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Corporate Policy Engagement: Taking a Stand on Today’s Sustainable Business Issues

For many business leaders working in the sustainability and social impact space, policy engagement is an emerging trend. In reality it’s nothing new – the oil and gas, tobacco, and meat industries have been influencing policy for years. In this regard, sustainable businesses leaders are late to the game. Until recently, most have avoided taking a stance on political issues altogether, let alone engaging on public policy.

However, the events of the past few years, and especially the past few months, make it hard to turn a blind eye. The political landscape is beginning to pose risks to not only the vitality of businesses but also the ability of employees to thrive. Whether it’s climate change, environmental justice, reproductive care, gun safety, LGBTQ+ rights, or voting rights, our democratic institutions are failing to ensure a safe, sustainable, and equitable future for Americans.

All of these issues are interconnected, and as a business, you can no longer afford to stand on the sidelines. Read on to learn why and how your business should engage on public policy.

The Case for Corporate Policy Engagement

So, why should your business engage in the arena of public policy? Political institutions are slow-moving by nature. When it comes to issues like climate change, many business leaders feel that we can’t wait on government to act. With the recent collapse of climate legislation in Congress and a series of devastating blows from the Supreme Court on issues like gun safety, abortion rights, and the EPA’s authority to regulate GHG emissions, it’s easy to see why faith in our public institutions is crumbling.

Businesses are without a doubt in a unique position to lead the charge. But the reality is that it’s going to take all sectors coming together – private and public alike – to drive change at the speed and scale we need.

That’s why policy advocacy is such a crucial element of corporate sustainability leadership. As Bill Weihl, Founder of ClimateVoice, pointed out, “every company, regardless of what it does in its operations, has political influence. Choosing not to use it is being complicit with the loud, powerful voices that have been working to delay action for decades.”

On top of this, today’s consumers expect brands to take a stand on political issues. In fact, a majority of Americans want the companies they buy from to have a position on heated topics like climate change, racial equity, and reproductive justice. This is especially true of younger generations. Over half of Gen Z and Millennials are more likely to buy from brands that publicly support reproductive health care. And for these young citizens, actions speak louder than words.

Bottom line – politics are no longer avoidable for businesses. Lobbying is one of the best ways to weigh in on specific issues, defend your business values, and speak up on topics you care about. Your voice, both in frequency and volume, matters!

How to Become a Policy Advocate  

Leading companies are beginning to step up and leverage their position for pro-climate, pro-choice, and pro-LGBTQ+ rights policy. To date, over 1,000 businesses have urged governments to implement policies that accelerate clean energy. And you can join them! Whether you’re a Fortune 500 company or an SME, you can use your influence to promote policy change at every level.

A good political advocacy strategy can be broken down into two key categories – engaging on regulatory issues and political spending. We discuss each of these below.

1) Understand and Engage on Policy Issues

The first part of your strategy involves using your voice as an American business to lobby for policies that help you reduce GHG emissions, promote workplace equality, and support an inclusive economy.

At SBC, we strongly encourage all our clients to advocate for policies at the local, state, and federal level that advance the transition to net-zero. This could be advocating for investments in grid electrification, increasing access to affordable renewable energy, and incentivizing low-carbon business practices. Or it could be supporting policies that protect natural ecosystems (forests, grasslands, coastal estuaries, etc.).

Some forward-thinking businesses are even engaging on policy throughout their supply chains. For example, HP works with the U.S. Department of State through the Clean Energy Demand Initiative to support local demand for renewable energy in countries where its suppliers are based. This initiative encourages investment and innovation to make clean energy more available and affordable.

No matter what issue you’re taking a stand on, be sure to formalize specific actions into your broader ESG strategy. Our rule of thumb is that you should support at least one bill and release at least one public-facing communication per year. Below are some examples of how you can engage on three of today’s hot button issues.

Climate Action: If you position yourself as a climate-friendly business, support federal bills like the Build Back Better Act. At the state or local level, back bills that require a transition to 100% carbon-free electricity. In 2021 we saw some notable successes in this area. Five states passed laws setting targets to reach net zero emissions or 100% clean energy by mid-century, including Illinois, the first Midwestern state to pass such legislation.

Reproductive Care: If you’re against policies that restrict reproductive care, including the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, support safe harbor laws in your state like Ben & Jerry’s and advocate for the Women’s Health Protection Act. Also consider releasing a statement similar to that of Lauren Hobart, CEO of DICK’S Sporting Goods. Finally, engage with local, state, and federal lawmakers to reiterate that these policies not only threaten the wellbeing of your workers but also are bad for business. Companies are best served when workers have access to fundamental human rights, including the right to reproductive health.

LGBTQ+ Rights: If you’re an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, follow and lobby against anti-transgender, anti-LGBTQ youth healthcare bans and other discriminatory policies in the states where you operate. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook is a champion of this idea. He’s been deploying lobbyists and recruiting allies to oppose legislation targeting gay and transgender people in stakes like Iowa, Florida, and Texas. Not sure what’s on the docket? Freedom for All Americans tracks legislation related to LGBTQ+ discrimination here.

Remember, with so much on the line, silence is no longer a viable option. While you certainly aren’t expected to lobby on all of today’s hot button issues, make sure you have a voice on those that overlap with your values.

2) Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

The second part of policy advocacy is simple – align your political giving with your commitments and communications. If you aren’t currently supporting legislation with your dollars, this could mean including political donations in your corporate giving strategy. For others, it might mean making sure your existing spending isn’t bankrolling politicians, trade associations, or legislation that go against your values. Just as the public will no longer stand for greenwashing, companies soon won’t be able to get away with making political contributions that undermine the issues they claim to stand for.

One organization that’s bringing awareness to this issue is ClimateVoice. Its corporate scorecard evaluated 20 pro-climate companies on their stance on the Build Back Better Act, only to find that most are either silent or even obstructing progress through their own trade associations. Another great resource in InfluenceMap, a database that tracks corporate climate policy engagement across the globe.

More recently, reports analyzing corporate donations to anti-abortion groups have been popping up left and right. For instance, companies like AT&T, CVS, Google, Walmart, Amazon, and Comcast have collectively donated millions to anti-abortion committees since 2016. Yet these very same companies have also made public commitments offering employees travel benefits for abortions. Similarly, businesses like Duke Energy, Comcast, and United Healthcare have all donated to the politicians behind Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill despite showing public support for the LGBTQ+ community.

Citizens are beginning to take notice. On the topic of abortion, a majority of consumers believe businesses should withhold contributions to political candidates who are trying to restrict reproductive care. What’s more, over 60% of employees say political contributions to abortion bans make them feel less positively toward their company.

Moral of the story? Misaligned or even two-faced corporate lobbying always comes to light – it’s a matter of when, not if. Your brand, trust, and reputation are all at stake and worth protecting through a little due diligence. Do the research to ensure funds are flowing to organizations, industry groups, and politicians who align with your mission.

To stay accountable, set a formalized target for the amount of money you’d like to donate each year. Maybe that's funding an organization supporting policy for LGBTQ+ rights or a local politician pushing for equitable renewable energy access. Either way, be sure you’re making this information publicly available in your annual reporting and external communications.

Not sure how much to spend? One initiative we admire is the 1 in 5 for 1.5°C campaign. This campaign encourages big tech companies to spend 1 in 5 lobbying dollars on policy that keeps warming below 1.5°C. As you set your political giving goals, consider the 1 in 5 framework.

Initiatives & Resources You Should Know About

Corporate policy engagement is full of nuance. What legislation should you support? Where do politicians stand on the issues you care about? What collaborations are already out there?

Here are some business organizations advocating for climate action:

  • We Mean Business Coalition – working to catalyze business leadership and policy to accelerate the transition to net zero
  • Ceres Policy Network (BICEP) – provides brands with tools and knowledge to effectively engage with state and federal policymakers on climate and energy
  • American Sustainable Business Network - creates solutions for policymakers, business leaders, and investors that support an equitable, regenerative, and just economy
  • We Are Still In – a coalition of mayors, county executives, governors, tribal leaders, university leaders, businesses, faith groups, and investors joining forces to support climate action

Here are some initiatives and resources around reproductive justice and equality:

Where Do We Go From Here?

We are entering a new era of corporate citizenship. While businesses have long been able to avoid engaging on public policy, that’s quickly changing.

Smart businesses are starting to recognize that robust, equitable policies on issues like climate change, reproductive health, and LGBTQ+ rights help them achieve their goals faster. After all, climate and clean energy policies come with huge economic opportunities. And when workers are protected, empowered, and cared for, businesses thrive.

We understand that policy engagement may be unchartered territory for your business and we’re here to help. Reach out to our team to discuss how you can become a policy advocate on climate, LGBTQ+ rights, gun safety, and whatever other issues you’re passionate about!