How companies'  community leadership drives political change

Small local businesses across the country are realizing that their ecological footprints are as important as their bottom lines. Visionary business leaders are not waiting for an act of Congress or an executive order to take action. They are at the forefront of their communities in creating a vision for a new era of a sustainable economy. They are leading on this issue — but they can do only so much on their own.

Many business owners realize that their internal sustainability actions alone will not solve the problem of a changing climate. Deeply entrenched policies need to be changed, and that change is prevented by powerful, traditional business lobbies.

The answer is to harness the voice of many sustainable businesses, through groups such as the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC) and partner organizations, to create the political power needed to maximize collective potential. That means stepping beyond business leadership and into community leadership.

On issues such as supporting the EPA's proposed carbon emissions standards, pushing against the Keystone XL pipeline and offering new investment opportunities for clean energy, ASBC and other groups help make the business case that action on climate change can go hand-in-hand with economic growth. The result is a movement away from the predominant narrative of having to choose between an ecological footprint and profitability, and toward one that emphasizes both ecological and economic sustainability.

The Climate Action Liaison Coalition (CALC), an ASBC group, has been working with businesses across the country to find strategic ways to leverage the voice of sustainable business owners to show they're critical to policy decisions. By sitting down with legislators, these business leaders are able to speak on behalf of their employees, businesses and customers, something largely left out of grassroots efforts for climate policy. CALC aims to educate, train and facilitate business owners to have an effective voice alongside partner organizations. The goal is to redefine the role business is playing in the climate justice movement.

CALC already has had an impact within existing grassroots campaigns. Along with Environmental Tax Reform and 350MA, CALC members have been advocates for the economics of a carbon tax recently adopted by the majority of 2014 gubernatorial candidates. The organization also has done work on pushing for a transition plan for communities where coal-fired power plants are closing down, to ensure that people who used to work in the coal industry won't be left behind.

Sharing the message with the White House

More recently, through an effort lead by ASBC, CALC was able to bring its stories to the White House. Sustainable business leaders met with various agencies, including the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the EPA. Together, they discussed shared visions, frustrations and hopes for a stable economic future. Speakers shared stories on how they have taken action on climate change — explaining what drives each of them to take action, and how staff, suppliers and customers are responding. 

For example, John Replogle, CEO of Seventh Generation Inc., a leader in environmentally friendly household products, gave first-hand accounts of the effects that climate change is having on businesses of all sizes. In 2011, Hurricane Irene tore across Vermont, his home state. In the wake of the storm, communities were left devastated, and without the proper infrastructure and resources to respond. This forced Seventh Generation to temporarily close its headquarters as employees turned to help their neighbors in the community. Just more than a year later, in November 2012, Hurricane Sandy slammed into the New York metro area, the hub of Seventh Generation's transportation and market supply lines. Then in 2013, Typhoon Haiyan devastated Southeast Asia, putting immense stress on raw materials and causing scarcity as the region slowly recovers.

These three devastating storms, three years in a row, have affected local communities from Vermont to Southeast Asia. Seventh Generation is not the only business which has felt the effects of a changing climate, and when businesses take a hit, communities do, too. While Replogle and his team strive for the highest industry standards, they realize that businesses cannot act in a vacuum, and that we need our policy makers to take bold action in face of these threats.

While many of these business leaders acknowledged President Obama's Climate Action Plan as a step in the right direction, they also made clear that it is far from enough to curb the worst effects yet to come. One point pushed by every business leader who spoke with CEQ was a call for movement away from fossil fuel dependency. Continued investment in natural gas, the proposed Keystone Pipeline and continued use of coal threatens our community, our businesses and our future. Supporting policies such as the Renewable Portfolio Standards, meanwhile, will create jobs and help mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

Defying the status quo

The CEQ needs to hear stories like these, as do all relevant policy makers in Washington and across the country. Policy makers need to read letters to the editor and op-eds by sustainable business leaders. And they need to see business owners taking action. For instance, some businesses now mark their buildings to show where sea-level rise will hit if climate change is not slowed. We hear about oil or coal companies flexing their muscles all the time. An important way to counter that is to show that not all businesses want to maintain the status quo.

As business leaders continue to push the envelope on their own internal sustainability, we also need to use our voices as community leaders to push for bold policy. By joining with advocacy groups, business owners can multiply their political muscle against climate change. Internal sustainability alone will not be enough to address climate change. That is why it is important to push for bold policy changes and be not just business leaders, but community leaders.

White House photo by S.Borisov via Shutterstock