Old Excuses on Policy Advocacy Don’t Work Anymore

I admire corporate sustainability leaders who, as hockey great Wayne Gretzky once said, know how to “skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.”

I’m optimistic about our future when I see courageous leaders at companies like Unilever, Pepsi, Mars and others lead the way by looking beyond short-term profits for long-term success and publicly advocating for the smart regulatory and policy changes required to preserve the natural systems that people, communities and companies need to thrive.

Yet, there are too many companies that still rely on old excuses when asked to take a public stand on energy and environmental policy.

To be a bold leader in the 21st century requires a strong voice on the most pressing environmental issues of the day. It’s no longer good enough to put a green label on a product or declare in an annual report that your company is making the world a better place. It’s time to take the next leadership step.

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At Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), we like to call the next step of sustainability leadership the business policy nexus. It simply means that your company has aligned your sustainability goals and strategies with your external engagement on policy.

If your company isn’t operating in the business policy nexus, it’s time to retire the following excuses and go public in support of forward-facing environmental policies:

Excuse #1 "We're not political."

Companies can no longer be silent on issues like the environment. Customers expect the brands and companies they love to stand for something and to show leadership on issues that matter to them.

In previous decades, this excuse might have sounded more like, “we want Democrats and Republican to buy our products.” However, this recent working paper by researchers at Duke and Harvard suggests that C.E.O. activism can sway public opinion — and even increase interest in buying a company’s products.

Corporate neutrality on the issues that matter may be outdated. If you don’t believe me, maybe ask Paul Polman of Unilever or Indra Nooyi of Pepsi or Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia. Their corporate voices ring loud and clear when it comes time to stand up for the environment.

Excuse #2 "It's not part of our core business."

In a 2015 article the head of government relations for one of the world’s biggest companies told the Guardian: “There’s a reluctance if a regulation doesn’t get into your core competency to get into somebody else’s backyard. It’s an unspoken acknowledgment that you stick to your knitting.”

The earth is everyone’s backyard. And the state of our environment affects every business.

Just take a look at the companies who have backed the Clean Power Plan. “Clean energy” isn’t the core competency of global giants like Amazon, General Mills, Nestle, or Levis, but these companies and many others made their corporate voices heard for the good of business and society.

Excuse #3 “Our government affairs team deals with policy.”

Some corporate leaders have been passing the buck to other departments, other industries and other leaders for too long.

You have a responsibility to inspire everyone in your organization to maximize the triple bottom line: profit, people and planet.

Leaders find it easy to measure profit; measuring social and environmental impact is a little harder. Without good data, no one in a company feels comfortable taking the lead on policy.

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This is where an NGO like EDF can help make a difference. EDF has built a framework for corporate sustainability success that encompasses science, strategy, and systems to create measurable environmental and business benefits. Your organization can use this framework to become a sustainability leader and confidently stand up for smart climate policy that addresses your future business risks.

The old excuses don’t work anymore. So stand up for change and advocate for policies that will help us overcome the most serious environmental challenges we face. The issues are too important; the consequences for little or no action are too serious.

Follow Tom Murray on Twitter: @tpmurray

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