Harnessing the Eco-Power of Chambers of Commerce

Green_biz_jpegPosted December, 2007
by Kevin Fletcher, GreenBiz

Two years ago, as our organization was doing the groundwork for what
would eventually lead to our Environmental Stewardship & Management
Initiative (which I discussed in my previous column for GreenBiz, Small Business, Big Results) we asked the question, "what are some new, unexplored ways to move the greening of business from exception to norm?"

One of the answers came from an unexpected place: Henrietta, New York.
This community, just outside of Rochester, had been one of the first
municipalities to join Audubon International’s Sustainable Communities
Program — an education and assistance program geared towards fostering
environmental planning and action within the local government and
community. While the participation of this community of 30,000 was
unique, even more unique was the inspiration for the partnership — the
local Chamber of Commerce.

After seeing an presentation on environmental stewardship by
businesses by an Audubon International staffer at a Chamber meeting,
someone asked — why can’t we do all of these environmental things in
the community? That question prompted the Chamber to sponsor enrollment
of Henrietta in the program, and, two years later, Henrietta is on the
cusp of earning the Audubon Green Community Award for a whole host of
environmental improvements, programs, and actions in the community.

Yet, it was the local Chamber of Commerce that initiated this;
which led us to ask another question — how do we in the environmental
community do a better job working with these community-based business
groups. Think about it: Chambers are found in every community. They
serve as the local economic catalyst, community service group, and
small business support group. Why not local eco-champion?

To help explore this question further, a survey was sent to the
leaders of the 3,000-plus Chambers across the United States in an
effort to assess their environmental attitudes, awareness, current
programs, and needs of the associations and their members. Roughly 5
percent — about 150 — of the chambers we sent the survey responded.

Highlights from the survey are telling: First off, roughly 70
percent of Chambers of Commerce do not offer training, education, or
programs to help members learn about environmental management,
environmental stewardship tools, or the business value of environmental
stewardship. Yet, 81 percent of respondents stated an interest in
providing tools to members to help them reduce costs, manage risk, and
improve business operations through eco-friendly actions.

Clearly, there is a need and an opportunity to partner with
Chambers. Yet, any "training" at a Chamber level must be accompanied by
bagels, coffee and jokes, and must be less than 20 minutes. So,
environmental advocates and educators have to find a new way to connect
with Chambers and their members-as friends, confidants, entertainers,
and cooperative partners.

Likewise, 83 percent stated they would be interested in providing
their Chamber’s business members with environmental management
information — anything from advice to resources — through some type
of low-cost medium like a web newsletter. The emphasis is on low-cost and easy.
Small business owners and operators lack time and money. At the same
time, research continually stresses the importance of using local
assistance providers in any environmental change program.

Obviously, with Chambers and their members, changing attitudes and
actions towards the environment has to be accomplished in a new way.
Maybe the Cooperative Extension can partner with Chambers and define a
new and improved role for both entities? Part of the creation of our
Environmental Stewardship and Management Advisory Council is the
further exploration of this issue, and certainly Chambers, as the local
resource-provider for community, family-owned, smaller businesses,
should play a role.

Our survey also found that more than 50 percent of Chambers believe
that their business members would be interested in earning credit for
their positive environmental actions from an environmental
organization. As an organization, we have been doing just this for
twenty years through a set of education and certification programs. Get
businesses to walk the walk, and then celebrate those accomplishments.

There are a number of other programs like ours, from the San Francisco Bay Area Green Business Program
(thank you to Advisory Council member Susan Sasaki and the Sustainable
Earth Institute for providing that information) to the green hotel or
marina programs run by state-agencies and non-profits. Yet, the uptake
and participation, even in those mostly-matured voluntary environmental
programs, falls well short of that 50 percent belief: at best, we see
10-15 percent involvement by sector.

There may be an interesting paradox here — one I experienced fifteen years ago as a university researcher and editor for the Corporate Environmental Strategy Journal.
At that time, an executive from a prominent multinational corporation
said to me, "we’re willing to stick our neck out (on environmental
issues), but the further it sticks out, the easier it becomes for
someone to try to take an ax to it." Indeed, even today there are
businesses in various voluntary environmental programs that are doing
good things, but would rather not have anyone know about it to avoid
the attention.

This "business environmentalism anonymity disorder" is built on
forty years of distrust and the sometimes antagonistic rigidity of the
environmental movement. Although the atmosphere in the United States is
changing, there is still a need for improved relations — an
environmental détente of sorts — between the private sector and
environmental groups in order to have incentives for environmental
stewardship that keep everyone’s neck safe.

Finally, according to our 2006 survey, 67 percent of Chambers of
Commerce are interested in gaining credit or recognition from a
nonprofit environmental organization for actions they take to promote
greater environmental awareness. Put simply, Chambers of Commerce, like
any other group, look for the chance to celebrate their success and
gain recognition for those efforts.

As a result, in the coming months we will be launching a "Green
Chamber Award" — designed to help identify and highlight those local
chambers affecting environmental change with their members and in their
communities. Leaders, models, and examples have to be identified and
should be recognized for their efforts, and this, hopefully, will be
one way to help do just that.

In the end, to truly find a way to break the barriers that continue
us down a path of "creeping environmentalism," and instead, embed
environmental stewardship and sustainability into every facet of life,
we need to look at every facet of life. And as the survey tells
us, Chambers of Commerce are partners for the environmental movement
just waiting to be asked. We’re now asking. Perhaps others will as
well.

Kevin Fletcher is the Executive Director for Audubon International.

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