The American Sustainable Business Council’s (ASBC) third annual summit Nov. 13 and 14 in Washington, D.C. brought together 150 entrepreneurs, business leaders, investors and elected officials to discuss the state of play—and possibilities—for policies that advance a sustainable economy.
Founded in 2009, ASBC is a national business advocacy policy organization representing over 200,000 businesses across the nation. ASBC works on a wide range of policy issues at the federal and state level, working to advance a sustainable economy by shifting markets and policies. ASBC raises up the voice, presence and power of business to create jobs, grow business and build a sustainable US economy.
“We invited our members here to Washington to discuss the business case and policies needed for a sustainable, just, prosperous, and vibrant economy,” said ASBC vice president and co-founder Richard Eidlin.
He explained that ASBC is a direct response to the presence of traditional business interests such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce who spend hundreds of millions often advocating for policies that deter the economy from becoming more innovative, equitable and sustainable. While claiming to represent the will of American businesses, especially small companies, these entities do the opposite. ASBC is working to ensure that other important voices in the business community are heard in Washington and the media.
Among the attendees were representatives from sustainability-focused retailers Earth Friendly Products, Ecco Bella, Greyston Bakery and Eileen Fisher.
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At a kickoff reception on Nov. 12, ASBC presented its Sustainable Policymakers Award, the “SUSTY,” for “exemplary leadership from members of Congress, administration officials and businesses.” This year’s awards went to U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, and ASBC business member, New Belgium Brewing.
An overall theme that emerged over the summit was that the values at the core of a sustainably run business need to be reflected in the policies that govern how business operates, for workers, customers, and society as a whole. "This isn't about the environmental case. This is about the business case — that the economy can be more sustainable and provide opportunity to a much greater array of Americans," said ASBC co-founder David Levin in his opening remarks. “And in the process, a more prosperous economy is created. But it takes businesses speaking up to make that case,” added Levine.
Thursday’s mix of plenary and breakout sessions mirrored these priorities with discussions about pricing carbon, raising the minimum wage, supporting the growth of clean energy technologies, supporting the next generation of American farmers, tax reform, the growth of shared ownership business models like ESOPS and cooperatives, and a panel on conservative thought and sustainability.
In a broad-ranging, candid discussion about putting a price on carbon, the question seemed firmly on the side of when, not if. Emily Enderle, Chief Environmental Policy Advisor for U.S. Senator Whitehouse said that the Senator plans to introduce a carbon pricing bill in the next few weeks. Eidlin said that the ASBC will be advocating for a price on carbon going forward, citing that the “dialogue is beginning to shift.”
A panel on shared ownership business models included comments from U.S. Representative Chaka Fattah from Pennsylvania, who shared his support for employee owned businesses. B Lab’s policy director, Erik Trojian, noted that diversifying ownership is one way to ensure a company’s longevity. And in a measure of how embedded worker ownership is in the U.S. economy, “There are 29,000 cooperatives in the US - and many Americans belong to more than one,” said Michael Peck from Mondragon North America.
Another panel discussed the likelihood that movement on sustainable economic and environmental policy initiatives for the next two years is most likely to happen on the state and local levels. JR Tolbert, executive director of the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators pointed out three places where there’s traction and broad support for sustainable business policy: chemical reform (such as on phthalates and toxic flame retardants), solar, and a price on carbon.
“Solar is an issue where the right and left come together around energy freedom. This is where citizens can decide where their energy comes from,” he said.
On Friday, the day started early with a Women’s Working Group breakfast session to set priorities for the coming year of interest to women members, including access to capital and workplace initiatives such as Leave Insurance. The entire summit group then attended a several-hours-long briefing at The White House and spent the afternoon on Capitol Hill meeting with over thirty elected officials and staffers from ASBC members’ districts.
Concurrent with the Summit, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy announced $3 million in small business funding for green technology and research in eight states. On a Nov. 12 press call before the Summit began, McCarthy reiterated the agency’s commitment to strengthening economic growth, supporting sustainable businesses, and combating the impacts of climate change.
Speaking about the summit overall, Eidlin said, “Our members are demonstrating by the way they act that business can be profitable, environmentally responsible, and care about workers and their communities. There is no contradiction.”
Case in point is Naturepedic, a company that manufactures non-toxic, organic mattresses and bedding products in Ohio. David Anthony, director of corporate affairs, said, "As a small business, on our own we don't have the money or the network to make effective change in Washington on the things that matter to us and our customers. So ASBC helps us have a seat at table to voice our concerns. Going to the White House and meeting with my senator is American democracy at its finest, made possible because we are associated with a strong group."
Eidlin stressed the importance of making the voice of sustainable business heard in Washington and at the state level.
“The $4 billion spent in the recent election is a case in point. Most of the policies and programs pushed by that $4 billion were not in the interests of sustainable businesses and will not move the economy in a sustainable direction,” he said.
“When you show up as business leaders, that makes all the difference." Too often, those who claim to speak for business think that profit and the single bottom line are the only thing that matters. That's why we say, ‘If you're not at the table, you're on the menu.’ It's crucial that sustainable business leaders engage in policy, because if they don't then someone else who doesn't reflect their values will."