Washington Lobbyists Reveal Corporate America's True Colors

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From a look at the green-toned ads put out by companies such as Ford and the Southern Company, you would think that those in the executive suite spend their days meditating on the wisdom of John Muir and Henry David Thoreau. On the other hand, a look at the day planners of their Washington lobbyists suggests that as soon as these same executives step out of the public eye, they set loose their minions to undo every piece of environmental legislation past, present or future. Ford contributed heavily to the effort to defeat legislation mandating better gas mileage, and Southern has led the charge to weaken air pollution regulations for utilities. So, what's the true color of corporate America: green or brown?

The envelope please.... Brown! Until George W. Bush assumed the presidency, it was possible to make a case for either color, mainly because trade associations were largely stymied by the White House or Congress. Now, America's lobbyists have a mind-meld with the most pro-business administration since the days of Herbert Hoover and Warren G. Harding. With a public distracted by war and terrorism, various trade associations are poised to seek an across the board rollback of environmental regulations (60 such regulations are under attack by one estimate), weakened enforcement, and the ability to hand pick the officials who regulate their activities.

Before celebrating, however, the corporate executives who pay the bills for well-connected lobbyists like Haley Barbour (former GOP chairman and head lobbyist for a new utility group) and Marc Racicot (current GOP Chairman and lobbyist for utilities, mining and timber companies) should ask whether they really want these particular prayers answered. To the degree that their hired guns succeed, these lobbyists may well pose a bigger threat to the fortunes of the businesses they ostensibly represent than any costs associated with protecting the environment.

If, as studies suggest, 25% of the value of a company is tied up in its brand, then corporations are playing with fire with back-room maneuvers to weaken environmental protection. Consumers won't be distracted forever, and, increasingly, the reputation of a brand is connected with a company's impact on the planet.

In the mid-1990s, an outpouring of grassroots concern for the environment helped stop the so-called Republican Revolution of 1994. The threat of consumer backlash forced Home Depot to forswear the purchase of wood from ancient forests. Utilities and mining companies are less susceptible to direct consumer action, but still pay a price for alienating the public.

To be sure, many CEO's are sincere in their desire to be environmentally responsible, and green groups often get a good reception with engineers and managers in the auto, chemical and other polluting industries. Why then this yawning gap between a widely shared desire to be greener within companies and the retrograde environmental agenda of their trade associations?

The answer may be as simple as the issue of incentives. It is not in an expensive Washington lobbying firm's interest to underestimate a threat to the bottom line. Nor is it in a CEO's interest to ignore trade association research that says a piece of legislation will cost his industry billions. William Clay Ford might be on the board of a major green groups like Conservation International, but when his Washington experts tell him that a rise in fuel economy standards will exacerbate Ford's losses, it's hard to answer, "I believe otherwise."

Still, for all the complaints that environmentalists cry wolf on non-existent threats, no one offers up bigger howlers than lobbyists describing an attempt to protect the planet as a dire risk to the economy. Twenty years ago, a consortium of trade groups warned that banning CFC's to protect the ozone layer would throw thousands out of work. When CFC's were phased out beginning in 1987, nothing like that happened (except that the ozone layer continued to deteriorate as the atmosphere absorbed CFC's released during years of stalling).

Environmental regulation does cost about 2% of GDP, but the consistent message of surveys is that consumers gladly bear that cost as essential to health and quality of life. In fact that 2% figure grows much larger when voluntary spending is included. One of the great growth industries of the past few years has been the sale of bottled water, a product that most people can get for nothing out of a tap. Bottled water now costs far more than gasoline, but there is no sign of consumer revolt. People pay because they believe bottled water is free of pollutants and other contaminants.

At some point, consumers will realize that their spending subsidizes those who pollute the water, and at some point they will realize that wasting cheap gasoline carries with it costs in the form of respiratory illness, the threat of climate chaos, and pathetic deference to authoritarian and anti-American regimes in the Middle East. When these pennies eventually drop, some consumers may think, "gee, maybe I'll buy a Honda" (Honda was the sole auto company to support an increase in fuel efficiency). If just a tiny percent of consumers decide to choose brands that are friends of the earth, that could be the difference between a winning or losing quarter when companies report profits. That's when executives will discover that their trade organizations are very expensive indeed.

Eugene Linden is a contributor to TIME. His most recent book is "The Future in Plain Sight." He can be reached at http://www.eugenelinden.com/.