The Chinese alphabet includes a pair of characters often translated as meaning "crisis" and "opportunity." An odd combination, but no more so than those who look at tornadoes, oil spills, soaring gas prices and corn shortages and see gold. Those opportunists want to remake the carbon-challenged world, and they're backed by a growing assortment of specialized boutique firms that provide capital and support.
Southern California's Quercus Trust, for example, supports a portfolio of some 40 green schemes, while New York and Zurich-based Greentech Capital Advisors restricts itself to clients in alternative energy and cleantech sectors. And Kholsa Ventures in Menlo Park, Calif., is funding work on advanced hydrocarbons, mechanical and electrical efficiency, semiconductors and water.
Whether the aim is to seek your fortune, to improve the world or merely to engender common sense, these are top fields ripe for ecological innovation. Here's how to capitalize on crises.
Energy conservation and alternatives
From transportation to housing to lighting, energy alternatives and conservation are all the rage. Although the oil and gas shortages in the 1970s failed to squelch the conventional internal combustion engine, the automobile industry is finally getting the message, seeking engineers to think up new automotive power systems, designs and better ways to get around.
New hybrid and electric cars are one example of green opportunities. At-home charging stations often require electricians to upgrade the wiring in their owners' homes, as well as add hardware that helps identify the most efficient times to juice up. Meanwhile, commercial chargers in the 220-watt to 240-watt range that deliver power twice as fast require companies to install them at retail locations. That gear sparks yet another opportunity: Customers will want to be entertained or occupied while their batteries are loaded.
The biggest payoff is bound to go to the modern-day Edison who comes up with a more effective battery design. Already the U.S. government has backed $5 billion in investments for battery technology and consumer incentives.
As more people choose to pedal around, bicycles are getting their own upgrade. The Gates Corporation in Denver offers a belt-driven bike with a carbon cord and polyurethane mechanism that lasts longer than chains and operates without messy oil for lubrication. And Sanyo recently won a design prize for its "eneloop" Synergtic Hybrid Bicycle. Racks of electric bikes at big box stores signal a growing demand for improved horns, baskets, frame locks and other accessories.
Noting that green jobs not only improve America's building stock but "rebuild the economy, locally and on the national scale," the U.S. Green Building Council promotes conservation schemes in the construction industry. Energy auditing, an early strategy for homeowners, has firms across the country springing up to hunt down drafts and leaks and to prescribe more efficient heating systems and water use.
Ambitious builders are finagling to construct passive homes that don't require furnaces, a design that's common in Europe but hasn't yet caught on here. Also finding a niche are small-business operators tackling specific green tasks, such as planting roof gardens or painting roofs white to lessen the strain on air conditioning.
Electric conservation calls out for ingenious solutions. Compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs are steadily displacing incandescents, but CFLs themselves could soon give way to organic light-emitting diode (OLED) lighting, a technology already found in some high-end cell phone screens. A great thinker is needed to rescue the wasted "phantom load" electricity draining from plugged-in appliances even when they're not turned on. "The greenest energy out there is probably the energy you don't use," says Home Energy Rating System specialist and contractor manager Peter Stelling of Populus Sustainable Design Consulting in Boulder, Colo., noting opportunities to reduce waste are endless.
Along with banks and utility companies badgering consumers to "save paper" by banking and paying bills online, innovative computer experts are coming up with countless paperless software programs.
Two examples: Web-based financial tracker inDinero is a simple scheme that helps small-business owners track their finances without any conscious data delivery. Giftcard management app Wildcard Network sells and consolidates store gift cards, eliminating the nuisance of plastic.
In a South Delhi garage, two Indian brothers concocted Eko Financial Services, whose software converts mom-and-pop kiosks into virtual banks where migrant workers can store their earnings. Another inspiration is Aaron Patzer, who founded the free personal finance website Mint.com and sold it to Intuit in 2009 for $170 million.
With diners taking a grimmer view of the Colonel and the golden arches, the growing food revolution offers opportunities in farming, nutrition and devising new dishes. The Red Hook Community Farm growing on a baseball field in a Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood exemplifies grass-roots efforts to engender local agriculture.
In the U.K., the Duchess of Devonshire has put the fields of historic Chatsworth back to work, and the wife of billionaire industrialist Sir Anthony Bamford sells creamy cheddar cheese, turquoise Cotswold Legbar hens' eggs and organic milk from Friesian cows-- local, seasonable, sustainable--all raised on her Gloucestershire estate.
Nutrition counseling, diet awareness schemes and fitness programs all are prime to be developed into full-fledged businesses. "The market for organic and raw foods is going to grow quickly, and green companies that generate sales stand a good chance of being acquired by the big food firms," says Nick Kelley, who abandoned financial services, founded Kaia Foods in Oakland, Calif., and recently added crunchy kale chips to his line of granolas, fruit leathers and sweet curry organic sprouted sunflower seeds.
Food delivery systems can't be overlooked. Some Chinese subway stations feature machines dispensing live crabs. To encourage healthier snacking, refrigeration engineer Jerry Parle of Des Moines, Iowa, is designing a new vending machine that won't bruise fresh vegetables and bananas.
Garbage is irresistible to some of the most devoted eco-entrepreneurs. Already old hat are the many crafts industries producing purses and totes made out of tossed-out potato chip packages and bottle pop tops. Always looking for new notions, recycling firm TerraCycle has a 25,000-square-foot warehouse in New Jersey stuffed with old Skittles bags to fabricate into kites, Capri Sun juice pouches for backpacks and chip bags converted into coolers. The company makes pet toys and garments out of emptied dog food bags and is seeking constructive uses for expired pills, old pill bottles and razor blades.
Eco "equipment," compost bins and wastepaper baskets have been imaginatively restyled, and 26-year-old designer Anna Bullus devised the colorful Gumdrop bins mounted on poles around London to collect wads of chewing gum, which are processed into reusable polymer.
A 2008 EPA report predicted that by 2010 the amount of electronic waste collected during the past decade would be enough to cover Manhattan in a pile 3 feet deep. There are industries crying out for lead, mercury and other components that can be retrieved from outdated tech gadgets, and it's a no-brainer that inevitably someone will come up with a better alternative for reclaiming obsolete consumer electronics than shipping them overseas to be dismantled.
Apparently there is someone who will pay someone else to do practically anything. The service sector of the economy is steadily rising each month as new services emerge daily. In New York City, a Park Avenue apartment dweller is searching for someone to come by weekly and collect leftover food scraps for compost.
Eco-brokers specialize in scouting and marketing green homes. With offices downsizing, firms are seeking architects to configure new types of work stations and managers to handle relocation for the new mobile work force. Perhaps the ultimate green do-it-for-you is GenGreenLife.com, a website providing a national directory to myriad green services across the country.
No one is advocating a return to loin cloths and fig leaves, but textile manufacturers and fashion designers are devising eco-friendly materials, selling garments refined from bamboo, hemp and coconut fibers. Upscale Italian cashmere company Loro Piana carries a $5,600 blazer, woven out of fibers from the lotus plant and said to feel like a blend of linen and raw silk.
There's no shortage of fashion visionaries. The founders of e-tailer Unstitched Utilities left their jobs with a conventional shoe manufacturer to start a company that sells sneakers made of recycled Tyvek. Old rubber tires inspire the curly, knotted jewelry of My Sister's Art, a designer jewelry website, and Lindsay Hemric, owner of Arcata, Calif.-based Teeki, sells baby pink and lavender bikinis in a fabric concocted from recycled plastic bottles. "I can't save the world, but I want to do my part," Hemric says.
Fair-trade retailer Digs in New York City organizes grass-roots designers creating alpaca sweaters and woven felt necklaces crafted by local artisans in the Andes. The Green Garmento in Los Angeles sells reusable dry cleaning bags, and in Kansas City, Mo., a former Sprint executive has set up Hangers, a dry cleaning firm that substitutes aggressive chemical cleaning agents with colorless, odorless carbon dioxide gas.
Kimberly-Clark is introducing a coreless bathroom tissue roll, and there are stretch slip covers, now sold at Target, that revive dingy sofas.
One day, Joel Pinsky dropped his toothbrush on the floor. Worried about germs, he developed the ultraviolet toothbrush sanitizer. Violight, his Yonkers, N.Y., company, is expanding to produce sanitizers for cell phones.
From Pittsburgh-based BodyMedia's FIT armbands monitoring blood sugar levels and caloric intake to the edible bottle invented by a Harvard professor, eco-possibilities are endless.
Eco-experts are convinced carbon constraints will inevitably convert consumers to low-impact products and services and a whole new way of life.
"Remember a few years ago when people used to smoke in public?" asks GreenOrder associate principal Stephen Linaweaver. "That's the kind of shift we're going to see. If you're an entrepreneur, you can look around and see tremendous room for improvement."
Sharon King Hoge, a former consumer reporter at WBZ-TV in Boston, is editor-at-large of the Cottages & Gardens publications. Her writing has appeared in Forbes FYI and Forbes Executive Woman, SELF, Ladies Home Journal and the National Review, among others. She holds an honorary degree from the New England School of Law.