PR & thought leadership

Sustainable business voices needed to shift the public policy conversation

Carolyn McMaster | January 18, 2018

Climate change rally in Auckland, NZ (iStock)

The current U.S. administration has given us the curse of interesting times. As its second year approaches, business leadership on environmental and social justice is more important than ever. While companies, states and cities are uniting in support for the Paris climate agreement and sticking to—or raising—climate goals (We Are Still In), the executive branch is busily undoing decades of progress on environmental protections, giving the fossil fuel industry permission to do whatever it pleases and reversing clean energy incentives.

Businesses, from local enterprises to corporate entities, need to step up. To be sure, we are fighting fires on many fronts, including immigration and healthcare. But what’s bad for the environment is bad for everyone, short term and long term.

Sustainable and cleantech businesses, in particular, have stories about the environmental, social and economic benefits they create that could make a positive impact in Washington and, just as importantly, at state and local levels. Here are truths I’d like to see all sustainable businesses embrace.

Policy engagement is not optional.

Sustainable and cleantech businesses need to show up in political and regulatory arenas at all levels. The companies that got us into the climate mess have curried favor with politicians and gotten what they wanted for a long time. Sustainable businesses need to do the same if we are to create—and keep—rules and incentives that foster responsible innovation and growth.

Companies (especially in cleantech) that want at least a level playing field need to make their voices heard at the state and local levels as well as in Washington. They have to tell their story loud and clear, and make the business case for clean energy, resource preservation and social justice. Such efforts call for a communications strategy with a focus on policy, preferably with a thought leadership component that establishes credibility and builds a brand.

Sustainable business is not an either/or narrative.

We have to counter the prevailing false narrative that something is either good for business and the economy or good for the environment and communities. There are plenty of data points to make the case that we need both—and cleantech companies and sustainable enterprises are best positioned to illustrate how social justice and a healthy environment support growing businesses and a strong economy.

Strong messaging is critical.

Skeptics and climate deniers are louder than ever, and even in the best circumstances, it’s hard to be heard without clear sustainability messages. Companies that have sustainability as an integral part of their company story will have a brand advantage—and a narrative that mitigates risk in the event of a misstep. (It also provides advantages in hiring and in attracting mission-aligned investors, partners and suppliers.)

It seems that everything we in the sustainable business community are working for is under attack. It’s tempting to hunker down, do what we can within our businesses and hope for the best. But if we don’t claim a seat at the policy table and make our voices heard, somebody else is going to make critical decisions, possibly to the detriment of the entire world. People (millennials in particular) are looking to business to lead. Let’s not disappoint them.

You can act with limited resources.

Most businesses don’t have the luxury of in-house communications staff who can focus on policy, but there are ways to have an impact without investing a lot of time or money. Stay up on legislation that may affect your business—fortunately, bills move slowly for the most part. Send in your comments. Tell your representatives where you stand, what you want and how it will help. And let them know you’ll hold them accountable. Consider joining forces with like-minded businesses, too. If you have an industry association, find out if they engage in policy work. Or join advocacy organizations such as the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC) and Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), which work to connect sustainable and cleantech business with legislators at state and federal levels.

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