How Your Company Can Help Shape Environmental Policy

Last year at the State of Green Business Forum, we talked about how policy can affect business. This year, the table was turned to focus on how business can shape policy.

In short: Companies can have a big impact, with a small number of voices able to swing major legislation.

One of the panelists during the closing session of the SF Forum, Holly Kaufman, CEO of Environment & Enterprise Strategies, talked about the Waxman-Markey climate bill that narrowly passed the House of Representatives last year, as a good example. The bill passed by just 19 votes, with nine Republicans voting in favor, one of which came from Southern California Republican Mary Bono Mack.

State of Green Business"She knew that there was no better place for solar than the Southern California desert," explained David Brodwin, Communications Director for the American Sustainable Business Council and moderator of the session, "but she was getting pressure from the Republican leadership [to vote against it]. She needed business people from her district to publicly and vocally urge her to vote for it."

Kaufman said that this was an example where a small number of companies -- or even just one -- can have an outsized impact. In situations like Waxman-Markey, and many other environmental policy issues, having the business community take a stand in favor of the green vote can help sway any legislator.

"If you are creating jobs in a congressperson's district, you will get a meeting, no problem," Kaufman said. "And you can have an impact."

In fact, legislators at any level are often keen to hear from the business community directly, because so much of their interaction with industry normally comes through lobbyists.

Which is not to say that working with trade associations and lobbying groups is a bad way to go to help shape green legislation. Vince Siciliano, the CEO of New Resource Bank and the other member of today's session, said that despite his company's deep commitment to green issues -- NRB is a certified B-Corp with a LEED Gold headquarters in San Francisco, and the recipient of an outstanding achievement award from the EPA -- finding the time to truly devote to policy issues is a daunting task.

"I don't have that much time to focus on policy issues," Siciliano said, "that's why you should find amplifiers -- that's where the ASBC comes in, and the Green Chambers, and other groups come in. We need to find those personal amplifiers."

And getting businesses involved, especially early on while policy battles are off on the horizon, can be critical to its success. Among the complaints about business engagement on climate issues is that "Business waits too long to get involved, and then complains about the results that get passed," according to Kaufman.

And Siciliano recalled an idea from the book "Merchants of Doubt," which looks at how business interests have for decades slowed or blocked policy progress on environmental and health issues: "It's always been the same pattern," Siciliano said. "Scientists say, 'Here's a problem,' and business says, 'The science is unclear'" and nothing happens, for years or decades or ever.

Thankfully, the panelists said, the story is slowly shifting from the reliable misconception that it's "jobs vs. trees" to one where business is engaged on both sides of the issues.

"It used to be that you couldn't get a businessperson in the same room as an environmentalist," Kaufman said. "Now we've come a long way, with businesses leading the charge in a lot of areas."

Photo CC-licensed by freshwater2006.