A Home For Businesses That Believe Ethics and Profits Aren’t Mutually Exclusive

The American Sustainable Business Council works to amplify the influence of sustainable businesses on policy issues like clean energy, food, and agriculture

We may have reached the point of peak craft beer. Cities are ranked based on their breweries, connoisseurs opt for beer tastings over wine flights, and beers are brewed with everything from matté, to mustard seeds, to pomegranate. In the midst of this beer hysteria, some craft breweries are taking things a step further, aiming to make beer that is not just small-batch and delicious, but that is also sustainable.

 Beer sampler Photo by Quinn Dombrowski, on Flickr Businesses like New Belgium Brewing Company have joined the American Sustainable Business Council to amplify their voice in public policy debates.

New Belgium Brewing Company, for example, has built sustainability into its business model. Pointing out that beer is 90 percent water, the company supports clean water advocacy, aims to reduce water use at its brewery, and has a special campaign to protect the Colorado River. It also works to source hops sustainably, minimize waste at its brewery, and reduce the company’s carbon footprint.

Often referred to as “triple bottom line” businesses, companies like New Belgium focus on minimizing their impact on the environment, supporting local communities, fostering a positive work environment, and of course, turning a profit in the process. (Triple bottom line refers a focus on people, the planet, and profits.) However, because this business model operates outside the profits-centric mainstream, it is not well represented by more conservative business organizations like the US Chamber of Commerce in the public policy arena.

So where does a company like New Belgium turn when it wants to join a policy discussion? When it wants to, for example, push the EPA to expand clean water protections? A good place to start would be the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC), a business advocacy group that works on behalf of sustainable businesses, and lobbies on a wide range of policy issues, including clean energy, food, agriculture, toxic chemicals, and sustainable economies.

ASBC was formed in 2009 with the specific objective of representing responsible companies in the policy-making process. “We felt that the traditional business groups that were out there weren’t doing a very good job to make the case that a company can be financially successful while being a high road employer, and committed to community, and being environmentally responsible,” says Richard Eidlin, co-founder and vice president of policy and campaigns at ASBC. “So we set out to create this voice for sustainable business.”

Of course, like most lobbying organizations, representation isn’t free. ASBC’s 200,000 business members pay membership dues based on company revenues, and several companies, listed as “business leaders” on the ASBC website, have contributed more than $10,000.

But Andrew Lemley, government affairs emissary and employee-owner at New Belgium Brewing Company, thinks the contribution is worth it. ASBC has helped the company host roundtables on the EPA’s Clean Waters of the US rule at the New Belgium brewery, and has helped put New Belgium employees in front of policy-makers on Capitol Hill, allowing the company to gain a seat at the policy-making table. “The value really that we see [with ASBC] is aggregating these business voices to be able to have an amplified voice in policy discussions, that maybe the business community doesn’t usually speak out on in the way we would like to see businesses speak out,” says Lemley.

Eileen Fisher, a women’s clothing company that aims to produce clothes in an environmentally and socially responsible fashion, has also found membership valuable, and has used ASBC as a platform for joining policy discussions on climate change and use of toxic chemicals in the clothing industry.

“They make it easy. They may have an event set up already to meet particular legislators, and they will invite us to those, or they will make appointments to visit legislators and share our perspective on…pending legislation,” says Amy Hall, director of the social consciousness department at Eileen Fisher. “It is really great to discover that having these types of conversations aren’t really hard, and in fact people are interested in what we are interested in, and are interested in hearing what our views are.”

In addition to providing an amplified voice for sustainable businesses and making introductions to policy-makers, ASBC provides member companies with the added benefits of community and collaboration, says Michael Pirson, who is an associate professor of management systems at the New York-based Fordham School of Business and focuses on sustainable business. “There are as many different perspectives on how businesses should be run as there are businesses. There are some voices that get heard more — those of the powerful, those of the incumbents, those of the existing large corporations,” he says. ASBC, Pirson says, helps bring more diverse voices into the conversation.

Asked whether there might not also be a financial incentive to raise business standards across the board and level the playing field, Pirson didn’t hesitate: “Absolutely. The marketplace is not a fair one.” After all, triple bottom line businesses are still trying to turn a profit.

And that is really the point for members like New Belgium. “I think what ASBC is doing is really raising up companies and organizations that are saying that it doesn’t have to be an either-or conversation,” says Lemley. “Companies that are having great success in the traditional sense of that — in terms of profitability — they are also having great success in treating people well, they are also having great success in doing what is right for the environment. And even one step beyond that, the people and the planet part is not necessarily an additive cost that reduces profit. You can actually increase profit.”

ASBC won’t level the playing field overnight — it is competing in the same arena as the US Chamber of Commerce, which represents more than 3 million businesses and supports more traditional business policies. But Pirson thinks ASBC is on the right path. “These guys are looking at a more proactive way of dealing with problems in society rather than denying them,” he says. “And this is going to be more and more a part of the conversation.”

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