“We’re still here.”

That may be the most fitting epitaph for 2009, at least for most green business professionals.

It was a year that began with doom and gloom and ended on only a slightly more upbeat note. In between, the banks and the auto industry nearly collapsed, restaurants and retailers shuttered, and those who managed to survive their employer’s downsizing often received what is euphemistically called a “haircut”—a reduction in pay, a loss of benefits, involuntary time off, or all of the above.

Amid all this was something notable—something that made this economic downturn distinct from all the others we’ve seen over the past quarter century: Green professionals weren’t among the first to be thrown overboard. True, their budgets were slashed and headcounts were frozen, all while their mandates sometimes increased. Yet they managed to survive, even thrive, during tough times. That’s a sea change. And as the clock struck a new decade, many stood up, dusted themselves off, and exclaimed, sometimes with more than a little surprise: “We’re still here.”

The Great Recession and its myriad effects on individuals, companies, and governments colored GreenBiz.com’s effort this year to gauge the environmental impacts of the emerging green economy using 20 measures of environmental performance (from operational efficiency to reductions in emissions to investments in clean technologies). The answers aren’t simple, and therein lies the foundation for the third annual edition of our just-released “State of Green Business 2010” report.

On balance, we were pleasantly surprised by what we found. First and foremost, green business activity did not go away amid the harsh economic environment. In some cases, such as with energy efficiency, the recession provided a stimulus, as the need to cut operating costs in order to maintain competitiveness became ever more valued by executives, their boards, and their shareholders.

As in previous years, we tried to provide context for the robust green business developments taking place and to help answer the question: Is all of this activity actually moving the needle? That is, did the hundreds of environmental announcements and achievements by companies in 2009 actually result in more improvements, environmentally speaking, than the year before?

To make sense of the past year, we combed nearly 2,400 news stories, blog posts, opinion pieces, resource reviews, and podcasts published during 2009 on our five websites—GreenBiz.com, ClimateBiz.com, GreenerBuildings.com, GreenerComputing.com, and GreenerDesign.com—in search of trends and themes.

Here are 10, in no particular order. Longer descriptions of each can be found in our free “State of Green Business 2010” report.

  1. Radical Transparency Goes Mainstream

    A confluence of recent trends has brought more information about more products and companies to more people than ever before, with everyone from Washington to Wal-Mart demanding that companies disclose (or have it disclosed for them) the environmental, health, and social impacts of what they do. The amount of data is about to grow exponentially, but it remains to be seen whether this will lead to more awareness or confusion for consumers.

  2. Green Marketing Gets Even Murkier

    With consumers continuing to make green choices but becoming pickier than ever about doing so, green marketing has become all the more challenging, requiring more complex and nuanced messages and value propositions. The proposition is simple: Consumers want products that aren’t just greener, but better, offering some kind of personal benefit, enhanced features, higher performance, more convenience, less waste, or simply a higher “coolness” factor.

  3. Green Innovation Becomes a Great Idea

    A new era of collaboration in eco-innovation emerged in 2009. Examples include Eco-Patent Commons’ addition of its hundredth “IP-free” technology; the launching of GreenXchange, whose goals is to let companies share intellectual property for green product design, packaging, manufacturing, and more; and Environmental Defense Fund’s unveiling of its Innovation Exchange to encourage companies to share best practices related to issues such as energy, water, and climate.

  4. Greener Fleets Hit the Streets

    Fleet buyers ramped up their purchases of hybrid-electric, diesel, electric, and other so-called alternative-fuel vehicles, from taxis to trucks. This marks a bright green spot in an otherwise dismal car market—continuing a leadership role that will be critical to hybrid and electric-vehicle manufacturers’ hopes of achieving scale and lowering costs.

  5. Energy Efficiency Gains Horsepower

    As the need to find large, cost-effective energy savings became increasingly important, many companies seized the benefits of new technologies to get real-time information about energy consumption, while others tweaked their management practices to drive energy savings in power-hungry data centers. A new generation of software and related technologies helped.

  6. ICT Aims to Save the World

    A growing collection of information and communications technology (ICT) solutions emerged in 2009, backing up claims that the sector’s potential to both make the world far more energy efficient and to address some of the world’s other pressing environmental and social problems far exceeds its own direct footprint. Some of the world’s biggest ICT companies are seizing the opportunity.

  7. Toxics Becomes a Strategic Issue

    A series of incidents and reports related to toxic ingredients in consumer products pushed the issue further into the spotlight and up the corporate ladder, leading activists and policymakers to press for more and stronger rules governing toxics.

  8. Food Companies Put Their Supply Chains on the Menu

    Activist pressures, sourcing constraints, consumer concerns, and efficiency demands are driving food companies to make dramatic shifts in how they operate and what they produce. That’s leading them to push their suppliers—often, a long and complex web of growers, producers, wholesalers, processors, and marketers—to bring better environmental performance to the table.

  9. Packaging Companies Rethink the Box

    Genuine packaging innovations appear to be in the bag at last, with a new generation of materials and products emerging in 2009 intended for use by big companies such as Amazon.com, Aramark, Coca-Cola, Dell, and Frito-Lay.

  10. Green Business and Cleantech Find Common Purpose

    The worlds of green business activity and cleantech are finally converging. An example of this is the emergence of the smart grid, which embeds intelligence into the electricity infrastructure to perform a range of environmentally friendly tasks, enabling a new generation of products and services for both businesses and consumers.

These stories illustrate how the greening of business has transformed in the past few years. What began as a seemingly altruistic endeavor, then shifted to a way to cut costs and improve reputation, has become a fundamental business competency, alongside accounting, finance, human resources, marketing, customer service, procurement, and knowledge management. Indeed, in some firms, green thinking is becoming embedded in each of those disciplines, increasingly woven into the corporate fabric.

That has made green strategy and practices ever more valued, seen as a way to cut costs, improve operations, foster innovation, engage employees, and satisfy customers—all critical during tough economic times.

The result was that, for many companies, environmental improvements and innovations became a means of surviving lean times, and a way to gain competitive advantage once things began to rebound.