It's fun to predict what's going to happen. The risk of being spectacularly wrong is very high, but that's what makes the exercise so entertaining.
First, let's quickly consider what we learned in 2008—that de-leveraging is really painful and when gas prices are high, people want smaller cars—and pontificate about what to expect in 2009.
For my predictions, I'll stick to my area of knowledge: the greening of business.
Over the past two years "green" has become part of nearly every serious business discussion. But what will happen now in this damaged economy? It would be silly to suggest that the intensity of the focus on green will continue unabated. But we'll see a form of what I'll call "light green" this year.
Some of the green pressure on companies will lessen, but the underlying forces driving the green wave will continue over the coming years—from volatile commodity prices (which will rise again aggressively after the recession) to a rise in transparency to tougher questions from key stakeholders (such as your business customers, consumers, and employees).
Those big picture trends will continue over years, but here now a few specific predictions for 2009.
"Light Green" will focus primarily on cost reduction...
Going green drives innovation and creates value in four fundamental ways: cost reduction, risk mitigation, revenue growth, and brand value enhancement. But for 2009, the top priority will be the first one, lowering costs (primarily through so-called "eco-efficiency").
Few companies will have the stomach for deep investments in R&D to create new green products.
...but, companies (and banks in particular) will also broaden the definition of "risk"
If we learned one thing in the past year, it's that the business and financial communities are not so great at measuring and accounting for risk. It's in our nature to overestimate some risks and drastically underestimate others (like the possibility that housing prices could actually drop). On climate change, we're realizing that the risk of inaction is too great.
Citigroup, JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley launched the Carbon Principles early in 2008. In short, this agreement committed the companies to look very hard at any coal investments and ask tough questions about how climate change and a cost on carbon would affect the risk profile.
And at the end of '08, other financial and insurance giants—including HSBC, Munich Re, Standard Chartered, and Swiss Re—created the Climate Principles. These guidelines are admittedly aspirational, but they also increase awareness of the impact of climate change on all aspects of their businesses, including their investment portfolios.
Leading companies (that is, Wal-Mart) will continue pressing suppliers
To be a bit cynical for a moment: Greening the supply chain is perhaps the easiest path to take in hard times; after all, you basically push the problem and cost onto others, and if you're as big as Wal-Mart, you get your way.
To be less cynical: The companies that have learned to take a value-chain perspective have discovered real value in lower costs and better products. So why go back if you've discovered a better way of doing business?
Wal-Mart and others clearly believe that reducing environmental impacts up and down the chain creates value for all. The retail giant convened a historic meeting in Beijing, China in October 2008 (see my first-hand account of the meeting).
Wal-Mart's top execs made it very clear that the green agenda is not going away and, in fact, is accelerating. Of course, global recessions can put a damper on anyone's plans, but there are few indications the big guns are pulling back on supply-chain pressure.
Innovation will become even more important
This may sound like a contradiction to my "cost reduction will rule" prediction. But innovation is about more than just flashy new products; it's also central to reducing costs in a smart way.
But beyond getting lean, 2009 will be a good time to truly rethink business models and ask new heretical questions. Innovation guru Clayton Christensen recently told the Wall Street Journal that the economic downturn "will have an unmitigated positive effect on innovation."
Say what? By his counterintuitive logic, tight times "force innovators to not waste nearly so much money."
So use 2009 to seek out green-innovation opportunities. Find ways to drastically reduce energy and other resource use both in your own operations and through your products (that is, help customers reduce their footprint). Even if investment dollars remain scarce, be ready to run with good ideas when cash frees up.
We may look back at the end of 2009 and see that staying green during the recession, at least in mindset, not only drove creativity but even saved some companies.
Yes, 2009 will be a tough year. But the Green Wave, albeit a bit diminished, will roll on. The smartest companies will continue to pour the foundations for a new form of capitalism—one that takes into account the resource constraints we face.
After this recession, when capital is more readily available, green investments will begin in earnest again. Sustainable business will no longer be a side pursuit, but the core focus of successful companies.