Sustainable business needs to get involved with politics by lobbying for the future.
By John Elkington
Species extinction is generally viewed as a bad thing, but there is one species that many in the sustainability movement would gladly see the back of: political lobbyists.
To take just one recent example of their dark art, the derailing by BusinessEurope and others of attempts to reboot the EU Emission Trading Scheme reinforced the widespread impression that lobbyists are a corrupting and malign influence on politics and government.
Both renewable energy companies and some mainstream firms protested the way BusinessEurope (representing industry federations from 35 European countries) had suggested that there was “blanket” support among its members for its stubborn resistance to EU plans to push towards a low carbon economy. But such is the nature of the breed.
Politics, Persuasion & Influence
While I have tended to focus on working with business rather than in politics, the two realms frequently intersect. Many years ago, for example, on a flight back from Brussels, I found myself sitting alongside a leading figure in the public policy world. She asked me what I saw as the emerging issues — and I noted that, while growing numbers of companies were reporting, few if any were disclosing their public policy and lobbying activities.
The unexpected outcome of that conversation was a joint project between SustainAbility and Government Policy Consultants (GPC) on the shadowy world of lobbying, resulting in a 2000 report called Politics & Persuasion — followed in 2005 by a report with WWF called Influencing Power.
Whether you look at the European Union or across to the U.S., today’s political processes too often seem deadlocked — even on basic questions around what to do about the economy. When it comes to wider societal issues, whether that be immigration, gun control or climate change, vested interests represented by organizations like the National Rifle Association (NRA) or BusinessEurope energetically lobby politicians to preserve an old, dying order.
A Trans-partisan Agenda For Sustainability
Wishing things were different isn’t going to move the needle.
Instead, what we need is an agenda that captures enough of the left, the middle and the right to build the necessary critical mass for change. And one of the most thoughtful commentators on all of this has been Bill Shireman of the Future 500, an organization that aims to bridge between business and NGOs — favoring results over ideology.
Whichever way the result goes on the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline, he argues that the next step must include a bold left-to-right alliance that unites the two halves of the sustainability movement: economic and social/environmental sustainability.
And that is as true of Europe as it is of the U.S.
Conservatives, he says, are right: “as a nation, we are out of money and deep in debt.’ But he adds:
“Progressives are also right: we cannot pay off our debt by extracting it from the poor, the middle class, or the environment. But because the political process leaves them no other choice, the solution each offers makes the problems worse. The right’s solution is to drill baby drill — and liquidate our ecological capital. The left’s solution is to spend baby spend — and liquidate our financial capital. The solution of vested interests — corporations, unions, professionals and governments — is to do both. They like both the right and left agendas — more drilling and more spending.”
A Lobby for the Future
So the problem, is that status quo interests get locked in because “the past has powerful lobbyists, but the future has almost none.”
To begin to fill the gap, Future 500's Innovation Agenda advocates seven policies that could eventually straddle key political divides. They would help pay off both our ecological and economic debts, and restore genuine, economically and environmentally sustainable growth. As Shireman quickly admits:
“The policies are not yet politically realistic. But they, or something like them, will be, because over time, the necessary always becomes possible.”
Central and critical to making the policies work is for business and NGOs to now work out how to lobby for the future, together. Business leaders must break open their government affairs silos. Having worked alongside a fair few corporate government affairs teams, I can only endorse Shireman’s insistence that much of the efforts to revise or introduce new policies both builds anti-corporate activism and, by tying companies to the imperiled past, sets them up for longer-term failure.
Time For Politics
In short, it’s time to do the politics.
Leading businesses should threaten to leave organizations like BusinessEurope. They need to join some of the edgier business-led platforms for change, among them The B Team or the American Sustainable Business Council [ASBC]. To date, the latter mainly represents medium and small-sized companies, but many of the agenda items it is campaigning on are necessary conditions for what we call Breakthrough Capitalism. A U.S.-wide partnership of over 60 business associations, ASBC represents over 165,000 businesses and 300,000 entrepreneurs, managers, investors, and others.
So far they have lobbied against the Keystone XL Pipeline, against subsidies and tax loopholes favoring Big Oil, for transparency in campaign finance and for legislation favoring Benefit corporations (better known as B Corps).
They are pointing the way for the rest of us.