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Businesses warm to going green

Eve Troeh Dec 2, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: Twenty thousand people have been meeting in Durban, South Africa, this week. It’s the latest United Nations go-round on climate change. Scientists and policymakers working out the minute details. This weekend, the business people show up. CEOs, bankers and sustainability executives have their own meeting separate from the U.N.

But the sustainability business isn’t just this weekend. Almost any day of the year, you can find global business leaders talking climate.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Eve Troeh reports.

Eve Troeh: Opportunity Green is an annual business conference in Los Angeles. Reps from big companies, small startups, and environmental nonprofits discuss things like energy efficiency and supply chains. Then they mingle around a solar-powered DJ station, with organic gourmet snacks and earth-friendly beer cups.

Conference volunteer: That’s all compostable.

The rockstars at this “green” party are the V.P.s of sustainability for brands like Starbucks and Nike. Nonprofits want to convince them to save more water or curb pollution. Green entrepreneurs want to sell them on new ideas. And the big guys want to win new clients, too.

Workers for American Apparel sew organic cotton T-shirts, on-site. Marketing manager Anais Vandenbosch says the company’s here to sell its sustainable production model.

Anais Vandenbosch: Proposing to a young designer or a small company to produce their garment in our factory.

The industrial paper company Domtar is here to talk about its Earth Choice line. Brand manger Louis Fix says his clients want clear-cut tools to reduce paper use, energy bills or carbon emissions, and firm data to count that savings. He says everyday shoppers may be confused about what’s truly green or not, but global corporations can’t afford to be.

Louis Fix: The business side of things is at a more advanced stage than the consumers are.

It’s become good business to buy paper that doesn’t come from endangered forests or hybrid cars for your corporate fleet. Companies want to get out ahead of environmental issues, so they’re not blindsided by some lurking PR disaster — and maybe even cut some costs in the process.

Manish Bapna heads the World Resources Institute. He works with business leaders, more of them everyday.

Manish Bapna: Increasingly we’re seeing many businesses look at sustainability in terms of profit, in terms of opportunities for new markets or innovation.

This is a profound business shift. Think of it as going from short-term defense to long-term offense. And the companies that’ve learned to play green are already making more money than the other guys.

Karen Solomon founded the Opportunity Green conference five years ago. She calls corporations the driver for change.

Karen Solomon: We’re not seeing policy in Washington shift, but when large Fortune 500s or Fortune 50s make shifts, it trickles in ways that are unimaginable.

They start those shifts at events like hers, or Fortune Brainstorm GREEN or Business for Social Responsibility. For veteran environmentalists, this can be hard to get your head around: The idea that business is going to save the planet — voluntarily.

Manish Bapna at the World Resources Institute says for the most part, companies are picking the low-hanging fruit — getting more efficient, trimming waste. It’s sincere, but nowhere near enough.

Bapna: We need to see reductions of greenhouse gas emissions on the scale of 80 to 90 percent in the next few decades. We’re absolutely do need to see government policy create the long-term certainty that businesses need.

Bapna says there’s been another huge shift. Some big corporations have started to lobby for climate change regulation. Because now that they’ve started down the road of sustainability on their own, they need better maps to see where they’re going.

I’m Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

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