American Sustainable Business Council: Find a political voice

American Sustainable Business Council: Find a political voice

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ShutterstockVinogradov Illya
If small business owners want to be heard by policymakers, first they have to speak up.

Too few business leaders are speaking out for sustainable policies, and not enough policymakers are listening to those who are. This problem stems from cultural norms in Washington that strain the relationship between U.S. business leaders and politicians.

On the business side, companies historically have preferred to keep business and politics separate. Large companies quietly back candidates and hire lobbyists to advance desired policies, which typically drown out the voices of smaller businesses. Elected officials, in turn, pay disproportionate attention to policies that favor Wall Street over Main Street. It’s a predicament that transcends partisanship and affects everyone.

Addressing this conundrum was one of the primary aims of the American Sustainable Business Council’s third annual Business Summit, which took place last week in Washington, D.C. The summit brought together private and public sector leaders to discuss how businesses and organizations can help remake this cloak-and-dagger culture into one of open engagement between business leaders and politicians. The hope is that this will lead to public policies that promote a more sustainable economy.

A problem of political communication

In an outgrowth of the overarching culture problem, sustainable businesses have been struggling in the war of words.

“Environmentalism needs an economic message,” said Alicia Mundy, author and former reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Mundy made the statement during a panel discussion that explored what the 2014 election could mean for sustainable business policy. 

Sustainability advocates tend to frame environmental issues, such as climate change, in terms of “doing what’s right for the planet.” But these messages don’t resonate well with policymakers, held accountable by an electorate that cares more about immediate economic concerns than a perceived distant specter of climate change. If sustainable business leaders lead with an economic angle to environmental issues, the message is much more likely to be accepted.

The same goes for talking about putting a price on carbon. Emily Enderle, chief environmental policy advisor for the U.S. Senate, said the public seems to be much more receptive to the idea of a carbon tax than a climate fee — even though they mean virtually the same thing.

“We use the T word, not the F word,” Enderle said.

Fighting fiction with facts

Sixty-one percent of small business owners support increasing the minimum wage to $10.10, according to a June survey (PDF) by the ASBC. Fifty-six percent say raising the minimum wage would help the economy overall.

Small businesses also have been responsible for creating 67 percent of net new jobs since the Great Recession, according to the Small Business Administration. There is even mounting evidence that rampant inequality is depressing economic growth.

Leveraging these facts through the voices of small businesses could prove effective for challenging dominant narratives maintained by those who claim to speak for the business community. The position that raising the minimum wage will kill jobs will become much harder to defend if the primary job creators (small businesses) are arguing against it.

There are already signs of an imminent breakthrough on the minimum wage issue. Five states voted to raise the minimum wage in the recent midterm elections — four of which are not renowned for progressive politics.

The same goes for climate change: A growing number of businesses, both large and small, view global warming as an existential threat and recognize the positive economic impacts of sustainable business policies.

Some of the world’s largest companies, including Wal-Mart, Microsoft and Disney, already have voluntarily implemented an internal price on carbon. Bringing these facts to the forefront can help counter long-standing perceptions that environmentalism and economic prosperity are mutually exclusive.

A great way for the sustainable business movement to engage policymakers in changing these narratives is by reaching out directly to their constituents through community leaders, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Alice McFadden said during a panel discussion on addressing climate change.

Policy, not politics

"A big part of the problem is that people often conflate politics and policy,” said Richard Eidlin, vice president of policy at ASBC. “It's important to make the distinction between politics, which can be partisan and filled with rancor, and policy, which is about best strategies and outcomes.”

ASBC is working to capture the voices of sustainable businesses nationwide to focus them on advancing policies — such as addressing climate change, increasing wages, tax fairness and infrastructure investments — that it believes are in the best interests of sustainable businesses and will transform the economy into one based on sustainable principles. We need policy, not politics.

"The $4 billion spent in the recent election is a case in point,” Eidlin continued. “Most of the policies and programs pushed by that $4 billion were not in the interests of sustainable businesses and will not move the economy in a sustainable direction.”

Those who claim to speak for business are often those who believe profit and the bottom line are the be-all and end-all. If sustainable business leaders don’t engage in policy, then they can be sure someone else — who doesn't reflect their values — will.

“That's why we say, 'If you're not at the table, you're on the menu,'” Eidlin quipped.