By Melissa J. Anderson

Last month GE released its 2009 Global Citizenship report [PDF] entitled “Renewing Responsibilities.” The report is framed by the economic downturn, which, GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt says is cause for readjustment in how the company, and other companies, should approach their role in the world. He says, “In light of what many have called the Great Recession, the world is reset. Now we must lead an aggressive renewal to win the future.”

According to Sam Nunn, chairman of the GE Board of Directors Public Responsibilities committee, the report “represents the evolution of GE’s effort to continually challenge ourselves to be more transparent, more accessible, and more cognizant of our impact on society and the environment.”

He continues, “GE is making a dedicated effort to develop its business strategy so that its products and services have a positive human impact and produce long-term business success.”

People, Planet, Profit

Throughout the report, GE asserts that it has a responsibility toward the planet and its people – and that it stand to profit by coming through on that commitment.

Nun writes, “The limits of the planet’s natural resources — clean water, air, energy and land — are already stretched. Closing the global gap between where we are and where we need to get to cannot be achieved by a return to business as usual.”

In the report, GE revealed that revenues from its Ecomagination product line reached $18 billion in 2009, which accounts for 28% percent of GE’s product revenue.

The company is also standing behind its new Healthymagination product line, saying that 24 of its products have been validated by Analytica, an independent research firm.

But Ecomagination and Healthymagination are more than products. They are also the way GE is working to run its business. As the report explains:

“Over the past few years, GE has invested in ecomagination, our own business initiative to develop and bring to market products that use less energy and resources. At the same time, we’ve been cutting our own energy and water use. …But beyond this, we see ecomagination as a defining philosophy and investment in the future for GE as the world transitions to a low-carbon economy.”

Additionally, as part of the Healthymagination initiative, the company plans to “implement a tobacco-free campus standard globally by March 1, 2011,” “reduce U.S. health-related absence by 2%,” and “increase U.S. preventive screening rates.”

By working the “-magination” initiatives from both a external/consumer and internal/employee angle, the company ensures that its brand matches its values. Brackett B. Denniston III, SVP and General Counsel and Robert L. Corcoran, VP Corporate Citizenship write:

“GE’s ability to innovate and solve problems depends on attracting, retaining, and motivating extraordinarily talented people. People come to work at GE for the opportunity of a rewarding career that makes a difference. They will only stay if our culture allows them to live up to this promise.”

Corporations and Society

GE’s report also presents an interesting point of view regarding the role of corporations in society. As such a large company (with nearly 300,000 employees located across 100 countries), it has a responsibility to improve lives and the planet. According to the report:

“Prosperous and productive populations in turn rely on the institutions that underpin society; respecting human rights, legal redress, access to education and healthcare, fair competition and trade, and protection of the environment and the vulnerable.”

The company should also have a positive impact on the communities in which it operates and the individuals who work there. The report explains that the company invests in education and health, supports labor rights, providing “decent wages, medical benefits, pensions, and safe workspaces” around the globe.

Finally the company discusses its public policy priorities. It is interesting for a corporation to be so forthcoming in discussing its advocacy efforts – but according to GE, these efforts align with both societal desires and its profit outlook.

“Globally, societies are working to develop new risk-oversight frameworks to foster financial stability, agreement on greenhouse gas emissions to stop climate change, trade rules to promote growth and intellectual property rights to support innovation. These are also global public policy priorities for GE.

GE continues to play an active role in advocating for global rules on emissions, and for agreements to reduce tariffs on green products. In addition, we engage with public policy makers around the world on issues that relate to national priorities and GE’s strategy.”

The report references GE’s work in the US on healthcare reform, in Vietnam on improving trade regulations, and in China to “influence legislative developments.” Furthermore, the report makes the case that the company ought to be doing all of these things, and it will work to stay aware of potential conflicts of interest in its lobbying efforts.

“There are legitimate concerns that businesses may influence public processes unduly to achieve private ends, or conversely may lose commercial focus by aligning too closely with governments’ goals. Just as we must continually innovate our products and services for better human impact, we also need to continually fine-tune our approach to engaging with the communities and governments where we operate to ensure that it remains fair, legitimate and effective.”

The document is just as much a report as a kind of treatise on how – in the age of global corporations – businesses should be run and how they should interact with individuals and the environment. It reveals a lot about how GE sees itself – as a thought leader and innovator in both its products and its responsibility to society.