The #CVSEffect in Action: ‘Walk the Talk’ Edition with Intel, Verizon, Ford and Google

Here’s my latest for Sustainable Brands.

Seven months ago, this series kicked off with CVS’ surprise announcement that it would no longer carry tobacco products in its retail stores. Fast forward, the company announced Sept. 3 that it had met its goal a month ahead of schedule and had a new name to match its bold, new vision of a tobacco-free America — CVS Health.

In follow-up articles, I’ve talked about leading businesses that have taken big steps for the common good because it’s the right thing to do — even if it costs the company financially in the short term — and the most recent talked-about companies banding together to work on climate and energy issues.

This time I want to point to a trend of businesses being called out publicly to make their “walk match their talk” on climate action commitments, political contributions and trade association memberships. It’s worth noting that pressure from responsible investment and climate action groups factor into all of the examples below, as more proof of the power of collaboration.

By nature I’m more inclined to shine a light on positive examples, but this wave of businesses being exposed for disconnects between their stated values and actions merits a closer look. My hope is that these efforts will spur actions that we can broadly acknowledge as steps in the right direction for leading brands.

I started tracking this issue of talking-versus-walking in January when the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report called Tricks of the Trade: How Companies Influence Climate Policy Through Business and Trade Associations. The report shows that “companies choose not to be transparent about their affiliations with trade and business associations.” One of the key issues that author Gretchen Goldman raises are disconnects between businesses’ positions on climate change versus the positions held by their business and trade groups.

In March, Intel became the first US company to commit to aligning its company policies and political contributions. The decision came after what was described as “fruitful negotiations” with investor group NorthStar Asset Management, Inc. and the filing of a shareholder proposal. In hindsight, this news that didn’t get a lot of ink early in the year looks prescient. What’s notable here is that the commitment goes behind disclosure — “tell us what you’re doing” — to doing things differently in the future.

Then, a much-shared article in June by Climate Progress discussed the US Chamber of Commerce’s preemptive swing at President Obama’s climate plan (the Chamber’s report opposed EPA rules that hadn’t been released yet, saying that they would be bad for jobs and the economy). The quote that grabbed my eye was this: “The Chamber does not speak on behalf of Prudential.” Well then, I wanted to ask, who does?

Then last month, Microsoft announced it had cut ties with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) because of concerns about the lobbying group’s opposition to renewable energy. Pressure from two responsible investment groups — The Sustainability Group and Walden Asset Management — played a role in the decision. And a few weeks later, a Common Cause-led campaign with over 50 organizational co-signers called on Google to drop its ALEC membership as well.

Which brings us up to earlier this month, when Forecast the Facts released its new “Disrupt Denial” report and social media campaign. The group says that “companies like eBay, Ford, Google, Microsoft, and UPS also contributed to the $641 million climate deniers in Congress have received from US businesses since 2008.” It’s too soon to say if this campaign will be successful, but if it is, then Intel’s example provides a path for other companies to follow.

As the year has progressed, I’ve felt increasing optimism from examples in the business world, op-eds and mainstream media that climate reality is winning out. The World Bank released a statement in August showing business leader support for carbon pricing and China just announced it will have a carbon market up and running by 2016. More companies are stepping up to talk about climate change as a material business risk and sharing their energy plans with investors and shareholders. And many of those companies have signed on as supporters for the Sept. 21 People’s Climate March in New York City that kicks off Climate Week and the Sept. 23 UN Climate Summit.

At the same time, there are plenty of people ready to write off the Summit’s chances for a treaty in 2015 or if it’s even possible to stave off climate catastrophe. But what’s different this time is that the business world has been asked to take on larger and more meaningful commitments. The We Mean Business coalition announced it will launch on Sept. 22 with a new report on the business case for moving swiftly to a low-carbon economy and the opportunities available to those companies who take action now.

The science is clearer than ever that our globe is heading towards “irreversible” climate impacts. So there’s not a day to waste — as individuals, business owners and citizens — to make sure future generations have a world fit to live in.