Adopting a Sustainable Economy Through Public Policy with American Sustainable Business Council’s Richard Eidlin

July 27, 2011

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored and lucky today to have my friend, Richard Eidlin, on Green is Good. Richard, welcome to Green is Good, and we’re so thankful you’re here today. RICHARD EIDLIN: John, thank you so much. I really look forward to the conversation with you. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Richard, you’re calling in today from Colorado, and there’s a huge story. Not only did I have the honor and pleasure a couple of weeks back to go to the White House with you because you’re one of the great leaders of the American Sustainable Business Council, but you have done so much great work in Colorado with regards to social entrepreneurship, sustainability, and also you’re the President of the Progress Group. Before we get talking about all the amazing work at the ASBC, I would like you to share your journey because our listeners, both here in the United States and around the world, love to get to know intimately, from your own perspective, your journey to sustainability leadership. How did you get to where you are today, and that’s so important for all of our listeners to hear first. RICHARD EIDLIN: Great. That’s a great question. I think it really, John, began sitting around the kitchen table over dinners with my folks and family, talking about politics and talking about issues, that began during the Vietnam War. In college, I got very interested in environmental and energy issues. I had the opportunity to be a lobbyist at the University of Maryland, then went on and started working in the renewable energy industry. I worked in that industry for almost 15 years. While doing that, I got a real sense of the importance that businesses could play in creating a more sustainable economy. Along the way, I also had a really life-changing experience, where I got to work at the United Nations Environment Program for a number of years in the early nineties, and that was during the time of the Earth Summit. 20 years later, we’re about to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit, again in Rio de Janeiro. Long story short, I’ve always been interested in the role that businesses could play in working with environmental organizations, civic organizations, unions, and others, to build a sustainable economy, and have also had the view that sustainability is not just about environmental practices, but also really needs to factor in social and community issues as well. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Richard, that is just wonderful because that’s what we do here at Green is Good. We profile and platform not only amazing human beings like you, but also people that have created great brands or are stewards of great brands. Share a little bit about how you became the President of the Progress Group, and what do you do with the Progress Group? RICHARD EIDLIN: The Progress Group is a small consulting firm that I run out of Denver, Colorado. We focus on helping low and moderate-income entrepreneurs develop triple bottom line businesses. The program we run is called the Greater Good Academy, and it provides an eight-week training program to these early stage entrepreneurs in smart business strategies of how to run successful companies that take into account people, profit, and planet. The Progress Group runs that program, and it also provides some consulting services to a number of for-profit companies, and has also consulted with a number of clean energy or clean tech companies over the years, John. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. For all of our listeners out there that want to contact Richard or engage the Progress Group, please go to his wonderful website. I’ve been on it. I’m on it right now, in fact. www.proggroup.com. That’s Richard’s consulting firm and he’s the President of it in Colorado doing amazing things, people, planet, and profits. Let’s segue over to your amazing organization that you’re one of the leaders of, the American Sustainable Business Council. We’ve already had David Levine on the show. Because of both of you, my business venture, Electronic Recyclers International, has joined your group because of your vision and your leadership and David’s great vision and leadership. It was because of you and David, you took just an inspiring group of people to the White House a couple of weeks ago. Please share a little bit about how you came to be a leader in the ASBC, and who and what is the ASBC, and what do you do? RICHARD EIDLIN: The American Sustainable Business Council is a national organization of businesses committed to building a sustainable economy. By sustainable economy, John, what we mean is an economy that values people and the environment as much as it does profit. We recognize, as businesspeople, that we need to generate revenue and generate profits, and that the best strategy for succeeding and building a brand and securing customers or retaining those customers is to invest in the communities within which we operate, and also to be stewards of the environment. The idea that businesses needed to step up and articulate their view of how the economy should be structured dawned on David and I and a number of other people shortly after President Obama was elected. We took a look around and said that many of the conventional business organizations that exist didn’t seem to really be representing all the interests of small and mid-sized companies, who make up the bulk of the economic vitality of the country. They are the ones who create most of the jobs in the economy. The idea of the American Sustainable Business Council is to make the business case for sustainability, and while I’m a big fan of great corporate practices and voluntary sustainability initiatives that companies adopt, I also know that we need to change the rules and the laws in the country in order to encourage businesses to do the right thing, really provide the incentives for companies to make the changes necessary, and also to address the externalities that really riddle the economy. The basic premise of the American Sustainable Business Council is to bring businesspeople together and make our case in Washington, DC, and state capitals. The meeting that we had at the White House, John, a few weeks ago is an example of our capacity. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You’re the director of campaigns and business engagement, Richard, at the American Sustainable Business Council. What does that really mean? By the way, for our listeners out there, we’re honored to have Richard Eidlin on with us right now. If you’ve got your laptop or your iPad open, please go to the American Sustainable Business Council. It’s beautiful. Mike and I are on it right now. It’s asbcouncil.org. Who are some of your esteemed members? What are you really specifically working on with regards to policy issues and initiatives right now? RICHARD EIDLIN: John, like other large organizations, although we’re a fledgling relatively small organization, we’re working on a range of policy issues. I’ll give you a few examples. One is financial regulatory reform. You and your listeners might remember that after the banking debacle and the mortgage crisis of two years ago, there were many efforts in Congress to reform the way financial institutions operated. One of the key provisions in the Dodd Frank bill was something called the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. We felt, as we do now, that a Bureau needed to be created to monitor the performance of certain financial institutions, and also to protect consumers and small businesses against fraudulent lending practices. We’ve been out front for about a year-and-a-half now and supporting the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and currently supporting the decision by the President to appoint Elizabeth Warren as the Chair of that Bureau. Another example is our work on the Toxic Substances Control Act. There are about 17,000 chemicals that have been created and introduced into the marketplace over the past two decades that are unregulated in the United States. EPA has not really had the wherewithal or the mandate to regulate those chemicals, and they pose a tremendous risk to human health. So, we’re working actively with Senator Lautenberg from New Jersey and others in the House and the Senate to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act. We’ve also been working on climate change legislation, on protecting EPA’s authority to regulate carbon, doing work on campaign finance, working on sustainable agriculture issues, on the Farm Bill, and a good number of other issues. The way we operate is we work with companies like your own, John, Electronic Recyclers International, and companies like Stonyfield Farms and Seventh Generation, BioAmber, New Belgium Brewery, and other individual companies, and then work directly with our business members. Those are organizations like Green America or the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce, about 36 different member organizations around the United States that are interested in sustainable economic policy. We mobilize those members from those organizations and these individual companies to write letters, to testify, to appear on radio, and really, again, make the business case for sustainability. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Richard, this is your platform. If I’m a business owner, and obviously you and David did a great job recruiting me because I saw the value right away. We’ve had Jeffrey Hollender on the show twice, so we’re huge fans of everything you’re working on at the American Sustainable Business Council here at Green is Good. Mike and I are great fans, but also we’ve had David on, now you. For our listeners out there that own a business or are stewards of a very large company or non-profit, if they care about sustainability, why should they join or become a member of the American Sustainable Business Council? RICHARD EIDLIN: Well, there’s several reasons, John. I think one is that, as more and more businesspeople recognize, sustainability is really the driver of innovation. When we look at sustainability within a global context, we recognize that the United States, while having many, many innovative companies and leading in many innovative R & D areas, we don’t have an enabling set of laws and regulations that are encouraging these industries to grow. We are losing our competitive advantage in many clean tech sectors and clean tech industries, and so we feel that businesspeople who believe in environmental stewardship, who recognize that they will benefit financially from the movement towards sustainability, they need a voice and they need an advocacy voice and someone who can engage in the policy process. We also believe that companies, in wanting to minimize their risk and minimize uncertainty and look to the future, will find a really powerful ally in the American Sustainable Business Council, who can in many ways represent their interests in all the power in Congress or state capitals. While many organizations focus on one issue, sort of a siloed approach, the American Sustainable Business Council is looking across these issue areas and recognizing, quite frankly, that they’re all connected, just like sustainability. Somebody who is concerned about rising healthcare costs, they may also want to be looking at the proliferation of chemicals in our national environment, which are driving up healthcare costs. If the small business is concerned about access to credit, they may want to look at banking regulations and financial regulatory reform. All these issues, we feel, are really connected and heretofore, there hasn’t been an organization that can muster enough political clout to get people’s attention both in the media, which is very important, and in DC. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Speaking of that, then, talk about the response you’ve gotten when you’ve been on Capitol Hill, the White House, I saw how the White House folks rolled out the green carpet for the American Sustainable Business Council, the proverbial green carpet. Talk from your perspective how you’ve been received so far on Capitol Hill, the media, and other places in the Washington, DC, area. RICHARD EIDLIN: One common remark we get from people is we’re relieved that you’re here, we’re really glad that you showed up, and we didn’t know there was such a movement. What we’ve heard from many staff and representatives on the Hill and in the White House is while they know of a few examples, the most high-profile cases of companies pursuing innovative projects and developing environmentally sound products, they have the impression that the business community has a fairly monolithic view, and that the business community is, in many ways, perceived as an inhibitor to progress and as an opponent to sustainability. So, policymakers we’ve been talking with across the country find it very refreshing to hear businesspeople who are concerned about making a living, paying their fair share of taxes, hiring people, making investment decisions, that those people are also concerned about the quality of life in their communities, concerned about a prosperous economy where people have opportunity, concerned about a healthy environment, and that is not something that most people on Capitol Hill are particularly aware of. It’s very encouraging that we’re being called upon more and more to testify, to show up, and to offer a counterpoint to the conventional wisdom that business has often pursued. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Richard, you’re very humble when you call the American Sustainable Business Council a fledgling group. It’s quite the opposite. I met some of your members, 20 or 22 of your members already, and they’re all amazingly accomplished, successful folks representing some wonderful brands. Talk a little about already some of your notable successes that the ASBC has had already in your efforts. RICHARD EIDLIN: A few come to mind. The work we’re doing on the Toxic Substance Control Act, John, is an example of really being able to turn the tide against the American Chemical Association, that has for years been saying the industry is capable of regulating itself. While we absolutely believe in a market economy, we are wary that the free market is capable of making always the most prudent and smart decisions on behalf of the public. We’ve been working with a number of people on Capitol Hill on the Toxic Substances Control Act and have, I think, made some really great headway on that. Another issue that we’ve been involved in most recently is concerning oil subsidies. As you may have followed in the news, there’s a big debate in Congress over whether the extension of that $44 billion in subsidies for the five largest oil companies in the United States is something that we can afford in this deficit-reducing era. We got the attention of a number of people on the Hill, and offered the voice of businesses concerned that this is not a prudent policy to continue. Thirdly, we’ve begun to work with the Small Business Administration, following the passage of the 2010 Small Business Jobs Bill, which we were quite influential in mobilizing businesses across the country to support. That bill, John, provided $30 billion worth of capital to small businesses who were having a hell of a time getting money from the large banks. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We hear the term “sustainable economy” all the time, and you’ve got a unique view on this because you have visibility. You’ve been doing this way before it was cool or hip to be involved with the sustainability revolution, the green revolution, Richard, with all your great work as the President of the Progress Group, and now as the Director of Campaigns and Business Engagement at the ASBC. What does a sustainable economy mean to you? RICHARD EIDLIN: A sustainable economy is one that looks to the future and it acknowledges that, first of all, there needs to be some direction, some priority, some agenda, some type of plan, and that takes care to utilize its resources, both its human capital, its natural capital, and financial capital, in a way that the future implications of those decisions are accounted for. Unlike an economy that is working on a quarterly basis or a very short-term perspective, we see a sustainable economy as one that is taking into account current decisions on the future, and also recognizes that many decisions that are made by companies and individuals and governments all have some unintended consequence or some externalities associated with them. We believe that a sustainable economy has to take those externalities into account, have somebody pay for those externalities because otherwise it just ends up as a silent cost and we pay for it in high asthma rates or obesity or crime. Lastly, we view a sustainable economy as one that creates real value for the people that live in that economy. Rather than producing tremendous wealth for a very, very small percentage of the people through leveraged buy-outs and hedge funds and collateralized debt obligations and other exotic financial instruments that really create no value, a sustainable economy builds things, manufactures products, creates real value and invests in communities and neighborhoods so that those people that live there can buy products and services and have a decent life. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well put. I know the American Sustainable Business Council is very action and solution-oriented. Can you talk a little bit about participation, being part of the solution? So many people in this sustainability movement say, “I want to do something. I want to feel part of the process.” Why is it important, Richard, for people to not feel like their voice can’t be heard? Why is it important for businesspeople to participate in the policy process, and that will then go towards the greater good of creating a sustainable economy? RICHARD EIDLIN: I think the cynicism and skepticism that people have across the country is not without justification. There is more money in the political system than there ever has been, and as your listeners may be aware, the recent Supreme Court decision of last year, Citizens United allowed corporations to spend an unlimited amount of money. In many ways, that really tilts the playing field even more so than it has been. What we feel is important is the businesspeople that share these values that you and I have been discussing, that they step up and they make their voice heard. What I hear over and over again, and from direct experience, is when businesspeople show up in a policy arena, come to DC, go the state capital, make that phone call, that they have a great deal of credibility because they’re the ones who are seen as creating value and opportunity in this economy. Businesspeople understand what it’s like to meet the bottom line or the triple bottom line, and policy people often don’t understand what it takes to run a business, and they’re very enthusiastic about learning, and feel, again, that businesspeople have a lot to tell them. The ways that people can participate are appearing at hearings, testifying, making phone calls, and educating. What we provide our business supporters like yourself with, John, are opportunities to engage in those high-level meetings, connecting people with their elected officials, making sure that the staff and elected officials really understand what the implications of a certain decision are, and we think that that really has a very positive impact and can present an alterative view to what they’re most often hearing from very, very high-paid lobbyists, that we’re not at this point. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Right. I saw it first-hand. I see how effective and know how effective the American Sustainable Business Council is. Unfortunately, Richard, we’ve now come to an end. Just so you know, you, David, and any of your members are always welcome guests back here on Green is Good. For those who want to contact Richard or engage his firm, you can go to www.proggroup.com. He’s the President of the Progress Group and if you want to join the American Sustainable Business Council or engage the ASBC, please go to www.asbcouncil.org. Richard Eidlin, you are an inspirational sustainability visionary and truly living proof that green is good.