It could be said that rather than companies "going green", being green is simply the way all business will have to be done in the future. Our future depends on green initiatives to begin, gain traction in the markets and eventually become a pervasive part of business, just like having employees and paying taxes.

In this article, we\'ll take a look at five corporations that have taken a public lead in redefining themselves as green conscious. To be sure, nobody has won or lost this battle yet. It will be fought over years, not quarters, and accomplished through comprehensive programs, not hollow press releases. Some of these firms have already made impressive reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and brought innovative new products to market, while others are using their power to influence their supply chain and customers. (To learn more about green investing, check out For Companies, Green Is The New Black, Clean Or Green Technology Investing and What Does It Mean To Be Green?)

1. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE: WMT)
When you are the world\'s largest retailer, everything you do is very important simply because of the massive scale found in the supply chain. Wal-Mart\'s push toward seeking information from certain suppliers about the carbon footprint (amount of energy needed to achieve the final product) of its products could be revolutionary if the company is able to enforce rigid standards - and is willing to drop a supplier that doesn\'t make the grade.

Wal-Mart is also seeking to reduce the energy used in its stores 20% by 2013, and double the fuel efficiency of its massive truck fleet. Again, given the sheer scope of everything the company does, the cost savings would be substantial, and the companies who provide energy-efficient products would have a valuable new sales ally.

Getting information on the thousands of consumer products we all use daily is a vital first step to measuring national consumption patterns and spurring change. Eventually consumers may be able to choose products based on their environmental sustainability as well as their price and design. (To find more about influencing the market to go green, read Change The World One Investment At A Time.)

2. Honda Motor Co. (NYSE: HMC)
The auto giant was flat-out ahead of the curve, making fuel-efficient cars and hybrids long before they were the must-have product of the socially-conscious set. According to corporate average fuel efficiency standards (CAFE) data for 2003 (the latest data available), the company has the most fuel-efficient fleet of any auto maker, putting Honda several years ahead of its competitors when new fuel economy standards go into effect.

Honda is also innovating within alternative fuels, seeking to make hydrogen-based and natural gas-based autos. Leadership in the auto sector will be crucial because cars and trucks produce nearly one-third of all GHGs released in the United States each year. For its own part, Honda plans to reduce total emissions from its factories and autos by roughly 10% between 2000 and 2010. (To keep reading about this subject, see Getting A Grip On The Cost Of Gas and The Biofuels Debate Heats Up.)

3. General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE)
General Electric is the only company that has been a member of the Dow Jones Industrial Average since its inception in 1896. That unbelievable streak is a testament to the company\'s ability to innovate as well as sustain loyal customers. While former CEO Jack Welch became famous for his ability to grow through acquisition and increase operational efficiency, current CEO Jeffrey Immelt is remolding the company\'s strategy into creating eco-friendly products via GE\'s "Ecomagination" program.

Included in the program are dozens of green product offerings, including cleaner burning coal technologies, energy efficient engines and wind turbines. In 2007, the company\'s revenues from various clean energy products amounted to roughly $12 billion dollars, and are expected to top $20 billion by 2010.

4. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (NYSE: GS)
Goldman won\'t be found on anyone\'s list of carbon emitters, but the Wall Street power broker has tremendous influence over the financial markets and is an enterprising investor with its own capital. It invested more than $1.5 billion into alternative energy projects during 2006 as part of a company-wide environmental policy that seeks to promote clean energy markets and create partnerships with public and private environmental groups.

Equity analysts at Goldman now include commentary on a company\'s environmental practices and corporate governance in research reports to clients, a sign of just how important those variables are becoming to the value of a company\'s stock. All of this positioning makes Goldman Sachs an attractive partner for other companies looking to invest in alternative energy projects, and could lead to increased investment banking revenue as green-based investing rises in popularity.

5. E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company (NYSE: DD)
DuPont is a diversified materials and chemicals company that is known for its innovative culture and responsiveness to change. The inventor of nylon and Teflon has a slew of eco-friendly products for solar panels, fuel cells and biofuels. DuPont has also been a leader in energy efficiency, and has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 70% since 1990. Energy efficiency has been found in multiple places, from optimizing the manufacturing processes to new sources of energy such as landfill gas. DuPont is also one of the top 10 purchasers of green power in the United States, voluntarily buying more than 170 million kilowatt-hours in 2006.

DuPont\'s past experience is a good case study of how to respond to environmental and business obstacles; as a major producer of Freon gas, a chlorofluorocarbon (CFC), they were highly criticized once it was found out that the compounds were eroding the Earth\'s ozone layer. The company took public responsibility for eliminating the product, eventually phasing it out completely in the mid-1990s while simultaneously creating profitable, safer alternatives to refrigerants and aerosol sprays. DuPont is a good example of how, when things go badly, a forward thinking company may recover (and even profit). It\'s also a good lesson for investors: companies are supposed to be valued based on what they can return to shareholders over the long haul, not just quarter to quarter.

Parting Thoughts
Investors considering making investments in these or other companies should look for a consistent company message regarding environmental sustainability, and also for progress on stated initiatives. Some companies can find ways to bring immediate profits to the bottom line through new products or lowered costs, but many companies that choose to be proactive in their green efforts will feel a pinch on their profits in the short term.

It remains to be seen how shareholders reward the companies that prove to be leaders in green technology and environmental sustainability, and how the analyst community comes to value companies based on their exposure to environmental risks. We can all safely assume that the future holds more regulation on carbon-based emissions, and that companies who ride the wave of innovation and leadership stand the best chance to succeed.