Wal-Mart is also driving the green economy. The company now requires suppliers - numbering more than 100,000 companies - to submit data about their environmental footprints. That has created a business opportunity for London-based Intertek, which found 50 new clients in the past six months as a result. "Wal-Mart suppliers are scrambling not only to adhere to new rules, but to proactively use the environmental data to design new products and services," Khan said.
In many cases, he added, Intertek's new clients are not just looking to meet Wal-Mart's requirements. They want to reengineer their entire business for sustainability.
Even start-ups are finding growth opportunities in a sober economic environment. Energy efficiency was a boom industry in 2009, with more than $1 billion invested in energy efficiency start-ups, according to Cleanedge. The sector should eclipse solar this year in terms of investments and growth, the company said Kevin Surace, CEO of Serious Materials, is mining this hot market by selling cost savings of green building retrofits and a one- to five-year payback of his insulated windows.
"Climate policy matters to the planet," Surace said. But for Serious Materials' growth, policy is no matter.
"Good companies have already figured out that green is green," he said. "Saving energy and CO2 in the lifecycle pay back in the manufacturing process and/or for your customers."
That's a sentiment echoed by many gathered last month at the State of Green Business Forum in San Francisco. For those betting on the market and concerned about climate change, the mood is determined - and cautiously optimistic.
"Something will happen federally," said Sarah Skikne of The Climate Group, a nonprofit organization working internationally with business and government leaders to advance a low carbon future.
"It has to."
Heather King is a San Francisco-based writer and a board member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. DailyClimate.org is a nonprofit news service covering climate change.