May 13, 2005
Frank O'Donnell is president of Clean Air Watch, a 501 (c) 3 non-partisan, non-profit organization aimed at educating the public about clean air and the need for an effective Clean Air Act.
You might call it "Extreme Makeover: Corporate Edition."Or, perhaps, simply "greenwashing."
General Electric, the conglomerate whose environmental legacy has been dominated by its poisoning of the Hudson River with PCBs—and its reluctance to clean up the damage—is turning over a green new leaf. Or so the company claims.
But even while GE was hosting was hosting a glitzy cocktail reception to roll out a new pro-environmental PR and ad campaign, the company was working behind closed doors in Congress to secure another delay in cleaning up the Hudson— a cleanup that is supposed to cost the company half a billion dollars.
Let's start with the May 9 debut of the company's "Ecomagination" campaign—a $90 million PR blitz aimed at remaking the company's soiled image into one colored bright green: Expensive print ads show leaves sprouting from electric power plants; a green airplane floats across a corporate website behind the online greeting by CEO Jeffrey Immelt; a television commercial features buff models posing as coal miners—essentially a mini-music video reminiscent of Madonna's "Express Yourself."
The frivolous quality of the advertising undercuts GE's serious message: "Increasingly for business, 'green' is green," noted Immelt. "We're at a tipping point where energy efficiency and emission reductions equal profitability."
The GE executive announced the company would double by 2010 its annual $700 million spending on research and development of eco-friendly products, and would double its revenue from those products by 2015. Included are efforts to develop solar and wind energy, as well as an advanced coal process supported—in concept—by environmentalists.
In a move applauded by environmentalists (particularly the World Resources Institute, a think tank that receives support from GE and helped devise the new corporate strategy), GE promised to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from its operations by one percent by 2012. It said those emissions would increase by 40 percent without the initiative. And Immelt said in interviews that he would like Congress to include "clear milestones" to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as part of energy legislation.
Even though the Bush administration quickly sought to associate itself with the company—"We sort of view G.E.'s pledge as the president's climate policy put into practice," DOE Assistant Secretary David Garman told The New York Times —GE does seem to be taking a more proactive position on global warming than President Bush (to whom Immelt made campaign contributions). Likewise for Bush's chief environmental apologist, James Connaughton, who was a GE lobbyist before becoming chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and who attended the May 9 cocktail reception.
At first glance, the company also seems to be breaking both in style and substance with former CEO Jack Welch, who notes in his most recent book, Winning , that "Business is a game, and winning that game is a total blast!"
For example, in 1986, Congressman Edward Markey, D-Mass., disclosed that while running the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the company had conducted experiments on hundreds of United States citizens whom Markey described as "nuclear calibration devices for experimenters run amok."
One of GE's most gruesome experiments was performed on inmates at a prison in Walla Walla, Wash., near Hanford. Starting in 1963, 64 prisoners had their scrotums and testes irradiated to determine the effects of radiation on human reproductive organs.
GE has clashed with the federal government on air pollution policy issues. In 2000, the company hired noted "liberal" constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe of Harvard to file a friend-of-the-court brief with the Supreme Court opposing EPA's clean air standards for smog and soot. Fortunately, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected GE's dirty-air approach.
But GE is perhaps best known for the Hudson River. From the late 1940s until 1977, GE discharged more than one million pounds of the toxic waste known as PCBs into the Hudson River. Over the years, these chemicals have spread, contaminating two hundred miles of river from the Hudson Falls to just shy of the Statue of Liberty.
Then-EPA Administrator Christie Whitman ordered the company in 2002 to clean up the toxic mess. The cleanup has yet to begin. GE has dozens of other Superfund sites, and has lobbied for years to try to change the Superfund law.
And GE is continuing its efforts to stall the cleanup. In its federal lobbyist disclosure forms, GE notes that one of its lobbying goals is to "support reasonable phasing and performance standards for the PCB Hudson River site remedy."
That was translated behind closed doors this week into a budget rider—attached to appropriations legislation in the House Appropriations Committee—that would call for a yearlong National Academy of Sciences study to take another look at the project.
Congressional sources said GE was behind the rider, which wasn't disclosed until after committee members voted to approve the legislation, and that it was inserted secretly at the request of Rep. Charles Taylor, R-N.C., who chairs the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the issue.
General Electric now has now separately confirmed its role in pushing the rider. GE gave Taylor $8,250 in campaign contributions during the 2004 election cycle, according to Federal Election Commission records.
So while GE's "coal miner" actors preen on television, its lobbyists argue privately for a federal handout and the Hudson remains toxic.
That's greenwashing, not ecomagination.