For responsible business leaders today, taking principled positions is no longer an option. It’s part of the job description. Customers expect it. Employees demand it. And it’s why they are responsible business leaders in the first place.
But for many, those strong ethics and morals have been focused internally, only on stakeholders. Stepping into policy fights and politics in general was seen as risky and best left to others. It made sense to focus entirely on growing the business.
Now attitudes are changing, for varied reasons. One is evolutionary. As corporate responsibility and a focus on stakeholders became the norm in business schools and the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit moved from fringe to mainstream, a logical next step was to look beyond one’s own business to the world outside.
You want to change the world?
If you truly want to make the world better, focusing on your business alone won’t do it. There’s a simple reason why: everyone else. You and your company can be authentically sustainable, but if the majority of others aren’t, we all still suffer.
There are two main ways to get other companies on board: encourage them by evangelizing the benefits of sustainability, or nudge them in a more responsible direction through policy changes. The first strategy works well with business leaders who are receptive and maybe already leaning toward a focus on sustainability at their companies. It’s the second strategy—leveraging policy to incentivize skeptics and old-school business leaders—that holds the promise of full systemic change.
Another big benefit of engaging in policy advocacy is that it proves your authenticity. It’s one thing to be more responsible within our own operations, but you move to a deeper level when you also demand policy changes that force others to follow suit. It’s one thing to pay your people well and provide good benefits, but your impact is much broader if you help increase the federal or state minimum wage and advocate for a national paid leave program.
Increasingly stakeholders are looking for the truth behind greenwashing and what’s being called brown-lobbying: when companies say one thing in their marketing and do the opposite with their lobbying. As critics continue to expose practices like greenwashing and brown-lobbying and demand more transparency, it’s easy to imagine stakeholders wondering more and more about the policy positions and advocacy of their favorite brands.
Are you on the bus, or off the bus?
For many responsible business leaders, the biggest reason to engage on policy now is how bad policy has become. It turns out that leaving policy decisions to others has unfortunate consequences. Over the same decades that responsible business cultivated its own garden, industry groups and business lobbies spent billions every year, to double down on policies that enable and encourage irresponsible business.
The current administration is prioritizing policies that threaten the environment, accelerate economic inequality, and hasten a host of other social ills. For example, consider rollbacks to clean air and water rules, tax cuts for already wealthy individuals, and gutting business regulations. For the most part, these are policies that have been promoted for years by industry trade groups and corporate lobbyists. They are succeeding in turning their policy agenda into reality, and for responsible business leaders, who want to make the economy itself more sustainable, it’s alarming.
That’s why passionate, authentic, and responsible business leaders are increasingly joining together to take action. They are walking the talk of their values right up to their State Houses and Capitol Hills. They are speaking out in their local and regional newspapers. And they are encouraging their employees and customers to join them in supporting policy change.
Policymakers listen to business people. It’s why business lobbying works. Unfortunately, Washington and state elected officials have been listening to the wrong business people for too long .
Truly authentic and responsible business leaders know that for business to be a force for good, it cannot put profits above people and the planet. Those are the values that need to form public policy. And who better than responsible business leaders to advocate for those policies?
Hammad Atassi is CEO of the American Sustainable Business Council, the leading advocacy organization representing the policy interests of responsible businesses.