Citizenship for Sustainable Business

Jun 25, 2013 4:30 PM ET
Campaign: Stakeholder Voices

Citizenship for Sustainable Business

Beijing, my home for this year, is about a 25-hour flight from São Paolo. With Beijing smothered in toxic smog, it is hard to tell that today is a summer day, the solstice, in fact, the longest day of the year. This is the right place to experience in real time the urgency of building a clean, low-carbon, natural resource–light world. Living in Beijing, like thousands of other cities that house billions of people, provides a clearer signal of the need to develop and deploy the technologies needed to scale clean energy, potable water and affordable healthcare.

I was in São Paolo to facilitate a meeting of GE’s Citizenship Panel, a task I’ve performed with considerable pleasure since 2007. The Panel’s mission is to advise GE on critical social and environmental issues. It provides expert knowledge, but also throws light on key issues by consulting with key stakeholders. It comes together on average twice a year and meets around the world from Shanghai, to Fairfield, Conn. (USA), to London and now São Paolo.

GE has, of course, many ways of gaining knowledge and insight. But like any organization, it has blind spots as well as strengths. Topics that are not technology-specific or that are not part of a mainstream policy debate are more difficult to pick up, even when they may be important to the business, today or at some point in the near future. Since its inception, the Citizenship Panel has covered many topics, debating everything from climate change to the future of Myanmar, customer responsibility, taxes, technology for poorer communities and human rights.

It is a privilege to be part of this Panel, not least because of the quality of its participants. Valdemar de Oliviera Neto was the founding managing director of the Brazilian business network Instituto Ethos, and now leads an extraordinary initiative on technology and business innovation for the Avina Foundation. Nick Robins, also from the UK, leads HSBC’s Centre for Climate Change, whilst Salil Tripathi is the policy director of the recently established Institute for Business and Human Rights. Zimbabwe-born Jane Nelson from Harvard has led the debate globally on public-private partnerships for the last two decades. UK-based Isabel Hilton is the founder of ChinaDialogue, a unique, bilingual platform that enables environmental issues to be debated between China and the rest of the world. Dawn Rittenhouse is the head of sustainability at technology giant Dupont, and Thero Setileone heads up the policy-focused business association Business Leadership South Africa. New to the panel this year is James Moody, a technologist from Australia, and one of the new generation of entrepreneurs working on advancing business models for sharing assets and services more efficiently.

Over two days, the Panel debated ways in which GE can support Brazil’s development. How best to participate in public-private partnerships to deliver much-needed infrastructure was a major topic of debate, drawing on international experience. Also discussed was how most effectively to leverage GE’s footprint in Brazil to develop local businesses and share their associated economic benefits. As part of the Panel’s international work, an additional topic was the progress being made by the UN in agreeing to what are known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which many leading companies, including GE, are likely to use in the future as key reference points for their own performance assessment. Discussed also was GE’s public reporting on its sustainability performance, focusing in particular on the Company’s development of national and regional reporting.

The Panel’s members are committed to helping GE leverage its unique technology portfolio and global reach to improve the Company’s contribution to sustainable development. Our time in São Paolo was framed most of all by the street demonstrations in which hundreds of thousands of the city’s citizens participated. I was fortunate enough to be on the streets on Monday night with other Panel members, when the excitement of citizen action and peace coexisted for a brief moment. On that Monday evening, Sao Paolo citizens and the GE Citizenship Panel embraced the same spirited ambition.

Read about Citizenship for Sustainable Business on the GE Citizenship website.