Making the decision to be sustainable is easy. Executing is much harder, especially if you’re one of the largest companies in the world.
But that’s just what General Electric did.
As one of the largest industrial polluters at the time, General Electric (GE) publicly committed in 2005 to make sustainability a priority. Initially, it was criticized as a cynical ploy for public relations – a greenwashing scam, in other words. However, 11 years later, GE has shown that its serious approach to a major sustainability program pivoted the entire organization’s values and processes.
Here’s what GE did well when they launched their sustainability program (and what you can emulate from their success):
A lot of companies claim they are sustainable without making a change. From the beginning, GE committed to completely altering their focus as an organization at every level of the company. CEO Jeff Immelt led the waves of change throughout the new sustainability initiative. GE promised to accomplish four primary goals:
– Double its R&D investment ($700 million at the time) in clean tech by 2010
– Double revenue from Ecomagination, its green products and services initiative
– Reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1% by 2012
– Reduce water use by 20% by 2012 (added in 2006)
In GE facilities across the world, employees were asked to find inefficient products, processes, and systems and improve them. Some were small changes, like replacing outdated light bulbs with more efficient CFLs or LED bulbs, to major operational or institutional adjustments. One testing facility found that they could save three million gallons of jet fuel every year by modifying the system process (e.g. reducing the runtime of the tests) with the same effectiveness. All of these changes were then passed on to clients and others at GE so they could be more sustainable, too.
By fully committing to their new sustainability plan, GE made key organizational improvements that allowed it to far surpass its 2005 goals at the 10-year benchmark. Investment in clean tech R&D was at $5B in 2010, Ecomagination revenues were at $85B, accounting for ~30% of total company revenue, GHG emissions were reduced by 22%, and water consumption was reduced by 30%.
The success of GE’s sustainability campaign was that it was not simply a marketing campaign: It required the entire organization to pivot and build upon one value. Without buy-in from all levels, this would likely have been a failure.
A huge part of any marketing campaign is to create content that resonates with audiences and their values. When adding a nebulous value like “sustainability,” putting faces and creating connections to such a broad term within a large company is absolutely key. With such a diverse audience, GE created a wide range of personalized campaigns to relate to different groups; all make you feel more emotionally connected to the company and causes.
In earlier campaigns, animated animals like the infamous dancing elephant celebrated while a voiceover discussed what GE was doing to make the planet healthier. Because, really, what kind of sustainability marketing campaign can you run without happy charismatic megafauna?
Utilizing relatable content, GE’s marketing team ran another ad campaign around childhood imagination and innovation. When you’re a kid, your parents are heroes; GE tapped into that emotional connection with ads like “What My Mom Does at GE.”
GE also introduces you to the actual people building the products we use – directly or indirectly – every day. A new series, “From The Factory Floor,” introduces the engineers building more efficient and sustainable products. Putting a face to such a mechanical process brings incredibly distant factories right to your home. By “getting to know” GE engineers, they suddenly become relatable and interesting while subtly highlighting the progress made in efficiency and sustainability at GE.
Personalization makes General Electric’s sustainability marketing so much more relatable, and therefore shareable, than other ad campaigns. If a huge industrial organization can produce personal, relatable content, then you can, too.
From the beginning, GE was transparent about its sustainability mission and how it planned to reach its goals. After publicly failing the environment in the past, notably by dumping into the Hudson River for decades after WWII, GE’s sustainability program aimed to change the focus of the company moving forward.
After the 2005 launch of Ecomagination, GE produced report cards so stakeholders and the public alike could hold the company up to the standard it had set for itself. It also hosted events and presentations around the world and online for people to consume a more digestible form of the annual sustainability report.
In order to be accountable to the public, GE did what most companies avoid: publicly release information about operations and efficiency. While this is not a choice every company wants to make, it was crucial in making critics and supporters alike believe that GE was executing on what it set out to do. It busted any greenwashing myth while convincing the public to trust an organization that was once a major industrial polluter.
For GE, the sustainability program was a risk. The company succeeded by sticking to three basic principles: commitment, personalization, and transparency. You don’t need the budget or resources to achieve the same sustainability marketing success that GE did. By utilizing these three key elements, any company can transform to be more sustainable.