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Does it matter that Apple pulled out the Chamber of Commerce over climate change?

Posted by: Adam Aston on October 06, 2009

After all, companies routinely come and go from professional bodies with little notice. And with some 3 million business members, the Chamber is the world’s largest commercial federation. So what difference does one less computer maker mean?

Apple’s brand power is a new factor here. In withdrawing from the Chamber, Apple is turning the brightest light yet on a growing divide in corporate America over climate policy. Apple is the first highly-visible consumer brand to pull out, so will gather more attention than the outflow of other companies that have lately split from the Chamber.

Charges that Apple’s vocal stand amounts to greenwashing are likely inevitable. After all, the move caps a recent green push by the company. Last week, Apple unveiled ambitious goals for greening up its internal operations and products. CEO Steve Jobs granted BusinessWeek a rare interview on the topic, arguing that it should be granted credit for the energy efficiency gains of its computer products. And on Oct. 5, following years of bad press for lagging on green IT initiatives, Apple finally some kudos from an environmental group.

If charges that Apple is acting on self interest surface, keep in mind what’s at work at the Chamber. Having failed to undermine the scientific underpinnings of climate change, opponents of climate policy, including the Chamber, have moved on to an argument that it amounts to ruinous economic policy, despite studies to the contrary. Yet many of the most vocal champions of this line –- particularly Big Oil –- have earned decades of super-sized profits selling carbon-rich products. They don’t make for very sympathetic victims of a move towards climate policy. Their argument deftly shifts concerns to those of public interest, away from an underlying animus of protecting profits at the cost of the environment. At it’s worst, this is a far more cynical work of spin than green washing.

Taking this line, Big Oil and Big Coal risk public and political backlash in the event of another catalyzing environmental disaster – think of a Hurricane Katrina on Long Island. Public concern after New Orleans was leveled ratchetd-up a level, and has stayed high. Future climate-related disasters will boost public anxiety and raise frustration with companies seen as obstructing environmental protection.

Apple has a way of a drawing lightning to issues, merely because of its cultish brand power, and even if it’s not the first. Apple’s move follows similar pullouts by three utilities, Exelon (EXC), Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), and PNM Resources (PNM). General Electric and Johnson & Johnson have also gone public with their disagreement with chamber policy, but have stuck around. And Nike has pulled out the chamber’s board, but hasn’t withdrawn completely. Whether this move sparks more corporations to follow suit remains to be seen.

Apple’s announcement stands out also because of the starkness of its statement. Apple vice president of government affairs Catherine Novelli wrote three curt paragraphs to Tom Donohue, CEO of the Chamber of Commerce:

“We strongly object to the Chamber’s recent comments opposing the EPA’s effort to limit greenhouse gases… Apple supports regulating greenhouse gas emissions, and it is frustrating to find the Chamber at odds with us in this effort… we have decided to end our membership immediately.”

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Reader Comments


October 11, 2009 12:04 AM

Other companies should be encouraged to follow Apple's example. The Chamber has become the refuge of political hacks.

Jonathan Teller-Elsberg

October 15, 2009 01:56 PM

If Apple wants to do more than make a vocal protest, it should take the dues it would have paid the Chamber and pay them instead to lobbyists tasked with getting Congress to adopt strict carbon limits.

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BusinessWeek correspondents John Carey and Mark Scott, cover the green scene, keeping on top of the business aspects of energy, the environment and climate change, as well as the technologies, policies, markets and people that are shaping how the earth's resources will be used in the century ahead.

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