Nov. 17, 2009

Sustainability, capitalism can go hand in hand, CEO says

Just because a company seeks to make a profit doesn't mean it can't be sustainable, said a host of cutting-edge business leaders, including executives from General Electric (GE), Coca-Cola Enterprises, Starbucks and Xerox at the 2009 Net Impact Conference held at Cornell Nov. 13-14.

Some 300 speakers at about 100 events discussed topics related to sustainable global enterprise, including energy, social entrepreneurship, international development and investing.

Jeffrey Immelt, chairman and CEO of GE, one of America's largest and most profitable companies, said he loves the energy business "because so much is going to happen in the next 10 to 20 years."

Immelt joined Cornell President David Skorton Nov. 13 in a "fireside chat" discussion titled "Driving Innovation and Economic Renewal In a Global Context" to open the conference at Cornell, which drew a record 2,400 business professionals and graduate students.

This year, China will surpass the United States in battery, wind and solar technology, said Immelt, who is on President Obama's Economic Recovery Advisory Council. "There's more growth outside the United States than there is inside the United States," he said.

Huge increases in demand for energy in emerging economies, like China and India, will result in some 10 million new jobs in the renewable energy sector by 2030, he added. To benefit from this, the United States needs strong and progressive public policies. "I think what's at stake for the U.S. is: Are the jobs going to be here or are they going to be somewhere else?"

Job creation is a priority of the advisory council, Immelt noted, but to accomplish this, the U.S. needs to have a global perspective on the economy, focusing on industries that will help solve the world's biggest problems while making the country more competitive, "How do we create the types of industries, the types of capability, the types of education, that are going to make the country better able to prosper in a more global economy?" he asked.

One of these problems is climate change. Immelt said that GE has drastically reduced its carbon dioxide emissions, effectively complying with the Kyoto Protocol targets. This was not purely for environmental reasons however, said Immelt, who is also a founding member of the Climate Action Partnership, which calls for greater government controls on carbon emissions. "We thought it was going to cost a couple million bucks. We actually saved a couple million bucks."

Immelt added that today's business leaders need to get involved in the political process more than ever before to be successful. "We are in a time period where government and business intersect and better be savvy on both sides if you want to ultimately understand where you need to go," he said

Companies can profit while being sustainable and socially responsible, he emphasized. "The value that GE has in this conference is one: It is the merger of sustainability with capitalism."

In another Nov. 13 presentation, William Bruno, former vice president of Consol Energy, and Sherri Stuewer, vice president of environmental policy and planning for Exxon Mobil Corp., discussed future possibilities of carbon capture and sequestration technology. They explained a method of removing carbon from emissions and burying it in the ground, a practice that was pioneered in oil drilling operations to maximize output. Bruno described coal as "a bridge to renewable technology."

Other events addressed such topics as building new energy infrastructure, the role of agriculture in climate change mitigation, e-waste recycling, public-private partnerships in global health and updating MBA curriculums.

The conference had more than a dozen sponsors and was hosted by Cornell's Johnson School.

Pelle Rudstam '10 is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.