A123 Systems

The dawn of the hybrid car—not to mention $4-per-gallon gasoline—shows the importance of fuel-saving batteries. At the head of the class is A123. This Watertown, Massachusetts, start-up has a $148 million venture capital war chest that fueled a nanotech breakthrough: a battery that charges faster, holds more power, and is safer than anything out now. A123 is already taking orders for lithium batteries that turn a Toyota Prius into a plug-in machine clocking 100 miles per gallon; and by 2010, they will power GM’s Chevy Volt.

Applied Materials

Even as big-money  entrants crowd the solar field, Applied stands out as a likely winner. Already a Fortune 500 company producing computer chip–making equipment, Applied has repurposed its nanomanufacturing technology to create the largest thin-film solar cells in the world. Thin-film, which involves layering sunlight-reactive material to mold around a variety of bases, has sky-high potential because of its low cost and flexibility. As Applied works on increasing solar-film efficiency, this technology will likely play a starring role in the clean energy picture.


Big Blue has said it will spend $1 billion in its “Big Green” initiative to make its products more energy efficient (primarily in carbon-chomping corporate data centers). But IBM is also one of the key players in a movement that includes Fortune 500 companies, nimble start-ups, and electric utilities exploring ways to make the entire energy grid smarter. This means putting computer processors into every node so that companies can more accurately meter and charge for energy usage—creating incentives for efficiency unimaginable in the past.


Arup brings to life the cutting-edge eco-dreams of architecture’s stars. This inter­­national design and construction consultancy has worked on more than 1,000 green projects in the last ten years, with a portfolio spanning from the new Califor­nia Academy of Sciences and its living roof, by Renzo Piano, to the eco-city planned for Dongtan, China. Arup also advises clients about marine ecology, human health impacts, and noise pollution, as it brings the latest ideas in sustainabil­ity to the built environment.

Bon Appétit Management Company

You don’t need a neighborhood vegan café to boost your low-carbon diet—if you’re lucky enough to eat at one of the 400 companies, universities, or arts institutions (eBay, MIT, and the Seattle Art Museum among them) where Bon Appétit runs the cafeteria. With services spread across 28 states, this eco-company buys food accord­ing to deep-green principles that include direct purchasing from farmers and artisans located within 150 miles of where each meal is served. Commitment like this makes Bon Appétit the first and largest food services group in the country to address issues surrounding origin and social responsibility.


A biofuel that doesn’t use food? Fill ’er up, please. This Illinois company says it can convert tires and glass as well as municipal and agricultural waste into fuel. With more than $10 million in­vested and a third round projected at $50 million more, Coskata plans to make one gallon of cellulosic ethanol for less than one dollar, using less than one gallon of water. The comp­any’s demon­stration plant is slated to open in 2009.

Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams

Eco-friendly from the start, this design duo made understated upholstery fashionable and has topped $100 million in sales. The company uses regenerated fibers and soy-based biomaterials in its seat cushions, nat­ural and recycled mate­rials made from plastic bottles in its pillows, and responsibly sourced wood in its furniture. Their eco-designs are available at big retailers like Crate & Barrel, Restoration Hardware, and Pottery Barn, as well as at their own stores, where they also sell photography by Tipper Gore.

Environmental Working Group

The FDA doesn’t require cosmetics companies to test their products for safety, so the $250 billion industry can use any number of toxic ingre­dients. In 2004, the Environ­mental Working Group devel­oped a database called Skin Deep, available to the public online, that matches ingredients in nearly 30,000 products with 50 definitive toxicity and regulatory databases. Skin Deep makes EWG the de facto nonprofit looking out for consumers’ health. Their Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has also been a great success, getting more than 600 companies to pledge to replace hazardous chemicals in their products.

Pizza Fusion

If we’re going to make fast food eco-friendly, let’s start with pizza. Pizza Fusion shows how easily it can be done, using organic, locally sourced in­gredients to make a high-quality pie that’s then packaged responsibly and de­livered in a fleet of hybrids. Customers get discounts for bringing pizza boxes back, the only utensils are “spudware” (made from potatoes), and the company’s energy use is offset with wind credit purchases. Are you listening, Pizza Hut? 

Forest Stewardship Council

In Dr Seuss’ world, the Lorax spoke for the trees. In ours, we have the increasingly influential Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), created out of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro to establish standards for sustainable forestry around the world. Beyond forest man­agement, the FSC reviews paper mills and building products with an evaluation that emphasizes eliminating water pollution, irresponsible logging, and chemical treatments—giving a green stamp of approval eco-consumers can rely on. Select furniture, musical instruments, and packaging companies are getting the FSC once-over, too.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) created the IPCC in 1988 to provide objective information about human-induced climate change. Nineteen years later, the IPCC’s volunteer scientific experts—the group considers its contributors to number in the thousands—were finally recognized for their efforts when they were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore for providing a scientific basis with which to frame the global warming crisis. The panel’s strong language, including chairman Rajendra Pachauri’s statement that “if there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late,” kick-started landmark legislation like America’s Climate Security Act of 2007 (though it was eventually killed) and has inspired initiatives worldwide to decrease carbon footprints. 

Home Depot

The world’s largest home improvement retailer started changing its ways with a 1999 wood-purchasing policy that has made the company one of the largest suppliers of certified wood on the planet. Less than 0.15 percent of its wood comes from the Brazilian Amazon basin, and the company pro­motes sustainable timber harvests in the region. In ad­dition, Home Depot demands fair-labor and environmentally friendly practices of its suppliers, and runs one of the world’s largest green-labeling programs: Its Eco Options brand certifies thousands of home products as eco-friendly. 


How can we meet our clean energy needs? The answer could be blowin’ in from Spain. Power company Iberdrola—the largest renewable-energy operator in the world, producing 2,739 million kilowatt-hours domestically—has announced plans to invest $8 billion in renewable energy (main­ly wind power) in the US in the next two years. Iberdrola also signed a deal to buy its turbines from General Electric, helping the Spanish giant reach its stated goal of generating 21,991 megawatts of wind power in the US by 2010.

Innovest Strategic Value Advisors

When investing in a company, why just look at the financials? Innovest believes a firm’s performance on environmental, social, and governance issues also gives clues as to how it will fare in the long run. Managed by seasoned senior executives from giants like Citibank and Royal Dutch/Shell Group, this financial services firm calculates the carbon as well as the cash flow. Innovest directs more than $1.3 billion in investments, but just think of the good that could come if its client base—with more than $7 trillion in assets—put all of its money under this green innovator’s direction.


Already a darling of the eco-set for their all-weather gear and for giving back to the planet, Patagonia took a major step forward in accountability this year with the launch of the Footprint Chronicles. This website discloses the eco-impacts—good and bad—of many of Patagonia’s products. (The Eco Rain Shell Jacket, for example, uses 100 percent recycled polyester components, but it also has a water-repellent finish made of perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, “a synthetic chemical that is now persis­tent in the environment.”) Hopefully, other manufacturers will follow in Patagonia’s trail.


The giant Oregon-based sneaker-maker, once skewered by Michael Moore and others, is now a member of the industry-funded Fair Labor Association and scores highest among apparel companies for reducing its carbon footprint, according to Climate Counts. Nike’s Considered program has launched some impressive products—including the Air Jordan XX3, made with eco-rubber and a water-based bond­ing process—and has helped the company set some audacious goals for reducing toxics and waste and using more environ­mentally friendly materials. Expect big changes from Nike’s full footwear line by 2011 and its apparel line come 2015. 


For all the talk about recycling, not many people actually do it—less than 10 percent of households. RecycleBank, started in Philadelphia but going nationwide in the next few years, offers incentives that go beyond green. Your recyclables are weighed upon pickup, and based on the weight, you get reward dollars for discounts at more than 250 US retailers, including Starbucks and Ikea, and save on earth-friendly choices like Stonyfield Farms and Sun & Earth. Thanks to RecycleBank, the trash bin is becoming the bargain bin.

TransFair USA

Get a whiff of this: TransFair USA, already famous for certifying coffee as Fair Trade, added flowers and honey this year to a list that includes tea, herbs, vanilla, chocolate, rice, sugar, and bananas. More than 1.4 million producers racked up $2.21 billion in sales of TransFair-certified Fair Trade products in 2006 alone. That means farmers are paid a premium for making sure they grow their goods sustainably and pay their workers fairly. Diamonds could be next, compliments of a grant from the Tiffany & Co Foundation. Wouldn’t that jewel look lovely in TransFair’s crown?


The Internet giant is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to find a clean, low-cost form of energy, for reasons both self-serving—it uses a lot of power—and altruistic. With a joint corporate and philanthropic effort investing $30 million in cleantech start-ups this year alone, Google’s RE

Swiss Re

After 145 years, this insurer to insurance companies (the largest of its kind) knows about taking—and surviving—risks. Because they often pay out after natural disasters and poor weather, Swiss Re is now playing a leading role in tackling climate change. The reinsurance giant is a pioneer in buying certified emission reductions (CERs) and high-quality verified emission reductions (VERs) to make itself “greenhouse neutral.” It’s also advocating for index insurance for climate risk management and pushing global leaders to adapt what it views as sensible environmental policies. Swiss Re makes money by staying ahead of risk trends, so it’s no surprise it’s on the cutting edge here, providing valuable leadership on climate change.
Story by Anuj Desai, Dan Fost, Liz Galst, Tobin Hack, Jessica A. Knoblauch, Alisa Opar, Sarah Parsons, Mindy Pennybacker, Victoria Schlesinger, and Jessica Tzerman. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in September 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Part 1: Plenty 20: Green people

Part 2: Plenty 20: Green people, cont'd.

Part 3: Plenty 20: Green businesses

Part 4: Plenty 20: Green ideas