To date, most companies advancing sustainable practices have focused on the day-to-day building of their own businesses, not on pushing for change in Washington and statehouses. The reasons for avoiding policy work are understandable: not enough time to manage it, not enough money for high-priced lobbyists and government affairs staff, worry about alienating customers, and distaste for the mess that is Washington these days. But as the saying goes, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
When responsible companies’ leaders don’t engage with Washington, no one is there from the business world to challenge industries and business practices that are shortsighted, socially harmful, and environmentally destructive. That’s why the laws, incentives, and policies in place today subsidize fossil fuels, ignore potent toxins in our food and consumer products, eviscerate our public university system, threaten the land and water on which industries rely, undermine our ability to create a vibrant middle class, and cause countless other problems.
A few enlightened business leaders are starting to engage in policy work that disrupts this status quo, challenges the old guard, and champions new ideas. For these companies, the benefits of policy work include enhanced credibility when consumers see them “walk their talk” and improved employee loyalty, especially from younger workers who seek meaning in their jobs, beyond a paycheck. This work also helps align our economy to a true-cost framework, providing a stronger economy for all businesses to thrive in. Here are two examples of companies engaging in this way.
MAKING THE POINT
The threat of climate change really hit home for apparel firm EILEEN FISHER when its headquarters flooded during Hurricane Sandy. But the company’s concern about the issue isn’t new. As a natural-fiber-based company, it uses cotton, linen from flax, rayon from trees, and wool from grass-fed sheep. “A lot of our clothing comes from the land,” explains Shona Quinn, the company’s sustainability leader, “so climate change poses a crucial threat to our supply chain.”
At events like the New York State Sustainable Business Council Summit and Sacramento Lobby Day, EILEEN FISHER staff members advocate for policies from paid leave to safer chemicals. Eileen Fisher herself joined CEOs from Gap Inc., H&M, and four other apparel firms in asking world leaders to take meaningful action at COP21, the Paris climate talks. “We have to think differently about business as a bridge to change,” Fisher said in Paris. “We have the powerful opportunity to come together across our industry to co-create how we measure success, not only in dollars but in the cost to humanity and the environment.”
Patagonia is one of the leading companies engaging with policy work. The brand has a deep, abiding connection to the great outdoors — and publicly supports protection of rare and beautiful natural places. President and CEO Rose Marcario has blogged, “We have to keep the pressure on. That means being loud and visible in the streets, in town halls and our capitals, and most important, in our elections.”
Patagonia is raising awareness of the problems dams cause for wild rivers — which are both ecosystems and recreational attractions — and works to restore free-flowing rivers. To dramatize its message, Patagonia produced a film, “DamNation.” “We screened the film at the Capitol Hill visitor center in Washington, DC, and gave copies to legislators at every level,” says Hans Cole, Patagonia’s director of environmental campaigns and advocacy. “The film took busy legislators from 0 to 60 miles per hour on the issue, fast.”
In another recent high-visibility effort, Patagonia and 14 other firms called on President Obama to designate the 1.9-million-acre Bears Ears region in Utah as a national monument, protecting it from oil and gas developers. “These businesses — including competitors — standing up together made an impact,” Cole says.
Responsible business leaders can lead the way to a sustainable future — if they leverage their inspiring examples through savvy policy engagement. Working together to unite conscious voices is a key part of that strategy, and that’s where we at the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC) can play a role. “ASBC helps us work effectively together and make a bigger impact on policies, instead of each of us having to fund a whole government affairs department,” says Patagonia’s Cole. “Together, we can get the critical meetings with legislators.” In many cases, ASBC member-companies large and small compete aggressively in the marketplace, but share a common policy aim. Together, they are heard.
In one notable example, ASBC grew the Companies for Safer Chemicals coalition to several thousand businesses. Leading participants like Seventh Generation, Earth Friendly Products, The Honest Company, and many others took on the reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act, a key piece of legislation that aims to keep dangerous chemicals out of consumer products. ASBC drafted documents calling for changes in the proposal Congress was considering, outlining a plan that was both economically sound and better for public health. ASBC then organized meetings with policymakers at federal and state levels. As a result, the federal bill was improved and state efforts advanced in New York, Connecticut, Minnesota, and Alaska.
Our currency bears the motto E Pluribus Unum — “Out of many, one.” Many of America’s most enlightened companies are now working as one on policy, shifting the paradigm of business to build a better world. Won’t you join the effort?
David Brodwin is VP of communications and a co-founder of the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC), which advocates for policy change to build a more sustainable economy. ASBC helps its members engage with policymakers, gain media exposure, inform the public, and more. Find out more at asbcouncil.org..