Congress Gets a Lesson on Sustainability

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Posted on May 23, 2012

Triplebottom-linegraphic1Recently I attended a fundraising breakfast for my home-state U.S. Senator and listened with interest as each of the dozen or so lobbyist in attendance made their plea for this or that. I was present without a specific agenda at this particular event, so I decided to use my two minutes to ask the Senator about why Congress seems so deadlocked on energy and environment issues when the private sector is rapidly embracing sustainability.  My question was met with somewhat of a blank stare.

Nearly every company represented around the breakfast table that morning had taken some notable action to reduce business costs and environmental impacts by better managing their use of resources such as energy, water, and land.  Most the lobbyists, however,  were less than well-versed on their own corporate sustainability practices.

Striking a similar note, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) shared at a recent Congressional hearing that he had cautioned his daughter, a student in environmental management at Duke University, not to use the word “sustainability” with people as they wouldn’t know what she was talking about.

The truth is, Washington is late to the party on a movement that is thriving in the private sector.   Corporate sustainability executives arrived on Capitol Hill this past week to share what the buzz is all about with the Senate subcommittee responsible for children’s health and environmental responsibility.

As reported by Bloomberg, representatives from Intel Corp., Proctor & Gamble Co., Eastman Chemical Co., and FedEx Corp., presented to a group including U.S. Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Tom Udall (D-NM).  They shared their companies’ “epiphanies” on sustainability, including how Intel links sustainability performance to employees’ bonuses.  (Read here about how my firm VOX Global’s client AT&T has been particularly focused on pursuing the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit.)

When I worked in the Senate in the late 1980s and later at the U.S. EPA, Beltway insiders typically focused on legal and regulatory approaches to environmental resource challenges and risks, which is natural.  But as the executives noted, the business community is moving rapidly ahead of Washington in identifying ways to better manage use of and impact on natural resources.  It simply makes good business sense, while having the added value of being better in the long run for our communities and our planet.

Notably, much of this work towards improving the sustainability of business operations is done in partnership with the very organizations they have typically sparred with in Washington.  Look no further than the now long-standing relationship between Walmart and the Environmental Defense Fund to see how strange bedfellows and even natural enemies can actually accomplish positive change.

As Senator Udall noted, “The emerging trend toward corporate environmental responsibility in the business world is in contrast to Congress’s increasingly growing division.”

Wake up and smell the (fair trade) coffee Washington. You might learn a thing or two from the private sector on this one.


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