Sustainable business comes to the White House

The Gunther Report

Sustainable business comes to the White House

Corporate executives lobby Washington every day.

Not many come to plead for higher taxes and stronger regulation.

This week, though, a group called the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC) convened in our nation’s capital to issue "A Business Call for a New Economy" that's built around “triple bottom line” principles, shared prosperity and environmental stewardship. The event was unofficially closed to the media, but ASBC invited GreenBiz.com as a media observer.

The ASBC members -- about 125 showed up for a couple of days of meetings -- are supporting, among other things, higher taxes on big companies, closing overseas tax havens, tax credits for renewable energy, EPA regulation of greenhouse gas emissions and stricter regulation of chemicals.

In the Business Call for a New Economy [PDF, download], the group says it wants to preserve the efficiency and dynamism of markets, while curbing what it calls capitalism’s “destructive tendencies” toward “overuse of resources” and “extremes of wealth and poverty.”.

“When too few have too much and too many have too little, society cannot be sustained,” said Roger Smith, CEO of American Income Life, a fast-growing insurance company that provides life insurance to working families. “On the public policy side, the key word is investing. We are not going to cut our way to shared prosperity.”

“I am a big, big believer in unions, and a big, big believer in the collective bargaining process,” Smith said.  Unions help build a strong middle class which is good for business, he said.

The ASBC was started in 2009 by Jeffrey Hollender, the former CEO of Seventh Generation, and David Levine, an entrepreneur, in part as a counterweight to conservative corporate lobbies like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Its members were welcomed to the White House (actually, the Executive Office Building) today by officials from the Obama administration; tomorrow they’ll visit Congress. The ASBC, a coalition of state and local business networks, says it represents 150,000 business and social enterprises, many of them small businesses that don’t have the time or resources to lobby. Among the better-known companies on hand in D.C. were Stonyfield Farms, Eileen Fisher, New Belgium Brewery and BetterWord Telecom.

On the opening the day of White House meetings, Levine said:

This is not just about greening a business. This is not just about being more socially responsible. We have a perspective. We have a set of values. Those can be translated into policies and strategies to build a new economy.

For the White House officials who showed up, and there were at least a dozen of them, it must have been a relief to hear from businesses that, for the most part, applauded the administration’s policies. The U.S. Chamber and Wall Street typically oppose taxes and regulation, saying they’re create a drag on economic growth.

By contrast, the ASBC’s Call for a New Economy says:

By properly managing markets, accounting for full costs, creating incentives, providing support and creating a level playing field, government can help create an enabling environment in which restorative, equitable and sustainable economic models can thrive.

Of course, turning such platitudes into policy isn't easy. The ASBC says it opposes “unfair advantages and subsidies” but it endorses subsidies for clean energy, presumably because fossil fuels are subsidized as well. It supports business development “that anchors living wage jobs and wealth in place,” but it's hard to believe that many of its members want to give up their freedom to locate operations wherever they choose.

Some of the group’s lobbying priorities seek to put small and medium-sized companies on an even footing with big ones The ASBC, as an example, supports legislation to curb the use of offshore tax havens and seeks to raise overall corporate tax rates. It argues that big companies aren't paying their fair share of taxes, when compared to smaller firms and individuals. By employing legions of lawyers and accountants, big firms also are better able than small ones to take advantage of tax breaks offered by state and local governments.

“Right now, the system is skewed so that it favors big business at the expense of local business,” said Sandy Wiggins, the board chair of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, or BALLE.  “We’ve got to fix that.”

Not surprisingly, most of  the interchanges between ASBC members and White House officials were friendly. Talking about farm policy and organic agriculture, Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield said: “The Obama administration has been better on these issues than any in my lifetime.”

Hilda Solis, the Secretary of Labor, was greeted warmly by the group, and returned the favor. “I want to salute you,” she said. “You care about your employees. You care about your neighborhoods. You care about the quality of life in the communities where you do business.”

Occasionally, friction arose. When Richard Kaufman, a senior advisor to the Department of Energy, said cheap and abundant natural gas will be good for the economy, he got pushback. But, he said, companies that care about the environment should support exploration of natural gas which, for the most part, will replace coal as an electricity source.

“When fracking is done appropriately ... I think we are comfortable that this is a good thing for the United States,” Kaufman said. “We are not going to be able, in the short run, to produce the energy we need in the United States from renewable energy.”