Week of 5/4/2008

Dear EarthTalk: What is the "clean tech" business sector and why have I been hearing that term so much lately?

—Andrea Newell, Denver, CO

Cleantech is a loosely defined category of businesses dedicated to creating cutting edge technologies that address the world’s environmental problems. These high flying companies—most of which began small with the hope of ascending to publicly traded status—are the new darlings of Wall Street, attracting billions in venture capital and public funding in what many financial analysts are calling the next big thing since the burst of the dot-com bubble.

Venture capitalists poured more than $3 billion into the cleantech sector in 2007 alone. Whether this cleantech boom will lead the rest of the economy down the green path for the long term—or go bust in a couple of years like its dot-com predecessor—remains to be seen.

In the thick of the movement is Cleantech Network LLC, a research firm and clearinghouse for cleantech companies and investors that also publishes the online information clearinghouse, Cleantech.com. The firm defines its budding industry as "new technology and related business models offering competitive returns for investors and customers while providing solutions to global challenges."

Avalence LLC's Martin Shimko demonstrates the company's "Hydrofiller," which makes, stores and dispenses hydrogen. This unit powers the fuel-cell powered back-up power system at the Chewonki Foundation, a camp and environmental education center in Wiscasset, Maine.© Avalence LLC.

The firm interacts with a network of 8,000 investors, 6,000 companies and 3,500 professional organizations involved in alternative energy and energy efficient transportation, wastewater management technologies, air pollution control innovations, sustainable materials production and sourcing, environmentally responsible industrial and agricultural applications, and waste recycling and management.

Some examples of the thousands of companies that consider themselves part of the cleantech movement include: Finavera Renewables, a firm that is developing underwater turbines and buoys to generate power from the ocean’s tides and waves; 3TIER Group, which uses advanced computer modeling to help energy companies and utilities figure out where best to site wind, solar and hydro-electric projects; Avalence LLC, which is developing high-pressure hydrogen generation and storage equipment that will dispense hydrogen for use in transportation, home power and industrial applications; and, Infinia Corporation, which is developing a utility-scale system to harvest solar energy.

Over and above the cleantech sector’s potential for addressing crucial environmental problems, analysts see it as a bright spot in the darkening picture of the recession-bound economy over the next few years. Marketing research and consulting firm Fuji Keizai USA expects the global market for cleantech products and services to grow from the $284 billion is it is generating today to over $1.3 trillion within a decade. The value of the companies in the sector is also expected to grow from today’s $104 billion to some $467 billion in the same 10-year time frame.

CONTACTS: Cleantech Network LLC; Finavera Renewables; 3TIER Group; Avalence LLC; Infinia Corporation

Dear EarthTalk: I’m planning a summer backpacking trip and was hoping to buy some of the latest green-friendly outdoor clothing. Where the best options out there today that wear as well as traditional items but without the environmental guilt?

—Steve Nezhad, Boston, MA

s Tofutech Tee, which wicks moisture, retains warmth and resists wrinkles while being made of a 100 percent soy-based, biodegradable fabric.© ExOfficio

Outdoor gear and clothing manufacturers are slowly but surely beginning to work materials crafted from recycled, reused or otherwise sustainable sources into their products.

Synthetics like polyester and nylon have been the "go to" materials for outdoor clothes, due to their moisture wicking, quick drying and warmth retention properties, but they are fast being augmented if not replaced outright by new fabrics crafted out of organic plant-based materials. For one, soybeans are now finding their way into outdoor clothing. One example is ExOfficio’s Tofutech Tee, which wicks moisture, retains warmth and resists wrinkles while being made of a 100 percent soy-based, biodegradable fabric.

Another innovation is Cocona, from the Colorado-based company of the same name. It’s a fabric treatment derived from coconut husks discarded by the food industry that helps other traditional fabrics wick moisture, control odor and shield UV rays. Some 40 clothing manufacturers, including GoLite, Marmot, Sierra Designs and Royal Robbins, are incorporating Cocona into their 2008 product lines.

Not to be outdone is Patagonia, a company many consider to be the granddaddy of eco-conscious outdoor gear. The California-based company now uses 100 percent organic cotton in all of its shirts, pants, outerwear and underwear to avoid the pesticides used in the growing of conventional cotton. Patagonia also takes back its customers" own discards, melting them down to use the raw materials in new jackets and sweaters. And last year the company launched a new line of footwear constructed using organic cotton, recycled rubber soles, latex made from the milk of Hevea trees, hemp, and laces made from vegetable waste.

New on the scene but as green as they come is Oregon-based Nau, an outdoor clothing maker and retailer launched in 2006 with green production values key to its mission. Every item in the company’s diverse clothing line uses either recycled polyester from soda bottles, organic cotton or the corn-based plastic-alternative polylactic acid (PLA). Also, the company’s four retail outlets were designed using reclaimed timber, energy-efficient lighting and a "ship-to-you" program that cuts down on in-store storage space and energy usage (consumers choose items by handling display merchandise, but then rather than walk out with their purchases they order using in-store touch screens and then have it shipped to them).

Another cutting-edge outdoor company is shoemaker Timberland. Its new Greenscapes line of sneakers is made with vegetable- (instead of chemical-) tanned leather and is hand-sewn instead of glued with the toxic adhesives normally found in footwear. The new line also sports recycled polyester laces and outsoles made from recycled rubber. Timberland also recently switched to packaging made from green-friendly and recycled materials. And it has launched a "Green Index" to measure each product’s environmental footprint. The company is working with the Outdoor Industry Association to implement an industry-wide version of the Index so consumers can compare the relative green-ness of competing products.

CONTACTS: ExOfficio; Cocona Fabrics; Patagonia; Nau; Timberland