CEOs want pro-sustainability policies? They need to speak up.

Andrew Hutson

Earlier this year I read an interesting piece in Bloomberg News where author Eric Roston says that many CEOs are keenly interested in sustainability and environmental action, but feel frustrated by the lack of broad policy support from the government. Roston’s evidence comes from a survey of 1000 CEOs by the United Nations and Accenture. The survey found that business leaders want policy makers to set rules that provide incentives for environmental action, and stop rewarding the dinosaurs (including those who sell what’s left of pre-historic times to fill our gas tanks).

In my experience, corporate leaders are truly becoming more environmentally aware, and that’s welcome news. But I’m hoping that these CEOs also realize that in order to get what they want – government action that sets the rules for improved environmental performance from business - they’re going to have to actively participate in the policy process. This is something most business leaders have been reluctant to do so far, and it’s a major reason why there has not been a major piece of federal environmental legislation since the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act.

We need these CEOs to demolish the myth that the environment and the economy are at odds.

In fact, too many CEOs have been silent in the debates over environmental policy, and unwilling to act as advocates of sensible legislation. This has left the field to business leaders on the other side of environmental debate, who have worked to derail smart legislation that could generate economic growth while protecting the planet. (The Clean Air Act, which cut acid rain in half, created $110 billion in economic benefits.)

As I’ve written on this blog before: companies can be their own worst enemies. Thankfully, there are signs that business leaders are beginning to get behind policies that support their environmental goals. For example, the CERES’ Climate Declaration attracted 600 companies to call for legislation to deal with climate change. This is a great first step.

So far, however, it still seems that many CEOs are hesitant to go beyond general calls for climate action. For example, only 22 of the signers of the Climate Declaration also signed a letter sent to President Obama, commending him on EPA limits on carbon pollution from power plants.

If today’s business leaders are really interested in environmental action and sustainability, then they are going to have to engage in the sometimes uncomfortable business of policy advocacy.

In the end, we need these CEOs to demolish the myth that the environment and the economy are at odds. At a minimum this could simply mean publicly voicing support for sensible policy. But to be truly effective, business leaders will have to do more. That means engaging with representatives and senators on The Hill. But it also means working to transform vocal industry associations like the Chamber of Commerce so that they pursue more environmentally constructive policies.

In other words, environmental leadership requires more than some lofty corporate principles, or even concrete actions within the four walls of the firm. It means helping shape new rules and policies to address our urgent environmental problems.

That’s the smart business move, and right thing to do for the planet.

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