Corporate sustainability activism is picking up pace in the US

a wind farm in california

Businesses are working to revive the production tax credit, a provision that has catalysed hundreds of wind projects, after the US government failed to renew it.

Earlier this year, 15 major companies, including powerhouse brands Starbucks, Levi Strauss, Nike and Staples, wrote to US Congressional leaders to support American wind power production. Lawmakers were considering extending the so-called «production tax credit» (PTC), a provision that has catalysed hundreds of wind projects and created thousands of new jobs across the US. «The economic benefits for consumers of wind electricity are tremendous,» the firms wrote.

Though Congress failed to renew the tax credit, clouding the future of America’s wind power industry, businesses are again working to revive the PTC before it expires in December.

A new business voice is emerging in Washington to reshape America’s energy future along a cleaner path. With more aggressive lobbying, nitty-gritty involvement in drafting legislation and bucking the business status quo represented by the US Chamber of Commerce, these companies are engaged in Herculean effort to turn the nation away from fossil fuels embedded in the economy and politics.

The strong business case for expanded renewable energy production is only part of what motivates Starbucks, Levi Strauss and others. All see a larger picture: we cannot build the healthy, sustainable global economy that powers their businesses long-term without addressing major economic threats such as climate change and natural resource scarcity. Success will require comprehensive state and national policies that encourage clean energy and drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions. In the US, these policies are sorely lacking.

Most of the signatories to the PTC letter are members of Business for Innovative Climate & Energy Policy (BICEP), an initiative formed to give business a voice on ‘green’ issues in Washington. Its members range from well-known food and apparel companies such as Clif Bar and Nike to the Portland Trail Blazers professional basketball team, eBay and many others.

Corporate involvement in the policy arena is nothing new, of course. Businesses have always been quite adept at pursuing their self-interests through the political process, as the oil and gas industries – current beneficiaries of billions in tax breaks – clearly show.

What is new is that so many companies now believe sustainability goals such as environmental protection, reduced reliance on fossil fuels and development of renewable energy are good for the planet and for business. Polar opposites, in other words, from the US Chamber of Commerce and others who see virtually all regulations that impact corporate behaviour as bad for business.

«We reject the notion that climate and energy legislation is going to be costly,» said Stonyfield Farm founder Gary Hirschberg, one of BICEP’s earliest supporters who joined 500 business executives in Washington to support climate legislation in 2010. «Climate action offers economic opportunity rather than economic penalty.»

More than ever, the voices of businesses like these are being heard.

Last year, a senior executive at apparel company Timberland testified before Congress on efforts by House Republicans to limit the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to curb greenhouse gases and other air pollutants. «Preventing EPA from exercising its authority, or rolling back any of its actions, would cost the economy in human health, in terms of illness that often results in lost work days, and more,» she told the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The rollback effort subsequently failed.

Corporate sustainability activism is also reaching beyond Washington to the state level. BICEP companies played a leading role in fending off a repeal of California’s landmark climate law. They also led in advocating for stronger national automobile fuel economy standards – now set to go into effect this fall.

In other regions, corporations are working hand-in-hand with lawmakers to encourage clean energy development. When BICEP member company eBay wanted to use clean solar energy to power an expanded data centre facility in the state of Utah, it required a change in state law. Together with Rocky Mountain Power, the state’s largest electric utility, other high-tech companies such as Google and Oracle, and a Republican state senator, they crafted legislation this spring to make renewable energy available to large energy users and create a real alternative to coal-fired generation. That legislation is now law.

«I’m looking for choice in a state, and if I want clean power I want to be able to get it. That’s what this law does,» said eBay’s global data centrestrategy director Dean Nelson, who is already planning to build a second data centre and add nearly 2,200 new jobs in the state. The law will also help eBay diversify its energy portfolio, providing a hedge against volatile fossil fuel prices.

Other businesses are flexing their muscles in different ways. Aspen Ski Company, a major ski area operator facing shorter ski seasons as global temperatures rise, is taking on the US Chamber for its resistance to climate change policies. Last month, it led a successful effort to have the Aspen Chamber of Commerce disassociate itself from the national organisation.

Although many companies are disheartened by the current dysfunction in Washington, one former US Department of Energy official recently appealed for businesses interested in clean energy policies not to disengage.

«Please do not abandon Washington,» former US Department of Energy official Cathy Zoi recently told an audience convened by Fortune magazine. «This is important…because you guys are thinking about reliable, affordable electricity, and Washington needs to know that you care about it.»

Even today, with a presidential race slowing national policy-making to a crawl, companies like Levi Strauss see opportunities for positive action.

«In an election year…companies should use this time to create a foundation of support for when the policy environment is more ripe for action,» Anna Walker, senior manager of government affairs and public policy at Levi Strauss, told an audience in Boston last week.

«Like the Chinese proverb of a thousand cups of tea, this is an opportunity to build relationships with policymakers, to tell your story, and strengthen alliances with like-minded companies and organisations,» Walker added. «In a time when big action won’t happen, those smaller actions – those cups of tea – can help secure change for the future.»

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Date / Fecha: 10/05/12

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