News and Insights

Senators Schumer and Manchin May Mobilize Corporations to Make Environmental Health Good Business

August 2, 2022

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Joe Manchin shocked America – the world – last week – when they announced consensus on a bill that includes the most significant climate spending package in U.S. history, directing billions of dollars to clean energy technologies and innovation. Some will cite the economic and political nightmares of recession and inflation as motivators for reconciliation; at the same time, we must not overlook recent climate change signals among the motivators for this eye-popping legislative flip-flop.

After many months of negotiations, we have finalized legislative text that will invest approximately $300 billion in Deficit Reduction and $369.75 billion in Energy Security and Climate Change programs over the next 10 years,” the senators said in a joint statement.

Along with our economic anxieties, we cannot avoid a looming problem affecting households worldwide. The environment is in poor health. Everything the environment sustains — plants, animals, farms, seaside resorts, our homes — is now equally at risk for poor health. We now experience record heat waves throughout Europe, fires burning in the western US, floods in Australia, polluted water in Asia, and the continued pandemic influenced by environmental factors, which could not be clearer.

Yet, mobilizing support for environmental and human health has remained challenging. Ecological protection, politicized for the short-term gain of a few, remains a hot button in the halls of power – until now. Still, it’s becoming an issue discussed at the breakfast table for most Americans as people, communities, and corporations are starting to reach a consensus, supporting the environment for the sake of health and wellbeing. Senator Machin’s announcement is a much-needed galvanizing moment in the conversation.

There are still immense challenges, and they hinge on collaboration and communication. People, communities, and businesses possess enough power to effect the change needed to address climate change, pollution, and environmental degradation, but to bring that power to bear to heal the planet; they need to work together. That means they need to communicate better why healing the environment is a bi-partisan priority.

Communicating With Clarity and Impact

As communicators, we must tell it like it is. That means being truthful, using language that everyone can understand, and using words that have power and work to make the point.

Humanity is in a battle, and the stakes are enormous. Words are the hand tools that will help rally people to call upon government and businesses to press forward – small changes are a welcome oasis in the environment desert. We need words with power, value, and emotional impact that convey deeper meanings. Consider the words “farmer” and “factory.”

“Farmer” conjures a very American way of life. Farmers built America, and the word is imbued with value: hard work, toughness, family, simplicity, and productivity. “Farmer” is a good word that works hard. “Factory” is also a good word, but what it emotionally summons up is another story: smokestacks, pollution, crowding, inhumanity, and alienation.

When “factory” is put together with “farm,” the specter of animals jammed together in tiny pens, unable to turn around or breathe fresh air, is communicated.

While nearly nine out of ten Americans (88%) have a favorable opinion of farmers, and almost as many (84%) support sustainable farming and economies, that unwavering trust doesn’t extend to all agricultural methods. Nine in ten (89%) are opposed to factory farming practices, citing public health, worker safety and animal welfare as their main concerns.

Farmers themselves hold an even more negative opinion of factory farming; 85% of them and their families support a complete ban on new factory farming facilities, nearly twice the number of the public.

Proponents of factory farming, attempt to defuse this emotionally charged language by substituting bland phrases such as “intensive production.” These euphemisms make use of words that lack impact. Using devalued terms is a tactic that’s been employed as long as there have been those who defend what they know is indefensible.

While these tactical choices should be clear, strategically, we face a more significant challenge. To protect the health of the planet and humanity, we need to find new voices and new ways of reaching potential allies — including everyone from small, local community groups to corporations with whom we share common ground.

…And Not a Drop to Drink

Water consumption and scarcity are rising supply-chain and health-risk issues. In a note to its investors, Barclays analysts shared that water scarcity concerns sectors that include a wide range of industries from agriculture to food to beverages to shipping. According to the Barclays report:

“Water is one of the most important natural resources in the world, essential for humans to survive and industries to function. And yet, we face social, environmental and development stresses stemming from water shortages and increased water usage.”

So long as it flows freely from our faucets, water doesn’t capture much attention. In the developed world, we have a naïve belief that water is infinite, but climate change is tipping the dominos that lead to water scarcity. Standard and Poor 500 companies at risk for shortages include global foods powerhouse Unilever, consumer products leader Colgate Palmolive and cleaning products giant Reckitt Benckiser, and Barclay’s predicts these and many others may face a 40% to 50% EBITDA impact.

Before supplies dry up, these three consumer-products giants are investing mightily in communication to elevate voices on the common need to work for a healthier planet by tackling climate change. Reckitt Benckiser in particular has begun listening sessions with stakeholders in areas at risk to discuss climate change and what’s needed to ensure water supplies.

They’re not just talking about environmental risk; they recognize that health is fundamental to their business success and our survival.  This is among the many reasons why power investment groups such as Blackrock have taken a stand on sustainability.  As Blackrock Chairman and CEO Larry Fink writes:

“Putting your company’s purpose at the foundation of your relationships with your stakeholders is critical to long-term success. Employees need to understand and connect with your purpose; when they do, they can be your staunchest advocates. Customers want to see and hear what you stand for as they increasingly look to do business with companies that share their values.”

Together, Environmental and Health Advocacy Communicators Can Have Greater Impact

When business recognizes and acts on the need for sustainability, a window has opened that invites environmental, health and corporate PR pros to drive a broad, united effort to effect change.

To ensure their futures, industries, and communities must build out their environmental communication planning and programs, taking a broader view that should feature a synthesis of environmental health and economic performance and sustainability.

With a remarkable career that spans public service — as a senior attorney with the US Environmental Protection Agency and as Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation — environmental advocacy, and advisor to corporate boards,  FINN colleague Bob Martineau, JD, a senior partner, Purpose and Social Impact – Environment, sees ecological degradation as a significant threat to our health. Martineau shared:

“Climate and environmental degradation pose a great danger, but…we live in a Snapchat world of 30-second messaging. It’s hard to have that same sense of urgency when the degradation and impacts are more incremental and long-term. Perhaps communicating the seriousness of the issue from a public health perspective could be a great uniter… We must find different ways to communicate with people the importance of critical public health issues and depoliticize them. We need to find better messengers — be they ministers in the pulpit, trusted sports heroes, or a favorite music legend.”

We are natural allies – government, businesses, community activists- whatever our background. We face a common danger: a planet that eventually burns with a fever that, left untreated, will not support human or economic health. Our fates have always been inextricably intertwined and now force us to work together.

In his round visiting Sunday morning news talk shows, Senator Manchin struck a theme – whether for a great soundbite or to convey a greater understanding of why as a coal-mining state representative, this was the right time to drop his stance: “This is not a Democrat bill; this is not a Republican bill. It’s an American bill.”  Whatever his reason, this legislation will be Congress’s most significant climate investment, an economic infusion, and can benefit America and the world.

We are no longer shocked by raging forest fires or floods.  But we are terrified about what an angry Mother Nature has in store for future generations.  Environmental, health, and corporate communicators must learn from each other and adapt to meet our common imperative.

If not for the sake of a strong balance sheet, then for its influence on our health and planet.

TAGS: Health, Sustainability & ESG

POSTED BY: Gil Bashe

Gil Bashe