While Wal-Mart's CEO Lee Scott is likely the corporate chieftain that perplexes Treehuggers the most, General Electric's Jeffrey Immelt runs a close second. The 125-year-old company bears responsiblity for massive environmental damages over the years, including the infamous contamination of the Hudson River with PCBs in the mid-20th century. Many observers would claim that Immelt has staked out a position not far from that of his combative predecessor Jack Welch on the Hudson River issue:he is unapologetic even as he seeks to settle decades of litigation. At the same time, Immelt is also the driving force behind Ecomagination, a company campaign to revolutionize the way GE makes products and produces energy. The campaign's motto, "Green is Green," signifies a commitment to increasing shareholder value through clean technology, sustainable design and complete accountability.In its most recent issue, Vanity Fair published a feature article by Grist's Muckraker, Amanda Griscom Little, that attempts to pin down both Immelt and his company on their environmental commitments. While Griscom Little's account provides a thorough overview of the Ecoimagination effort from its genesis, Immelt himself still proves an elusive figure. For instance, he was positively amused by the fact that Ecomagination had been criticised by both environmentalists and free-market conservatives: "I know I'm doing something right when I have the left saying it's not good enough and the right saying this is Communist corporate do-goodism bullshit," he says. "I think it's a good thing, actually."
Immelt is more predictable when it comes to his overall goals for the company he leads: he wants to expand on the legacy of GE's success and profitability. Ecomagination is central to his vision of success, and he believes that the combination of current strict environmental policies in Europe and Japan, the inevitability of CO2 regulation in the United States, and the growth of India and China into economic powerhouses requiring affordable, reliable electricity creates an opportune moment to "do well by doing good." What's impressed many (but not all) environmental organizations is the company's commitment to transparency in the process of "going green." GE hired strategy firm GreenOrder to help it meet high standards of environmental performance while still producing products that consumers desired and valued. According to GreenOrder CEO Andrew Shapiro, "G.E. came to us and said, 'We need to be bulletproof, ... We don't want to get caught making public promises to our customers without being accountable. We want to do our homework.'" Environmental advocates are taking note of the company's efforts: "G.E. is deploying the biggest and most ambitious climate strategy in corporate America," says Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, "and taking an incredibly gutsy stand in favor of greenhouse-gas regulations."
While Vanity Fair's article helps GE and Immelt make a strong case that they're serious about the environmental goals they've set under Ecoimagination, the CEO himself is still a bit of an enigma. Clearly, though, he's no fool -- and that bodes well for GE and the natural environment in which it (and the rest of us) operates. ::Vanity Fair
Photograph of GE's executive team (Jeffrey Immelt in the center) by Christian Witkin