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Policy Voice

Don’t play both sides: Take 3 steps now to fix your trade group gap

If your company's climate goals are misaligned with your trade association memberships, it's time to act now.

An ancient Roman coin depicting the two-faced god Janus.

An ancient Roman coin depicting the two-faced god Janus. Source: Shutterstock/Viacheslav Lopatin

The recent hard-fought battle over California’s Climate Corporate Data Accountability Act revealed a glaring gap between pro-climate companies and their trade associations. The state’s chamber of commerce, CalChamber, fought tooth and nail against the legislation, which mandates companies to disclose their carbon emissions. However, big corporate CalChamber members, including Salesforce, Microsoft and Google, all backed the bill very publicly and arguably helped assure its passage

What’s up with this trade association misalignment and what can companies do about it?  

Companies need to make sure they back up their pro-climate goals with pro-climate advocacy on the policy front — and don’t allow their trade associations with a fossil fuel-focused agenda to undermine their efforts. With the climate crisis worsening every day, this is urgent for corporate leaders. And, as we’ll discuss later, this disconnect on climate is of increasing concern to employees.

We’ve formulated the following three critical steps that companies can take — and employees can advocate for — when it comes to corporate climate policy leadership: audit, leave and lead. The key is to prioritize climate policy leadership at every step, and to make that visible at every opportunity, to lead the charge towards strong climate policy progress. Companies can and should start leading today, while they conduct audits and decide whether to remain with existing trade associations.

Step one: Audit

Companies can lay the groundwork by performing an audit of their trade associations. InfluenceMap provides guidance for best practices. The B Team also has a toolkit, which includes audits, for companies addressing misalignment with trade associations. You can leverage these resources to identify and report on specific cases of trade association misalignment on climate policy. It’s good practice to know where the gaps are and address them immediately.

Spoiler alert: These audits are likely to reveal that many large trade associations are anti-climate policy. Obstruction by powerful trade associations continues to be a central roadblock impeding progress on climate policy. Groups including the Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers leverage their influence to obstruct climate policy progress in the U.S. at the federal, state and local levels. This is because major trade associations are heavily funded by and powerfully linked to fossil fuel interests obstructing climate policy progress.

InfluenceMap's tally of climate lobbying by the US Chamber of Commerce in 2022.

InfluenceMap's tally of climate lobbying by the US Chamber of Commerce in 2022.

Some companies that get these audit results may be tempted to try to alter the trade association’s policy stance. Efforts to change trade associations from within, unfortunately, have borne little fruit other than increased PR efforts. For example, in 2017, a group of companies formed the Climate Solutions Working Group, a small group of U.S. Chamber of Commerce members dedicated to improving the Chamber’s climate lobbying. In the case of the U.S. Chamber, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., refers to this internal group as a "carbon corral." "Anything good on climate goes there to die," tweeted the lawmaker.

Unfortunately, the last seven years of member company engagement to change the chamber from within have yielded no substantive results when it comes to the continued obstruction of climate policy progress. with the chamber’s engagement continuing to mirror the advocacy of fossil fuel interest groups such as the American Gas Association and American Petroleum Institute.

Step two: Leave

That is why, for companies that identify policy misalignment with their trade associations, the next step is leaving those trade associations. (Full disclosure: In August, ClimateVoice, our organization, launched a campaign calling on corporate members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to stop obstructing climate policy by leaving the group and leading on climate advocacy.)

Is there a precedent for taking this action? Yes, Apple famously left the U.S Chamber because of misalignment on climate, back in 2009. "We would prefer that the chamber take a more progressive stance on this critical issue," Catherine Novelli, Apple's vice president for worldwide government affairs, wrote the trade group. Also, in 2014, several large tech firms including Facebook, Yelp, Microsoft and Google publicly left the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) over ALEC’s opposition to climate policy.

As a result of this issue of trade association misalignment, some companies are taking a closer look at their trade association relationships. Microsoft, for one, reacted to the launch of ClimateVoice’s "Escape the Chamber" campaign by telling the Washington Post that it’s exploring the issue. "While we may not agree with every trade association on every policy issue, we regularly assess alignment on climate policy, engage directly to share our point of view, and communicate Microsoft’s position publicly," said Microsoft spokesperson Kate Frischmann. But given the U.S. Chamber’s continued anti-climate record, Microsoft’s efforts at addressing misalignment are unfortunately falling short.

Step three: Lead

Step three for companies is leading on climate policy advocacy. Don’t wait until you’ve done an audit and left misaligned trade associations. You can and should lead starting now. Here’s what this looks like:

  • Companies should publicly distance themselves from trade association positions and statements that do not align with strong climate action and leadership; 
  • Companies should consistently and forcefully lobby for bold and just climate policies at the federal, state and local levels; 
  • Companies should align political contributions with climate leadership and action; and
  • Companies should lead or join pro-climate coalitions in advocating strongly for pro-climate policies.

With the existential climate crisis pervading our lives daily, there is no more time for blurry or ambiguous stands on climate change. As former Vice President Al Gore recently said, it’s time for climate obstructors to "get out of the way" of climate action. 

Companies must address trade association misalignment now and step forward into a more consistent public and vocal leadership role on climate policy — and do so with the pressure and scale required to meet the greatest challenges of our time.

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