and vegetables, and in milk or other dairy products. There is debate about whether the chemical residue left on fruits, vegetables, and other conventionally produced foods is harmful to humans. There is also controversy about whether growth hormones, antibiotics, and other medications fed to livestock are harmful to humans. Organic farmers do not use these growth hormones and rely on diet, exercise, outdoor access, and clean living conditions to keep their animals healthy. Although there is debate over whether these organic and sustainable practices are healthier for humans, they put fewer chemicals into foods, soil, water, and air.


General: Most of the growth opportunities for green businesses are thought to be in the sectors of renewable energy, such as expansion of wind, solar, and geothermal energy, and the equipment to produce it; buildings and construction; transportation; basic industries; and agriculture and forestry.

Experts at a January 2009 United Nations climate change meeting in Bangkok noted that the Asia-Pacific region is a hot spot for natural disasters such as tsunamis, floods, and earthquakes, which have been linked to climate change. Speakers stated that this is a big incentive for putting green business practices into effect, and that this situation gives opportunity for new jobs here.

Packaging: Packaging presents another opportunity for green business. Some industry reports project that the market for biodegradable packaging may increase by about 20% each year. Researchers in biotechnology and microbiology continue to look for better ways to make packaging out of plant-based materials that are renewable and will break down without leaving hazardous chemicals behind when they are disposed.

Products and services: Environmental products and services are expected to see their market double to $2.74 trillion by 2020. Examples of green services include natural lawn care, solar panel installation, green construction, and bicycle repair. Examples of green products include organic beauty products, compostable bags, and recycled tile.

Renewable energy: As interest in and need for sustainable and renewable energy increases, experts expect this sector to continue to grow and expand rapidly. A 2008 United Nations report noted that by 2030, jobs in wind power could grow to 2.1 million, and jobs in solar power could grow to 6.3 million, on top of the 2.3 million who have recently found work from growth in these sectors. Researchers continue to explore and refine how biomass (such as rice husk, wheat straw, and animal waste) can be used to generate power. Researchers in the United States and Europe are working on improvements to wind power technology. New designs are lighter in weight and may include moveable parts that help turbines adapt to wind speed and wind shear. Tidal power, in which the pull of coastal tides turns water turbines to generate power, is another avenue for future growth. More than ten types of technology are used to produce solar power, and more may be on the way. Some experts predict that there will be growth once the best approaches are sorted out. One future approach may include space-based solar power, which would capture power on satellites instead of through panels mounted on earth.

Greening buildings: Growth in jobs to make buildings more energy efficient may add as many as 3.5 million jobs in the United States and Europe. The United Nations also expects great opportunities for job growth in developing countries. Green roofs are noted as a trend to watch, and architect William McDonough, who has designed green buildings for corporations such as Gap and Ford, is promoting a concept he calls "Cradle to Cradle," in which all materials we use can eventually go back to the soil without harmful effects.

Agriculture: Researchers in biotechnology continue to study how to use agricultural waste for fuel through hydrolysis and other practices. Other research is exploring how agricultural waste such as stalks of tobacco, cotton, wheat, and sunflower might be used as ingredients in livestock feed. Researchers are also exploring how animal waste (manure) may be used more efficiently as fertilizer and converted to energy.


This information has been edited and peer-reviewed by contributors to the Natural Standard Research Collaboration (

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