Local Chambers of Commerce Demonstrate Fresh Leadership, Diversity of Opinion on Sustainability

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(NB: As the author correctly notes, the Institute for Sustainable Development is partnered with the American Chamber of Commerce Executives (ACCE). The ACCE is a distinct and separate organization from the U.S. Chamber of CommerceAccording to the organization, “ACCE’s mission is to support and develop chamber professionals to lead businesses and their communities. The organizational vision is that ACCE is the organization of choice for chamber professionals.” The ACCE does not historically engage in lobbying or take partisan positions on federal issues).

DETECTING THE GREEN LIGHT: LOCAL CHAMBERS AHEAD OF WASHINGTON
November 1, 2009 – by Neal Peirce

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s cautious if not hostile approach to climate control legislation isn’t just putting it at odds with the Obama administration. Progressive corporations such as Apple and Pacific Gas & Electric have resigned their memberships over the issue.

And there’s a fresh breeze blowing at the grass roots, too. A growing coterie of local chambers of commerce is pushing both members and their communities to think and act “green,” to surge ahead of the curve in cutting carbon emissions.

And why? It’s because “they see green as a huge marketing opportunity as consumers increasingly respond to firms that are environmentally responsible,” says Carly Grimm, author of a new report on chambers’ initiatives financed by the Energy Foundation and produced by Partners for Livable Communities. “Enterprise at Home for Progress at Large: The Economics of Sustainability (Chambers of Commerce as the New Civic Players in Environmental Sustainability)” — focuses on green/climate-change initiatives of leading chambers spread from New England to Southern California. The chambers, including Los Angeles, Indianapolis and Columbia, S.C., were identified by the American Chamber of Commerce Executives, a professional association of leaders of 1,250 local chambers that’s separate from the U.S. Chamber.

The new survey doesn’t focus on such likely suspects as Berkeley or Portland, Ore. — far from it. Case in point: Waco, Texas. The Waco Chamber of Commerce recently built the nation’s first certified LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) chamber headquarters. In fact, it attained the U.S. Green Building Council’s coveted LEED Gold certification with such features as a 1,400-square foot reflective roof, solar panels and natural lighting.

The Waco Chamber building is also the first LEED-certified structure in its city. But it’s proving contagious as McLennan Community College, Caterpillar Logistics, Wells Fargo and Baylor University all follow the Chamber’s example by seeking LEED status for their new buildings in town. Chamber leader Jim Vaughan hopes the city’s expanding commitment to sustainable development will create a magnet for businesses and young professionals — or, as he asserts, “put Waco on the map.”

In Bridgeport, Conn., first steps to create a set of green citywide goals and action items originated with the mayor, Bill Finch. But the Bridgeport Regional Business Council responded quickly, leading to the founding of the Bridgeport Sustainability Initiative — B-Green 2020 — as a public-private partnership. More than 100 city and business leaders met to develop specific green agendas ranging from buildings to water resources.

Among specific plans, with help from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, are energy upgrades of local sewage plants that constitute Bridgeport’s largest carbon emitters. A green energy park and a street tree adoption plan are being developed. And B-Green 2020 is out evangelizing through a Mayor’s Conservation Corporation of 30 door-to-door canvassers promoting energy conservation, recycling and storm water management.

But how to draw firms to sustainability and carbon-cutting strategies nationwide? Surveys show that overwhelming numbers of firms would like to be known for their commitment to the environment. But many have little idea how to start down a green path.

An ingenious program to fill that gap has sprung up in North Carolina’s Research Triangle area, a region rich with academic talent. Interested faculties at Duke University and UNC Chapel Hill have teamed up with the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce to create, with local philanthropies, what they’re calling their “Green Plus” program.

Local firms are offered a Green Plus How-To-Guide. But more than that, they’re connected to mentor companies and get free counsel on sustainability initiatives. There’s even an initiation: Candidate firms must stipulate where they stand on three areas — performance (written strategic plan and accounting practices), planet (energy use and conservation), and people (compassion for employees and awareness of community needs).

If a firm stumbles in filling out its Green Plus questionnaire, it’s not left high and dry — university-connected experts in business-related environmental policies will coach it on how to improve its score.

Now Green Plus is ready to “go national.” It has announced a partnership with the American Chamber of Commerce Executives to create a countrywide network of local chambers ready to reach out to their own business communities on climate and related sustainability issues. The idea is not just to “spread the word” but also to help firms across the nation share their experiences in going green.

The optimism, the contrast to the U.S. Chamber’s position, is hard to miss. While it’s officially for promoting “energy conservation and efficiency,” the Chamber is overwhelmingly defensive, worried about threats to American jobs and the competitiveness of our industries.

The green thrust of an emerging group of progressive local chambers is positive, looking to expansive green initiatives designed to make American businesses more vibrant, on the cutting edge of new and best practices, and ready to compete vigorously — locally and on the world stage. It’s a proactive, optimistic — and refreshing — position.

Please click here for the original article, or here for a version at the National League of Cities.

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