Mike Riley had big plans to make his company a leader in selling sustainability. In 2005, the president of Pennsylvania-based HVAC distributor Riley Sales Inc., had created a special website, www.rileygreen team.com, and its staff became well versed in the state and federal tax incentives available to homeowners and businesses installing high-efficiency equipment. It even planned to put solar panels on some of its locations, and started a solar energy division.

But that was all before the "Great Recession" of 2007-2012 derailed many of those projects.

"We were green before it was cool," Riley said. "Then it became cool, and then people worried about the 'green' in their pockets. It's tough in this industry when you want to preach sustainability but your contractors are worried about viability and being in business."

But that doesn't mean that distributors and wholesalers like Riley Sales are abandoning their sustainable efforts. Although the last few years have been tough on the construction industry and most sectors of the U.S. economy that touch it, many companies say they remain committed to being green and selling products that further that goal.

At Neuco Inc., company President Paul Neustadt pointed out that the controls distributor recently installed a large addition to their Downers Grove, Ill., facility with sustainability in mind.

"There were a lot of things that we did with the building that were aimed toward sustainability," he said. "We believe in it."

Neustadt was to make a presentation to HARDI's Sustainable Building Council about the structure during the group's October annual conference in Orlando, Fla.

Although the building is not certified by the U.S. Green Building Council under its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating program, "I incorporated a lot of the principles behind LEED," Neustadt said.

The company has recycling programs in place for its cardboard, cans and paper, and the building uses an energy-saving "cool" roof that reflects heat as well as sensors to turn off unnecessary lighting. Rooftop HVAC units with rating from 15- to 17-SEER are also installed and R-29 insulation was used in many places.

The company even has a water dispenser that encourages workers to refill their own reusable containers by keeping track of how many plastic water bottles it keeps out of landfills.

"I think that one of the ways to differentiate yourself right now in the marketplace is through sustainability," Neustadt said. "A lot of sustainability just makes business sense as well."

Officials with U.S. Airconditioning Distributors reached that conclusion several years ago. The City of Industry, Calif., company has been using natural gas to operate most of its vehicle fleet since 2006. The company even has an on-site filling station for its cars and trucks, and provides free natural gas to employees who buy vehicles that run on the clean fuel, according to Robert Smith, procurement director at the company.

It also makes good use of its sunny Southern California location for its 100,000-square-foot distribution facilities.

"We have one of the largest solar panel operations on the West Coast at our headquarters," Smith said.

Across the country, Mike Riley is just restarting his company's green plans. He remains committed to them, although he said contractors may be slower to embrace them than they were a few years ago.

"Here in Pennsylvania, we lost all the solar credits, all the energy credits, so that kind of dried up," he said. "When the credits left, and our industry lost momentum because it was decimated by the housing turn, we have lost any momentum that we had and now we have to start it all up again."

Riley Sales has plans to overhaul its websites, and put in the solar panels, high-efficiency heat pumps and energy-saving lighting the company first considered doing seven years ago.

"We need it," he said. "I think the tipping point has come for sustainability."