Our Washington-Sized Blind Spot: The Greening of K Street

Our Washington-Sized Blind Spot: The Greening of K Street

Over the last 10 years, corporate lobbying has evolved from an art to a science. Total lobbying dollars have more than doubled to reach $2.82 billion annually in 2007, with major industry accounting for nearly half, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Impressive growth, especially since caps on "soft money" became de rigueur among politicians during that period.

Of the top 50 donors in the 2008 election cycle, unions and professional associations have been joined by the likes of AT&T (#2), Goldman Sachs (#5), Citigroup (#14), Altria Group (#18), UPS (#21), FedEx (#22), Time Warner (#29), Lockheed Martin (#36) and GE (#38). And this list represents only a small slice of corporate lobbying activities because it excludes industry associations and outsourcing to professional lobby firms.

What, you might ask, does this trend have to do with green business? 

While the majority of lobbying activities tend to revolve around taxes and budget appropriations, I was intrigued to learn that transportation, energy/nuclear, and environment/Superfund have consistently ranked among the top 10 issues since 1998. The Environmental Protection Agency is lobbied nearly as frequently as the Departments of Transportation, Commerce, and Energy .

If we take the list of top corporate donors above as a sample, it is evident that K Street is abuzz with agendas from both sustainability leaders and laggards that range from major project financiers to firms design our infrastructure and make technology that runs our engines. 

The key question, then, is this: To what degree is the "greening of Main Street" spilling over to the "greening of K Street?" 

First of all, the opaque nature of lobbying activities makes this a difficult question to answer. The Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 requires lobbyists to list the bills and areas of concern for each of their clients, but not a corporate client's stance (a new website, www.maplight.org, tries to circumvent this by enabling users to identify patterns between individual Congressmen, their biggest donors and the bills on which they vote). 

Secondly, the incidents that do make it into the pubic domain tend to be those dug up to highlight an "organizational dissonance" in high-profile companies. Take, for instance, the case of then-CEO Bill Ford Jr.'s touted vision of greening Ford Motor Co.'s fleet while personally lobbying Congress not to increase CAFÉ standards. (In 2003, Bluewater Network launched a boycott (PDF) and New York Times ad (PDF) highlighting the inconsistency.) So they are not necessarily a good representative sample.

But caveats aside, it is worth asking: Is lobbying the biggest blind spot of the green business community? 

-- To what degree do we compare the direct footprint of a company with its indirect footprint via lobbying efforts?
-- How frequently do our clients, corporate sustainability leaders, have the opportunity to interact with - or influence -- Government Affairs departments or outsourced lobby firms? 
-- To what degree do senior executives focus on the alignment between their company's sustainability goals and their lobbying agenda? 
-- Which companies have identified cases of misalignment and created incentives -- financial, cultural or otherwise - to address them?

We don't know -- because we don't ask.

Those of us helping companies go green should begin to incorporate lobbying activities in our definition of sustainability leadership. As our understanding of sustainability becomes more sophisticated, it also becomes more expansive (adding, for example, toxics in the 1980s, waste in the 1990s, and GHGs in the 2000s). Lobbying is the logical next expansion. Cinergy (now Duke Energy) has even given a place to start: their Air Issues Report to Stakeholders (PDF) voluntarily outlined explanations of the company's lobbying position on climate change bills proposed in Congress.

Our corporate clients will thank us because as environmental issues rise on the political agenda, they will benefit from being a respected participant in the rule making (i.e. "If you're not at the table, you may be on the menu.") and able to advocate for more business-friendly, market-based solutions. In other words, by bringing lobbying into our scope of work, we can help our clients stimulate green innovation, from Main Street to K Street to Capitol Hill.

Emma Stewart, Ph.D., is a environmental strategy consultant to Fortune500 corporations and leading non-profit institutions, including Business for Social Responsibility. She can be reached at: emma.paschal[email protected].