Stirring GE's Ecomagination

Lorraine Bolsinger, who heads a major energy-efficiency initiative at General Electric, says companies can make green while being green. Photos: Inside GE's clean-tech labs

Can a corporate behemoth the size of General Electric, rooted in the traditional energy business, be good for the planet?

It certainly can, according to Ecomagination, a high-profile initiative inside GE to make environmentally conscious products that still result in healthy profits.

To the public, the Ecomagination advertising and marketing campaign seems to have put a different face on GE--a conglomerate that makes everything from lightbulbs to TV shows.

But while GE's happy to tout its green credentials, its vice president of Ecomagination, Lorraine Bolsinger, is wary of "greenwashing."

Putting an eco-friendly spin on products to improve a corporate image without the goods to back it up will ultimately set the company--and its financial goals--back, according to Bolsinger, who says she welcomes feedback from environmental activists.

GE Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt tapped Bolsinger two years ago to lead GE's efforts to capitalize on global environmental problems, from climate change to fresh-water shortages. That responsibility also includes reducing greenhouse gas emissions at GE, which is a member of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a collection of industrial businesses lobbying for climate change regulations.

During a this week in Niskayuna, N.Y., Bolsinger spoke to CNET about the birth of the Ecomagination "growth strategy," clean technologies on the drawing board, and the tension of going green in Corporate America.

GE was one of the first U.S.-based companies to make a bet and say there was money to be made in cleaner technologies. What was behind the initial push?
Bolsinger: When you look at our company, it's pretty easy to understand why we would have been in the space so early on. You might say we are really smart, we're really progressive, and I'd like to think that. It's also because of the very nature of things that we make. Everything that we make, just about, uses electricity or produces electricity or some kind of energy, some kind of motive power.

You're big in energy.
Bolsinger: We're big in energy, and we invest in energy, so it sort of touches everything that we do. We looked at some trends. (CEO) Jeff Immelt does something called a growth playbook every year with each of his businesses. Think of it as a strategic plan for the next three to five years and beyond.

What he heard over and over were three themes for businesses. One, we are going to see enormous (gross domestic product) growth around the world. Two, we will see a scarcity of resources--scarcity of water, scarcity of (energy) resources, and higher prices that go along with that. And the security of supply is at best questionable and, of course, we see that. And the third theme is that we're going to be living in a world where regulations are going to become more and more stringent, not just in the United States but around the world.

At some point in time, customers are going to say, "I don't want anything but an environmentally friendly product." It won't be acceptable to have something that is cheap but dirty.

So we are at a point in time when we have a group of (energy) technologies in our portfolio, and we have to respond to this. We can either wait to see what happens, or we can get out in front of it. Obviously, Immelt decided to get out in front of it, and so we launched Ecomagination.

Ecomagination is for us, above everything else, a growth strategy. It is a business strategy based on the idea that by investing in technologies to help customers solve these big megatrends that we're seeing, to help them grow sustainably in this world--where there is more regulation, more scarcity, higher energy costs--that we can grow sustainably as well. So what's good for business is good for the environment, and what's good for the environment can be good for business.

Reducing your company's own greenhouse gas emissions is also part of the initiative. Why is that?
Bolsinger: That's a very important piece of this because you don't have a lot of credibility if you're out there, telling everyone else, "You ought to do it, but it's not for us." Is a very important backbone of what we do.

You said you're set to top the $20 billion mark in Ecomagination revenue. Yet it's not a separate division, and you're such a diversified company. How do you count it? Is a cleaner gas turbine part of Ecomagination?
Bolsinger: Yes. In order for something to be an Ecomagination-certified product, it has to have two characteristics--not one or the other, but both. It has to be significantly and measurably better in operating performance as well as environmental performance.

If we got this great green technology, but it's totally unaffordable, we say no, that's not ready to be an ecoproduct. It has to be better, in terms of operating performance for the customer--to give them some economic return--as well as the environmental piece of it. And we use a third party to help in the certification process.

Why do you work with a third party to certify what you're doing?
Bolsinger: We want our claims to be authentic and certifiable. Otherwise, you're a greenwasher. We like tough standards, and I think that one of the marks of whether a process is good or not is whether everything squeaks through. And frankly, not everything does.

I'm glad that not everything makes it through because I think we have to be stringent about this. I find that the environmental-activist community is very unforgiving--that's probably a good thing. I'm sure you know about all the news reports about greenwashing and nonverifiable claims about (carbon) offsets and carbon neutrality. I think we have to be ever-vigilant to never cross that line because it's a long way back.

So if half of your product portfolio is already greener, will it all be, at some point?
Bolsinger: You know, someday, I think we'll stop counting. Don't ask when that is. Maybe when I leave this job, that'll be the day, but we continue to count because we want to be on the record, we want to make sure that we are making progress.

But I do believe that at some point in time, customers are going to say, "I don't want anything but an environmentally friendly product." It won't be acceptable to have something that is cheap but dirty. Do I think that eventually everything is going to be an ecoproduct? I do, at least from the equipment perspective.

How far off is that day?
Bolsinger: I'd say certainly 10 years from now, probably sooner--probably closer to 5.

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