Sunday, September 16, 2007

“Wash me… but don’t get me wet”

Any German will immediately recognize the above saying about people who are less committed to something than they publicly profess. Environmentalists call it ‘greenwashing’. And here’s my devil’s advocate question:

What if we are confusing a company’s incremental progress on a complex long-range strategy with hypocrisy?

The Wall Street Journal has just updated us on General Electric’s (NYSE: GE) progress on its attention-grabbing Ecomagination strategy. It seems that there is resistance to Ecomagination’s promise and products from both customers and the ranks within and more limited C-level support than was widely assumed.

To its credit, GE leads the pack in establishing top-level leadership on going green. And its stated approach, to bring innovative environmentally-friendly products to market without sacrificing profits, raised our expectations of the bottom line benefits of corporate social responsibility. Yet, GE’s current business reality is that it backs proposals to cap industrial carbon-dioxide emissions even as it continues to sell coal-fired steam turbines.

And it is particularly troubling that some GE employees still question whether climate change is even for real. Huh? (Hint: Ron Nielson’s The Little Green Handbook is a number cruncher’s dream). Also, CEO Jeff Immelt’s statement about limiting GE’s sustainability initiatives to only those things that made ‘economic sense’ sounds reasonable on the surface, but also leaves the loud silent question of whether sustainability initiatives are being shouldered with a heavier burden of proof (and performance) than status quo business practices.

With green building now emerging in our industry, this article provides deep insights about the realities of leading organizational and industry transformation and leads to a more concrete question:

What would they write about you?

If a Wall Street Journal reporter googled your company on its green building progress, perhaps even called you and your peers to find out more on what you’re doing, what do you think would be written about you and your firm?

  • Can you compartmentalize the business of green building away from your personal beliefs about sustainability?
  • Do you embed sustainability into your personal lifestyle?
  • Do any of your peers and employees?
  • Is favoring green building a moral or business choice, or a political necessity?
  • What are the economic and political realities of embedding sustainability in your company?
  • What business tradeoffs are you prepared to make?
  • What tradeoffs will you absolutely NOT make to go green?
  • How are you engaging your employees, customers and other important stakeholders about your efforts to go green?
  • Are you retaining any other business practices alongside your green building efforts which may be in conflict?
  • How do you explain that?

It is very difficult to make the necessary business decisions about green building without spelling out your level of personal and organizational commitment. I hope these questions help us to engage each other more constructively and authentically.

-- Lisa

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