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Can green firms grow in today's downturn?

A monthly discussion with notable experts.

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Makower: Well, it's never been easy. Twenty years ago, I wrote a book called "The Green Consumer" and looked at this notion that there was a growing market for green products and that there were, more importantly, millions of consumers – 90 percent of Americans – who said that they wanted to buy green products from good companies. Well, guess what? That never really materialized.... The irony is that we're a lot greener consumers than we used to be – in spite of ourselves – because a [beverage] manufacturer, for example, has squeezed out the aluminum, tens of millions of pounds cumulatively over the course of a year, from aluminum cans without reducing the volume.

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Is there a green product that really stands out to you?

Makower: Gosh, I don't know. I see what's coming and some of that's very exciting. But it has much more to do with the convergence ... of energy, information technology, buildings, and transportation. We're going to see some confluences of technologies where our cars and our homes and offices talk to one another through computing technology. And that's going to create a whole new world where we're thinking less about owning cars and more about door-to-door mobility and how we get to places; less about where we fill up than the demands of that [energy] coming from the grid.

Even automakers are using a green argument, among others, for a bailout. Do you buy that?

Makower: The irony is that the automakers are facing the challenges that they are just at the time that they are finally starting to understand the potential of the green technologies. General Motors has a very exciting technology in a vehicle called the GM Volt, which allows you to drive a battery-only vehicle for up to 40 miles. So if you have a 15-mile commute, you'll never use any gas. Then there's a little engine that kicks in to recharge the battery that's powered by gasoline, where you can go several hundreds of miles and get the equivalent of over 100 miles per gallon. We need them to be around to bring that to market. Or we need someone to be around.

Where should the average investor look for tomorrow's winners?

Makower: Computers certainly took off, but not all those companies made it. Some of those companies were too early or too late. Some of them weren't well-run. Some of them had other problems or were just swallowed up by bigger companies. So at the end of the day, this is really about finding companies that are well-run. Now, what we're finding, and what a lot of research shows, is that environmental performance is a proxy for good management. The companies that are well-run have good environmental policies and practices in place and have a strategy for how to succeed in a world where carbon is a constraint, where carbon taxes or cap-and-trade or any of those other geeky policy kinds of things begin taxing the amount of energy that companies use.

Are there any companies that you particularly like?

Makower: I do but I don't name them. They're both big companies – many of them have other problems, but I know they're really thinking about this in serious ways – ... and early stage companies. There are hundreds maybe even thousands of early stage companies that are thinking about some of the new technologies.... Those new technologies for the new energy economy and this convergence of energy, IT, and buildings and transportation, those are now starting to be built and there's a whole range of companies that I'm very excited about.

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