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How can sustainability execs leverage Biden’s policy agenda?    

Joe Biden renewable energy

GreenBiz photocollage via Shutterstock

Well before Jan. 20, when President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took the oath of office, they made it clear they would start their terms with a clear policy agenda that addressed seven areas:

  • COVID-19
  • climate change
  • racial equity
  • economic recovery
  • health care
  • immigration
  • restoring America’s global standing

All of these policy areas connect to the sustainability agenda, so the sustainability community will need to be heavily engaged. And, given how clearly the White House has laid out its agenda, this offers sustainability practitioners the unique opportunity to think holistically and develop corporate policies and actions that will affect not just one but a number of these policy areas.

All of the Biden administration's policy areas connect to the sustainability agenda, so the sustainability community will need to be heavily engaged.

We challenged the Sustainability Veterans members to suggest what they would recommend to those currently leading sustainability efforts in their organizations. For all of us, it was not an easy ask. While we are experienced in developing and measuring actions in one dimension, guiding thinking to consider multiple areas of impact is considerably harder. The responses below represent just the beginning of the conversation to link all these areas together into a more cohesive and comprehensive approach for the private sector.

Kathrin Winkler, former chief sustainability officer for EMC, co-founder of Sustainability Veterans and editor at large for GreenBiz:

The president’s priorities provide a roadmap for companies to look beyond their obvious material issues. Together with stakeholders, companies should carefully examine and question their roles in entrenching the status quo of systems that may leave some behind, however unintentionally. A company may not consider itself dependent on immigrant labor, for example. But what of its contractors — are they? Do the company’s procurement policies encourage access to economic opportunity and quality health care? It’s time to dig deeper!

Bart Alexander, former chief corporate responsibility officer at Molson Coors:

America’s global standing grows when our actions demonstrate our values of democracy, opportunity and human rights; it diminishes when our overt or covert actions elevate narrow interests ahead of what we profess. Similarly, corporations now voicing support for climate action, diversity, health and justice will be judged by what they actually do. In particular, companies will be held accountable for their direct and indirect political contributions and lobbying activities that either reinforce or undermine their pronouncements.

Mark Buckley, former vice president of sustainability at Staples and founder of One Boat Collaborative:

President Biden’s priorities in tackling COVID-19 and climate change represent "externalities" with global impact regardless of borders or socioeconomic standing. However, they both expose the gap in equality placing an even greater burden on vulnerable populations who we risk being left behind and are unable to adapt to the impacts of a changing climate. What can companies learn from the pandemic which might apply to tackling climate change, and which can create equitable business opportunities on a warming planet?

Ellen Weinreb, sustainability and ESG recruiter, founder of Weinreb Group and co-founder of Sustainability Veterans:

The intersection of the Biden/Harris agenda speaks to our common humanity: As businesses, we have a mandate, from society, from policymakers and from our shareholders to do more than create economic value. We must rethink the fundamental purpose of business: It's to create the conditions for every person, especially the most vulnerable, to thrive.

Cecily Joseph, former vice president of corporate responsibility at Symantec, chair of the Net Impact board of directors and expert in residence at the Presidio Graduate School:

Business will be more effective in addressing the Biden/Harris policy priorities with programs that look at their interconnectedness. For example, a focus on building anti-discrimination and education, income and wealth gap programs will help solve for the COVID-19 pandemic, improve our healthcare systems and move towards a more resilient economic recovery. If we don’t work to repair racial inequities which are disproportionately impacting [Black, Indigenous and people of color] communities, we won’t be successful moving forward on the other priorities.

Trisa Thompson, lawyer, former chief responsibility officer at Dell Technologies:

Companies have a unique window of opportunity amidst the chaos today to lead by example and help restore democracy, faith in institutions, our economy and our global standing. Companies should be radically transparent in all that they do. Americans no longer trust institutions. They should set the example globally of how we can defeat climate change and change the math on racial and social inequality. It is within their power to lead the transformation for a more healthy, equitable world, and I believe they have the collective will to do it.

Dawn Rittenhouse, director of sustainable development for the DuPont Company (1998-2019):

As President Biden re-engages the U.S. in solving global challenges through the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization, there is an unprecedented opportunity for companies to step up and demonstrate that new and repurposed innovations can deliver solutions that benefit everybody. This is the time for sustainability leaders to think big and engage with policymakers to demonstrate companies have the ideas to deliver on policy goals and demonstrate U.S. leadership.

About Sustainability Veterans: We are a group of professionals who have had leadership roles in the world of corporate sustainability. We are exploring new ways to further engage and make a difference by bringing together our collective intellectual, experiential, emotional and social capital — independent from any individual company — to help the next generation of sustainability leaders achieve success.

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