The Viridian Design Movement

Subject: Viridian Note 00446: Debating GE

Key concepts
General Electric, ecomagination, corporate green policies
Attention Conservation Notice:
Two green pundits, with radically different takes on matters, consider General Electric's newly announced green initiatives.
America's dirtiest power plants, in a handsome .pdf format. Say, did you just download this email with one of America's dirtiest power plants?

Wow! A "vanishing landmass" Greenhouse Effect coffee mug! Somebody buy one of these things and tell me if it's worth owning.

(((Following the Viridian Design principle of "look at the underside first," we'll first entertain the thesis that GE "ecomagination" is phony-baloney corporate skullduggery.)))


Frank O'Donnell, Clean Air Watch

GE's Greenwashing

by Frank O'Donnell
May 13, 2005

"Frank O'Donnell is president of? Clean Air Watch, a 501 (c) 3 non-partisan, non-profit organization aimed at educating the public about clean air and the need for an effective Clean Air Act."

"You might call it 'Extreme Makeover: Corporate Edition.' Or, perhaps, simply 'greenwashing.'

"General Electric, the conglomerate whose environmental legacy has been dominated by its poisoning of the Hudson River with PCBs – and its reluctance to clean up the damage – is turning over a green new leaf. Or so the company claims.?

"But even while GE was hosting was hosting a glitzy cocktail reception to roll out a new pro-environmental PR and ad campaign, (((hey, a glitzy cocktail reception, wait a minute, how come nobody invited me, me me me))) the company was working behind closed doors in Congress to secure another delay in cleaning up the Hudson – a cleanup that is supposed to cost the company half a billion dollars.

(((Congress people much prefer closed doors in Congress, because politicians hate to be blindsided.

If you tell a politician, in public, anything that surprises them – any important issue that leaves them flatfooted and without a set political stance for a calculated response – then they will presume you've done that on purpose. They presume that you did it to humiliate them, and to demonstrate boorish contempt for the sea of insider buzz in which they marinate themselves. That's why, if you've got any sense inside the Beltway, you leak your intentions to the junior staffers first.))) "Let's start with the May 9 debut of the company's 'Ecomagination' campaign – a $90 million PR blitz aimed at remaking the company's soiled image into one colored bright green:? Expensive print ads show leaves sprouting from electric power plants; a green airplane floats across a corporate website behind the online greeting by CEO Jeffrey Immelt; a television commercial features buff models posing as coal miners – essentially a mini-music video reminiscent of Madonna's 'Express Yourself.'

(((For an avant-garde music video to become a means of mainstream corporate PR strikes me as the healthy sign of a functional social order. It may be that Madonna's really upset that her decade-old caperings are considered sexy in GE's corporate boardrooms. Maybe someone should ask Madonna about that. I doubt that she goes to "Clear Air Watch" for assessments of her artistic intent.)))

"The frivolous quality of the advertising undercuts GE's serious message: ''Increasingly for business, 'green' is green,' noted Immelt. 'We're at a tipping point where energy efficiency and emission reductions equal profitability.' (((I frankly find it priggish and reactionary for the president of Clean Air Watch to scold GE as "frivolous". I bet Clean Air Watch would sell a lot more coffee-cups if they themselves took cues from Madonna.)))

"The GE executive announced the company would double by 2010 its annual $700 million spending on research and development of eco-friendly products, and would double its revenue from those products by 2015. Included are efforts to develop solar and wind energy, as well as an advanced coal process supported – in concept – by environmentalists. ((( Way too many "environmentalists" would rather "support a concept" than take any genuine steps to transform actual industries.)))

"In a move applauded by environmentalists (particularly the World Resources Institute, a think tank that receives support from GE and helped devise the new corporate strategy), GE promised to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from its operations by one percent by 2012. It said those emissions would increase by 40 percent without the initiative. And Immelt said in interviews that he would like Congress to include 'clear milestones' to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as part of energy legislation.

(((The subtext here is Clear Air Watch's lip-biting envy of World Resources Institute and their big fat GE corporate grant. And small wonder – GE's got a PR budget of NINETY MILLION DOLLARS! Man, ExxonMobil dropped a mere eight million bucks on their brown anti-eco initiatives, and think of the results they got – ExxonMobil may have fried the planet practically single-handed. For ninety million, GE ought to be able to hire every enviro NGO in the world.))) "Even though the Bush administration quickly sought to associate itself with the company – 'We sort of view G.E.'s pledge as the president's climate policy put into practice,' DOE Assistant Secretary David Garman told The New York Times – GE does seem to be taking a more proactive position on global warming than President Bush (to whom Immelt made campaign contributions). Likewise for Bush's chief environmental apologist, James Connaughton, who was a GE lobbyist before becoming chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and who attended the May 9 cocktail reception.

(((Look: if you'd prefer to die of climate change rather than touch anyone who ever speaks to George W. Bush, why not just say that? It's not like Bush lacks for enemies willing to commit self-righteous public suicide.)))

"At first glance, the company also seems to be breaking both in style and substance with former CEO Jack Welch, who notes in his most recent book, Winning, that 'Business is a game, and winning that game is a total blast!' (((Is it supposed to be news that Jack Welch is a businessman? Jack Welch is THE businessman.)))

(((I've got better tittle-tattle, check this out: Jack Welch is a testosterone-crazed over-achiever who is so dynamically charismatic that the business press literally has affairs with him.)))

"However, GE asserts that it really plans is to 'build on its legacy of success' with environmental products. There is more than a little truth to that claim: GE has lobbied for years for federal subsidies for nuclear power, 'clean coal' and other products, and seems to be positioning itself now to argue that nuclear power should be part of any global warming slowdown strategy."

(((In a word, yes. Brace yourself, here come the anti-carbon nukes.)))
(((At the moment, this TECHNOLOGY REVIEW site is running a GE Ecomagination promotional banner.)))

"But it's an unfortunate reference, given the company's sorry history of dealing with the environment.

"For example, in 1986, Congressman Edward Markey, D-Mass., disclosed that while running the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the company had conducted experiments on hundreds of United States citizens whom Markey described as 'nuclear calibration devices for experimenters run amok.'

"One of GE's most gruesome experiments was performed on inmates at a prison in Walla Walla, Wash., near Hanford. Starting in 1963, 64 prisoners had their scrotums and testes irradiated to determine the effects of radiation on human reproductive organs. (((You know it's a great below-the-belt scandal when it's been rattling around in America's nuclear closet since 1963.)))

"GE has clashed with the federal government on air pollution policy issues. (((Look, the "federal government" was also running Hanford. GE can clash with feds or collaborate with feds, but they can't be dissed for both clashing and collaborating.))) In 2000, the company hired noted 'liberal' constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe of Harvard to file a friend-of-the-court brief with the Supreme Court opposing EPA's clean air standards for smog and soot. Fortunately, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected GE's dirty-air approach. (((I'm sorry, but putting scare quotes around Laurence Tribe's 'liberality' isn't going to make Laurence Tribe any less 'liberal.' Wait till somebody nominates Tribe for the Supreme Court; then you'll find out how 'liberal' he is.)))

"But GE is perhaps best known for the Hudson River. (((I suspect they're actually best known for lightbulbs.)))

"From the late 1940s until 1977, GE discharged more than one million pounds of the toxic waste known as PCBs into the Hudson River. Over the years, these chemicals have spread, contaminating two hundred miles of river from the Hudson Falls to just shy of the Statue of Liberty. (((She's French, you know. She's a tough French harbor chick.)))

"Then-EPA Administrator Christie Whitman ordered the company in 2002 to clean up the toxic mess. The cleanup has yet to begin. GE has dozens of other Superfund sites, and has lobbied for years to try to change the Superfund law. (((Christie Whitman good, Whitman's boss Bush bad.)))

"And GE is continuing its efforts to stall the cleanup. In its federal lobbyist disclosure forms, GE notes that one of its lobbying goals is to 'support reasonable phasing and performance standards for the PCB Hudson River site remedy.' (((Most people's lobbyists firmly support "unreasonable phasing" and "no performance standards" when it comes to pleasing federal regulatory bureaucracies.))) "That was translated behind closed doors this week into a budget rider – attached to appropriations legislation in the House Appropriations Committee – that would call for a yearlong National Academy of Sciences study to take another look at the project. (((There is, in point of fact, some small chance that GE would actually CONSIDER evidence from the National Academy of Science, unlike, say, both houses of the Republican Congress.)))

"Congressional sources said GE was behind the rider, which wasn't disclosed until after committee members voted to approve the legislation, and that it was inserted secretly at the request of Rep. Charles Taylor, R-N.C., who chairs the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the issue.

"General Electric now has now separately confirmed? its role in pushing the rider. GE gave Taylor $8,250 in campaign contributions during the 2004 election cycle, according to Federal Election Commission records. (((It's incredible what bargains there are in Washington! Eight grand? Wow!)))

"So while GE's 'coal miner' actors preen on television, its lobbyists argue privately for a federal handout and the Hudson remains toxic.

"That's greenwashing, not ecomagination."

(((Okay, it's true that the Hudson is toxic with PCBs. Scarily toxic.))) Link:

(((But PCBs were not invented to poison us. PCBs were invented to prevent us from burning to death. PCBs were a public-spirited safety measure intended to make transformers safer. They also turned out to be bioaccumulative toxins, but, well, those chemicals are not gonna go away even if GE follows Enron to the grave.)))

(((I'm all for corporate responsibility, but GE are not the world's only entities eager to shirk the unforeseen consequences of technology biting back. Thirty years ago, I smoked cigarettes. I was exporting airborne carcinogens to all and sundry, and I admit that, but that doesn't make me eager to get sued by Christie Whitman. Cigarettes looked legal enough at the time; one would like to think that the crux of that issue is to reward people who can come to their senses, not to single out smokers from now till the end of time as a matter of public principle.)))

(((Here's a different take on the matter, from someone who was actually behind the closed doors with the GE eco-apparat.)))


Strategic Thinking

by Joel Makower
May 2005

"'Ecomagination': Inside GE's Power Play

"General Electric, the 125-year-old behemoth born out of Thomas Edison's electric light company, is casting a bright light on sustainability. Its chairman and CEO, Jeffrey Immelt, has just announced that the $150 billion company is hitching its future to the growth of clean energy, clean water, and other clean technologies through a commitment to what GE is calling 'ecomagination.'

"Ecomagination, says Immelt, aims to 'focus our unique energy, technology, manufacturing, and infrastructure capabilities to develop tomorrow's solutions such as solar energy, hybrid locomotives, fuel cells, lower-emission aircraft engines, lighter and stronger materials, efficient lighting, and water purification technology.'

"By almost any measure, it's a bold move. For GE, the fifth-largest U.S. company, it represents a strategic shift that could catalyze competition among some of the world's largest companies to accelerate the emerging clean-tech economy.

"Working with my colleagues at GreenOrder, a New York-based consultancy specializing in sustainable business, I have helped GE prepare for this day over the past year or so, working at both the strategic and ground levels. Having had a front-row seat, I've watched 'ecomagination' catch fire (((hmmm))) at GE. I thought I'd share what I learned.

"First, some background. In announcing ecomagination, GE is committing itself to:

"more than double its research investment in cleaner technologies, from $700 million in 2004 to $1.5 billion in 2010;

"introduce more clean-tech products annually, doubling its current $10 billion in annual revenues from ecomagination products and services to at least $20 billion by 2010, 'with more aggressive targets thereafter.'

"GE also is pledging to improve its own environmental performance by:

"reducing its greenhouse gas emissions 1% by 2012 and the intensity of its greenhouse gas emissions 30% by 2008, both compared to 2004 (based on the company's projected growth, GE says its emissions would have otherwise risen 40% by 2012 without further action); "reporting publicly on its progress in meeting these goals."

(((These are pretty good goals. If every outfit in the FORTUNE 500 did this, we'd be living in a vastly improved world.)))

"What's driving GE to do this? First and foremost, it's a huge business opportunity. Clean Edge recently estimated that global markets for just three technologies – wind power, solar photovoltaics, and fuel cells – will grow to more than $100 billion within 10 years, from about $16 billion today. That doesn't include clean-water technologies, in which GE has invested heavily. (A study last year predicted that the market for world water treatment technologies will reach $35 billion by 2007.) And it doesn't include energy efficiency – technologies that significantly reduce energy use – which is, arguably, the biggest market of all.

(((It's going to require large enterprises to supply the skill and capital for an industrial transformation of this scale. Bake sales and T-shirts won't cut it. If you don't think that America's fifth largest corporation should be doing this work, whom do you expect to do it? Hint: it's not going to get accomplished by eco pressure groups, global NGOs, or off-the-grid rural communards.)))

"Beyond that, Immelt believes the private sector needs to step up to the plate in addressing environmental challenges, and to stop viewing the environment as a no-win business proposition. Immelt doesn't advocate abandoning government action on the environment, but he sees an alternative pathway for business, one in which the private sector embraces today's realities of environmental, national security, and other concerns and invests in creating new markets for cleaner fuels and technologies.

"True, GE still manufactures nuclear power plants (which are not part of its ecomagination goals) and is investing heavily in 'cleaner coal' technologies (which are part of the goals) – not everyone's definition of clean technology, though Immelt firmly believes they should be part of our energy future.

(((Coal isn't going to evaporate, and, grim as that choice is, it makes a lot more sense to glow in the dark and risk death of thyroid cancer than it does to melt both icecaps in our lifetime.)))
"The addition to the McCain-Lieberman bill, which is being circulated in draft form, would codify a new political bargain. Conservatives would support emission controls in return for liberal support for a new generation of nuclear power plants, a shift that could reshape the existing alignments on these issues." (((Watch that space. If it doesn't happen now, it'll merely happen ten years from now when the carbon heat is ten years worse.)))

"Reasonable people can disagree on this, but it's hard to argue with Immelt's willingness to put his company out front of the debate in a very visible way. GE's goal is not to promote one or two energy technologies above the others, but to push them all aggressively. Washington could learn a lot from that strategy. (((At least Washington doesn't yet dare to call for Immelt's head on a platter. If he gets anywhere with solar and wind, expect instant organized calumny from ExxonMobil's sock puppets.)))

"GE seems to be doing several other things right in making ecomagination central to its strategy. In many ways, it represents a textbook approach to what a major corporate sustainability effort can look like. Here are six specific reasons I believe GE is headed in the right direction:

"1. It's being viewed as a business opportunity. Few other large companies – BP, Dupont, and Interface are rare exceptions – have set their sights on making sustainability a cornerstone of topline business growth – new products, larger markets, stronger customer ties, etc. GE sees ecomaginationas an engine for creating new sources of business value for years to come. That's likely to make it sustainable within the company, and not just the flavor of the month.

(((It can't be flavor of the month because the flavor of burning rain forests is here to stay.)))

"2. It's got solid top-level commitment. Experts always talk about the importance of having CEO buy-in to make sustainability more than just a nice-to-do company initiative. (Again, BP's John Browne, Dupont's Chad Holliday, and Interface's Ray Anderson are among a handful of exemplars.) Immelt seems to be making ecomagination a personal quest, from his high-profile announcements this week all the way to his personal appearance on the ecomagination Web site. I'm guessing you'll be hearing Immelt preach the ecomagination gospel for the foreseeable future.

"3. It's both aspirational and specific. GE's ecomagination pledge marries high-level strategy and vision with specific targets and timetables. Both are critical for sustainability to succeed inside a company, and having one without the other is a recipe for failure. In providing both, GE has signaled its intention to be an environmental and clean-tech leader, and has provided a road map of how they plan to get there.

"4. They've done their homework. GE has identified 17 products representing about $10 billion in annual sales as part of the ecomagination platform on which it plans to build. In doing so, the company undertook an intensive process to identify and qualify current ecomagination products, analyzing the environmental attributes of GE products relative to benchmarks such as competitors' best products, the installed base of products, regulatory standards, and historical performance. (Doing this analysis was one of the key roles played by GreenOrder.) For each ecomagination product, GE created an extensive 'scorecard' quantifying the product's environmental attributes, impacts, and benefits relative to comparable products. The scorecards were used to create the product claims that can be found in GE's printed materials, ads, and Web site.

(((If the environmental movement were capable of behavior half this businesslike, they'd be running the parties in power in most of the developed world.)))

"5. It's being integrated with the brand. GE says the ecomagination 'brand' will be integrated into its overall marketing – at least for the products that qualify. This is no small matter. Most companies have been reluctant to play up their products' environmental benefits (if you don't count those feel-good image ads that come primarily from energy, chemical, and forestry companies), fearing that their green claims won't stand up to scrutiny when weighed against the company's overall environmental footprint. GE's leaders seem willing to take the risk – largely because they're making specific claims and are willing to back them up.

(((Their big risk may be that the eco-coffeecup crowd may hate GE worse for succeeding in green commercialism than they hate them for being exemplars of capitalist evil. BP and Shell, the greenest and sweetest-tempered of oil majors, always catch the "scrutiny" worse than, say, Chevron and Texaco, who are twice as evil but cannily keep a lower profile.)))

"6. They're in it for the long haul. Clearly, ecomagination – like sustainability itself – is not a one-off campaign or short-term proposition. GE seems determined to make ecomagination part of its identity. It plans not just to market the brand aggressively to the world, but also internally, to GE's 300,000-employee base, to ensure that the notion of leadership through clean technology is part of everyone's job.

(((If everyone in GE is a corporate criminal, you're advocating the liquidation of 300,000 people.))) "Time will tell, of course, how effective this strategy will be in helping GE gain business – and shareholder – value. If it works, it may provide a model for how a company can strike out as an environmental leader in today's cynical marketplace."

(((Well, I wasn't in the room when GE was brainstorming its green corporate remake, but let me put it this way. We've got a choice here between transforming a deadly behemoth whose behavior means woe for our children, or nursing weird psychosexual grudges about the Statue of Liberty and irradiated nuclear testicles from 1963. I don't say we should forget the past, but I do say we should get the hell on with the work at hand.)))

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