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Our Insights 4 Aug 2011

Responsible Lobbying: Oxymoron or Business Imperative?

By Jeff Erikson

Here in Washington, the battle in Congress over the raising the debt ceiling dominated headlines, airwaves and the blogosphere for several weeks. Obviously, the debate became about more than just how much the US should borrow to pay its bills. Instead, it was an ideological fight over the appropriate size and role of government in business and in society.

The flip side of the question of what the role of government in business should be is what the role of business in government should be – i.e. what should or shouldn’t the corporate sector do to shape policies which affect not only the business community but all of society? Or said another way: what does responsible lobbying look like?

The issue – which SustainAbility first addressed in a research report titled Politics and Persuasion published in 2000 and on which we have followed with two additional research reports in 2005 and 2007 – seems to have had a recent resurgence in attention. In the last several months:

  • American Electric Power (AEP) has been skewered by Environmental Defense Fund and others over its position on new EPA regulations related to the Clean Air Act
  • More than 20 investment organizations, let by Calvert Investments and Walden Asset Management, publicly called out 43 major companies for the contradiction between their stated commitment to address climate change and the position and actions of the National Association of Manufacturers (of which they are members), questioning the basic science of climate change
  • The New York Times has questioned the ethics of attempts by allies of the medical device industry to discredit a report of scientific experts examining potential new regulations, even before the report is published

Also, just last week, Ford and others in the auto industry received accolades for helping to advocate for rather than against strict new fuel economy regulations in the US. And all of this follows the highly publicized departures of Apple, Pacific Gas & Electric and several other companies from the US Chamber of Commerce in 2009 over the Chamber’s climate change policy.

So perhaps it should not have surprised me that in the last two months two business organizations, presumably independently, have asked me to speak to them about “responsible lobbying”, a topic on which I had never been invited to speak on before.

In the 2005 movie Thank You For Smoking, the lead character Billy Naylor, a lobbyist for the tobacco industry, memorably states, “My job requires a certain moral flexibility.” And indeed that is the image we often hold of corporate lobbyists – individuals who will set aside their personal moral compass for the purpose of corporate and personal gain.

By extension there is a perception that a company’s sustainability efforts live in a different universe than its government affairs function, that they do not operate in parallel, but are in fact pulling the corporation in opposite directions. While this is often the reality, it is not by necessity, and indeed creates severe risks to the reputation, goodwill and credibility of the company.

A framework of a best-practice model for aligning government affairs and sustainability includes five key components: legitimacy, transparency, consistency, accountability and opportunity. Key questions to assess alignment, include:

  • Legitimacy. Are the means of influence deployed through proper uses of corporate power? What policies do you have on things like political donations, sponsorship and bribery?
  • Transparency. Do you disclose your corporate positions on key public policy issues? Do you disclose your external memberships, donations and methods of influence?
  • Consistency. Do you have systems in place to ensure that lobbying activities and positions are aligned with your environmental, social and ethical principles, policies and commitments, and that they are consistent across borders and functions?
  • Accountability. Do you take responsibility for the impacts of your company on public policy – through your lobbying, memberships, donations and other activities?
  • Opportunity. Do you pro-actively attempt to influence public policy to support the societal transition towards sustainable development? Have you fully explored how more effective public policy on sustainability issues could be a source of competitive advantage?

Government policies which enable a transition to a sustainable economy have never been more important than they are today. The corporate sector wields significant influence in defining the final shape of those policies. By following the framework for responsible lobbying, companies can help shape more sustainable government policy and at the same time improve their competitiveness in the short and long term.

Interested in hearing more about how SustainAbility can help you align your sustainability strategy and your public policy activities? Contact me at erikson@sustainability.com or 1-202-315-4170.

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