Back in 2005, wind power, solar energy and electric vehicles were subscale technologies when GE launched Ecomagination, which strives to improve business and environmental performance, all while generating revenue. Today, these technologies have gone from expensive pilots to mainstream services, and they’re accelerating fast, write Ann Condon, GE’s Director of Resources and Environmental Strategies, and Paul Holdredge, Manager, Resources and Environmental Strategy.
When GE launched Ecomagination 12 years ago, we were well aware of what the skeptics were saying. At the time, many thought that a big company couldn’t improve the environment while also improving the bottom line. The conventional wisdom was that one had to come at the expense of the other and that we would either fail to make real changes or fail to make a profit
As GE’s leaders responsible for implementing our operating Ecomagination goals of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and fresh water use, we’ve found the reality has been quite the opposite. Since launching Ecomagination in 2005, GE has invested a total of $20 billion in cleaner technology solutions that have returned $270 billion in revenue. The company also has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 42 percent since 2004.
Increasingly, customers and employees want assurances that they are supporting companies that are doing the right things for the planet. And this dynamic is accelerating change in the world. But for that change to become real, companies need to make the leap from having a sustainability silo to making it part of their DNA. That’s not always easy.
Here are five important lessons we’ve learned for companies that want to accelerate their sustainability initiatives:
1. Start with your own house.
We knew that in order to make Ecomagination impactful, we needed to find ways to improve sustainability internally. Targeted projects like refurbishing lighting or installing solar panels can make a big difference, as can routine energy efficiency and LEAN techniques. We estimate that, since 2006, these kinds of efforts have saved GE $480 million and have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by more than 5.2 million metric tons.We share what we learn from these internal projects with our businesses to help them demonstrate or improve the products we sell our customers.
2. Figure out where you can make the biggest impact.
No company can tackle every sustainability issue. Energy is a key priority for GE. We understand electricity generation and distribution like few others. One aspect of our Ecomagination business strategy focuses on reducing the impact of electricity generation and use for our customers and ourselves, through a wide range of technologies. We know we can lead by growing renewable energy sources like hydro, wind and solar, and by seeking ways to make our operations more energy efficient. Conversely, we wouldn’t be as effective tackling an issue like deforestation, because forestry products are not central to our products or our operations. Instead, we learn from others who have that as part of their core expertise.
3. Tap into your collective brain power.
Never underestimate the power of your own people. We launched Ecomagination by inviting every department to submit its best project ideas. The response was overwhelming. By opening the floodgates wide we tapped into a treasure trove of innovative projects, like an employee-driven initiative to reduce the use of a greenhouse gas at GE’s Oil & Gas facilities in Florence and Massa, Italy.
4. Stoke the flames of innovation.
With any long-term program, enthusiasm can be high at the beginning and dissipate over time. We’ve kept up the Ecoimagination program with employee engagement campaigns. For example, for the last six years we’ve issued EcoAwards, which recognize unsung heroes who are quietly making a difference within GE. In the last five years, EcoAwards recipients have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by a total of 113,000 metric tons, reduced water use by more than 1 billion gallons and reduced costs by $11.5 million.
5. Continue to stretch.
We’re now on our third round of goals. Setting up initial measurable goals, such as our first goal to reduce emissions by 1 percent in five to seven years, was a bit scary. However, it focused the effort and showed us how much we could do when we ultimately achieved a 32 percent reduction in seven years. Be prepared to expand on your goals before you reach them. At GE, our current goals are to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and water usage 20 percent by 2020 —a goal we are close to achieving with greenhouse emissions down 18 percent and water use down 29 percent. We are now looking at ways to expand on that progress. Why should goals limit what you can achieve?
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment for any sustainability initiative — Ecomagination included — is the realization that there is no finish line. We can always find new creative ways to establish a cleaner world while growing our business. It’s the kind of challenge that GE employees thrive on.
(Top image: Courtesy Getty Images.)
All views expressed are those of the authors.