As Americans of all political persuasions wonder whether the 1990s really will become "the decade of the environment," some of the nation's shrewdest corporate leaders are betting that it will - and are joining in the search for good clean profits.

There's never been any secret about the near-universal appeal of environmental issues. Every one of us, after all, breathes the air, drinks the water and, at least occasionally, ponders the future we are bequeathing to our children and grandchildren. As a result, no known politician ever campaigned on an openly pro-pollution platform, and a recent Ad Age study reported that 96 percent of consumers said they considered environmental factors when making purchases.Behind this seeming virtual unanimity, however, there are many cloudy if not sooty areas. To what extent, for example, are consumers willing to sacrifice quality and/or pay higher prices for environmentally purer products? What is the proper tradeoff between providing better jobs for American workers and eliminating the last inch of pollution from the air? In the real world, if not in the more strident rhetoric, these are the continuing issues.

In the short run, indeed, such astute analysts of the environmental scene as Kenneth C. Leung, Smith Barney's crack pollution-control analyst (and a devout environmentalist of long standing), think the movement may be slowed by other pressing concerns - notably the surging price of oil and the threat of severe recession. But he tells me he's convinced that the 1990s eventually "absolutely" will be seen as the decade of the environment, with expenditures on pollution control rising from 1.7 percent of our gross national product to as much as 2.5-3 percent.

And an increasing number of hard-nosed, bottom-line-oriented corporate executives are putting themselves in this camp, mixing environmentalism with enterprise. The gestures may be as small as using recycled paper for stationery (such companies as McDonald's and Disney now do this) to focusing on much larger concerns. Amoco Oil has introduced a recycling program for used motor oil through its service stations in Illinois, in an attempt to reduce the amount of oil dumped into sewers and back yards, and Procter & Gamble - whose products, according to one recent study, create about 1 percent of the solid waste in the U.S. - has unveiled a plan to recycle disposable diapers into usable plastic and pulp.

The growing corporate emphasis on "going green" while making green extends beyond recycling. For instance, W.R. Grace & Co.'s specialty chemicals division will spend $80 million this year in environmental initiatives. At a Grace plant in South Carolina, solid waste is now used to create all the steam the company needs at the facility, and at Grace's Chicago plants, storage tanks were moved above ground two years ago so that any leakage could be discovered before it becomes a problem.

Grace's chairman, J. Peter Grace, is scarcely anybody's idea of a trendy liberal; he's the tough-minded guy who told the government, through his Grace Commission, how it could balance its budget just by cutting its spending. But he spoke for many of today's CEO's when he told me, without qualification: "Our challenge is to extend this technology and know-how to all our operations. In this era, we must all be environmentalists."

To be sure, the corporate awakening has occurred at a time when companies are under greater media and legislative scrutiny than ever before. But well-run firms are racing to stay ahead of the trend. DuPont recently announced an environmental action plan that calls for the company to reduce hazardous waste by 35 percent, create a wildlife habitat on company property and even consider environmental performance in determining executive compensation. Olin Corporation says it plans to reduce air emissions by 70 percent and solid hazardous waste by 50 percent by 1994.

Look for more such announcements regularly as the decade progresses. Environmentalism clearly has entered the corporate mainstream, and cleaning up that mainstream without cutting off its cash flow is the challenge for wise industrialists, as well as all the rest of us.