There is a great cluelessness afoot in this land. It’s padding around in Europe and Asia as well, but here in the United States, it’s staggering around with giant clomping feet, and its favorite stomping grounds are the economic punditry centers of Washington, D.C., Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Much is made of various measurements of corporate progress towards sustainability: Company X has reduced its carbon footprint by 10 percent; Company Y has introduced a line of recycled products; Company Z will offer new and more efficient technology in 2012. But the reality is, there’s one measurement that matters more than all of these put together, and it’s almost never mentioned in the green business press: where a company spends its lobbying budget.
See, a huge number of companies make modest improvements in practices, but lobby all-out, in a variety of ways, to stall the adoption of higher standards, better land-use practices, green taxes or even health and safety regulations. And the impacts of those lobbying efforts usually far, far outweigh the good they claim to be doing with their pilot green efforts.
The most recent shocking report? Revelation of donations by companies that like to claim green leadership including Microsoft, Toyota and Wal-Mart, to the ultra-anti-environmental Cato Institute—which recently launched an ad campaign targeting president Obama’s climate policies—relying on climate skeptic deceptions. That’s right, your Prius purchase may have helped fund an attack on climate action.
This is not an isolated incident. Take Wal-Mart. The big box giant has long been known in policy circles as one of the leading opponents to better land use and greener taxation policies (even carbon offset standards). It not only spends huge sums of money paying employees to influence all decisions ($5.2 million in 2008 on formal in-house lobbying alone); it also spends heavily on lobbyists influencing local and state governments (for instance, it spent more than $200,000 for one fight in Massachusetts last year) and increasingly the Federal government (more than $4,000,000 spent hiring lobbyists in 2007). This doesn’t even count the much greater amounts of money it spends indirectly, from expenditures on public relations to support for industry groups, publications and anti-environmental think tanks which are not formally lobbyists. Wal-Mart is also one of the largest political donors in the United States, with its PAC alone spending more than $3,000,000 in 2008. How many compact fluorescents would it need to sell to offset the miles and miles of suburban sprawl it’s fought to make possible?
These practices are not only deceptive, they’re harmful. They play on our erroneous sense of privatized responsibility to sell us “green” goods, while simultaneously opposing the very kind of systemic changes we need if we’re going to avoid planetary collapse. And this is absolutely not just an American problem; indeed, in our globalized world, companies are quite cosmopolitan in their efforts to corrupt government progress towards sustainability wherever it threatens their outdated business models.
Now, the reality is that for every huge company engaged in duplicitous sell-the-CFL-and-lobby-for-the-sprawl practices, there is another company (often smaller) which engages wholly and fully in doing as much good business as it can. It’s not true that being in business makes you bad. Being dishonest and fighting needed change while claiming to champion it is what makes yours a bad business.
I’ve written once before about how the world needs a transparency revolution. Nowhere is that more true than the emerging field of green business.
We already have certification systems and other ways of making transparent the material backstories of specific products. We have all manner of rankings and ratings of sustainability practices (however deeply flawed). What we don’t have is what we most need: an absolute measurement of political accountability. What might such a system look like? What would be the challenges in designing and releasing it? How could it be made most effective?
Tools exist for doing that. Here in the United States, the League of Conservation Voters offers an annual scorecard rating members of Congress’ environmental performance, based on their votes on key issues. Transparency International follows international corporate corruption and bribery, and has evolved a set of standards for eliminating it. Others have developed great tools for quickly revealing the origins of political contributions and so on.
What we need is a standard for corporate political transparency and accountability that can be clearly reported and easily understood by those who are looking to buy an item, or invest in a stock—a sort of transparency index. That way, you could know before supporting a company if it is a) forthcoming in its political practices and b) supportive of a few critical, well-understood bedrock political issues (like climate, smart growth, human rights).
I have little doubt that such a rating system would have an outsized impact quickly. It doesn’t take too many people saying, “Hmmm, I was going to buy a Prius, but Toyota’s Transparency Index Rating is only 25 percent; guess I’ll get the Aptera after all,” before it makes more sense for Toyota to stop contributing to Cato than continue. I don’t know of such a system, but it sure seems like the parts to build it exist.
We need a clearinghouse, accessible to average consumers, disclosing the environmental, social and yes—lobbying data for large companies. Well, Maplight.org is a good step in the right direction. Really what we need is the raw data made available in real time (whose money, to whom, which legislators met which lobbyists, and when, etc). Then building the tools to make the economy of influence transparent is (relatively) easy.
That’s the power of transparency: It is the cure for corruption.
Ben Eckold is a business senior, the former president of the Empower Poly Coalition and a Mustang Daily columnist.