Letter to Trump: why businesses could be the face of climate progress

Environmental business experts say that companies like the 365 that signed a letter to President-elect Trump are the new frontline of the fight against climate change. 

Richard Clement /Reuters
A demonstrator holds up a sign during a march past the White House to protest against the Keystone XL pipeline in Washington, February 17, 2013. Businesses and consumers alike are calling for increased efforts for progressive action on climate change.

On Wednesday, a group of 365 United States-based companies and investors came together to issue a declaration of their support for progressive action on climate change and emissions regulation, marking a positive step forward for individuals concerned about climate change in the wake of last week’s presidential elections.

Donald Trump’s election to the presidency has concerned many environmentalists who say that the president has the power to shape US energy and environmental policy and set a precedent for the rest of the world.

But so do consumers, who are voting with their wallets more today than ever before. A 2015 Nielsen survey found that 66 percent of consumers were willing to pay more for sustainable brands, up from 50 percent in just 2013, and companies are listening. Wednesday's letter underscores a perhaps intensifying trend in climate initiatives, with business matching – or, some day, surpassing – government leadership on the issue. 

“We have seen a glimpse of the future,” says Tom Eggert, a senior lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the executive director of the Wisconsin Sustainable Business Council tells The Christian Science Monitor by phone.  “The future is that federal and state governments will not be playing as much of a leadership role in the sustainability space as private corporations.”

The 365 companies and investors that signed Wednesday’s letter, from a wide array of industries, all share a common commitment: the realization of a global economy that limits global warming to the Paris Agreement’s goal of less than 2 degrees Celsius.

“We want the US economy to be energy efficient and powered by low-carbon energy. Cost-effective and innovative solutions can help us achieve these objectives. Failure to build a low-carbon economy puts American prosperity at risk. But the right action now will create jobs and boost US competitiveness,” agreed the signatories, which include companies such as Nike, Unilever, and Levi Strauss. 

For many businesses, pursuing sustainable business practices just makes sense, Daniel Esty, the director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, tells the Monitor in a phone interview. 

“Some things that companies do to advance their sustainability goals often produce profitable results – those strategies can go straight to the bottom line,” says Mr. Esty, the co-author of "Green to Gold: How Smart Companies Use Environmental Strategy to Innovate, Create Value, and Build Competitive Advantage."

The incentive is more than a "green" reputation – not just among consumers, but investors. Some environmentally friendly strategies also cut back on physical waste and increase productivity. From the human capital perspective, environmentally friendly practices attract employees who want to be proud of their company's values, Dr. Eggert says.

President-elect Trump has said he would withdraw the US from climate pacts such as the Paris Agreement (although doing so would be difficult), one of many statements that worry conservationists and environmental advocates. Mr. Trump’s appointment of climate change skeptic Myron Ebell to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the transition period is particularly concerning for those who see regulation as key to limiting climate change.

Trump’s climate moves are also worrying to some businesses. Predictability is key to business, says Mr. Eggert, and many of these companies likely want to see their competitors play by the same rules, a fact echoed by several of the letter’s signatories. 

It's not the first time companies have banded together against climate change. In 2015, 13 major US-based corporations pledged $140 million toward reducing their environmental impact and generating renewable energy. Individual companies have made similar commitments, including two of America's largest in the past month alone. Just days before the election, Wal-Mart announced a plan to derive half of its power from renewable sources by 2025, and cut its carbon footprint at least 18 percent over that time; one week later, Microsoft announced that it was expanding further into wind power, hoping to derive 50 percent of its power from renewable sources within two years. 

Government regulations "will still shape the speed and trajectory of the movement towards a sustainable future," Esty says, but the private sector's influence is here to stay. While the 20th century approach to sustainability was primarily government-led, the 21st century, he believes, will likely be characterized by businesses taking the lead.

“Long-term stable financial returns are dependent upon a stable and resilient climate,” Adam Kanzer, the managing director of Domini Social Investments LLC, said in this week's open letter. “The goal established by the Paris agreement to limit average temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels, with a target of 1.5 degrees, is not simply a good idea, it is an imperative. Today, we recommit ourselves to that goal and urge our government to do the same.”

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