Putting the GE in green

This week’s announcement by General Electric that environmental technologies are now central to its corporate agenda should, to an extent, come as no surprise.

This week’s announcement by General Electric that environmental technologies are now central to its corporate agenda should, to an extent, come as no surprise.

Working on the ‘man bites dog’ principle of newsworthiness, a statement by the US mega-corporation along the lines of ‘you can all choke, suckers, we’re here to make money not save the world’ would have been far more remarkable.

Several factors do, however, make the words of GE chief executive Jeff Immelt well worth pondering.

The first is the very fact that Immelt himself made such a high-profile commitment to put the environment at the heart of his global empire’s diverse operations.

GE didn’t need to do it this way, and could have given a far lowerkey nod to the environment. It could have hired a new ‘eco-tsar’ who once marched against seal clubbing in Canada and given him precisely the same influence over corporate policy as the head of internal catering. It could have redesigned its corporate logo to resemble a flower and banned the use of non-recycled toilet paper by any of its 300,000 employees. It could have…well, you get the idea.

By making such a big song and dance about its ‘Ecomagination’ initiative Immelt has let a genie out of the bottle for GE. Wherever it does business around the world — and it does a lot of business in a lot of places — GE can expect to come under the spotlight. Any hint of environmental- unfriendliness will bring a reference to Immelt’s words and charges of hypocrisy.

Now, Immelt and his advisers will be well aware of all this. Immelt is the heir to Jack Welch, legendary former GE boss and the epitome of the unsentimental, utterly focused and highly successful US business leader.

 Just like his predecessor, Immelt wouldn’t be going down this road unless he thought there was a compelling business case for doing so. He is likely to be far less interested in going down in history as a green prophet than for his green profit. GE’s thinking seems to be that all this save-the-world stuff isn’t going to go away.

The EU, one of the world’s biggest markets for engineering technology, is unlikely to curb its enthusiasm for environmental regulation. Either play ball, or don’t do business in Europe.

Apparently, the Chinese are showing a surprisingly strong interest in environmentally benevolent systems. Even the Russians are moving towards some kind of green agenda. Yes, the Russians, who not so many years ago solved the problem of what to with unwanted nuclear submarines by dumping them at the bottom of the ocean and forgetting about them.

Maybe we have reached the point at which the world’s biggest corporations become wedded to the development of environmental technology in aid of what is, to them, the most worthy cause of all — their own success.

Andrew Lee, Editor, The Engineer.