The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is a heavy hitter in Washington. It was the second largest spender of anonymous outside money—or “dark money”—in the 2016 federal elections, second only to the National Rifle Association. And, in addition to all that spending directed at Congress and the White House, it wields the largest lobbying force on Capitol Hill. Last year, the Chamber dropped over $100 million on lobbying, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
So what companies are members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce? That’s actually a hard question to answer. The Chamber won’t disclose a full list of its members — and the Chamber President wants “to give [member companies] all the deniability they need.” But nonprofit consumer advocacy group Public Citizen has identified household brands like the Walt Disney Company, Gap, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and the Ford Motor Company as members.
The biggest benefit the Chamber offers is to let companies say one thing and do another. For example, Pepsi has committed to fighting climate change by reducing deforestation and by setting goals of using point-of-sale equipment that is free of highly potent HFCs by 2020. It signed the American Business Act on Climate Pledge in support of the Paris climate agreement. It took the Caring for Climate pledge as part of the United Nations Global Compact. And it has joined more than 1,000 companies in signing onto the sustainable business and investing group Ceres’s Climate Change Declaration, a “business leader call to action on the rising ecological, economic and human costs of climate change.” Pepsi has also taken strong steps to encourage healthy lifestyles and discourage its employees from smoking. Good for Pepsi!
The biggest benefit the Chamber offers is to let companies say one thing and do another.
Except for one thing: Pepsi pays regular big-money dues to fund the Chamber, while the Chamber actively fights against all of Pepsi’s public positions on environmental issues. The Chamber was publicly critical of the Paris accord and funded a study that inflated its costs, which President Trump used to justify his decision to quit the pact. Investigations by the New York Times and others reveal that the Chamber has led the charge to undercut the Environmental Protection Agency’s work to address climate change and has engaged in similar efforts to block antismoking laws, regulations, and policies around the world.
Pepsi isn’t the only company whose stated corporate values are at odds with the aggressive work of the Chamber that claims to represent them. Last summer, we published a report with six other senators comparing the Chamber’s lobbying and activist positions on climate change and smoking with the policies of more than 100 companies on its Board of Directors. That report found that about half of those companies have adopted tobacco and/or climate positions that departed sharply from the Chamber’s activities. These companies say they want to fight climate change and end smoking—while they funnel money to the Chamber as it advocates for the opposite positions.
The Chamber’s website describes its Board of Directors as the “the principal governing and policymaking body of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce” that “determine[s] the U.S. Chamber’s policy positions on business issues.” So we were surprised when none of the board members we contacted told us they endorsed the Chamber’s positions on climate or tobacco. Not one of the companies wanted to associate themselves publicly with the Chamber’s Big Oil and Big Tobacco lobbying, but they can’t wash their hands of responsibility for its actions.
By giving financial support and resources—and by lending their own good names—to an organization that has spearheaded a decades-long effort to boost corporate profits at the expense of American families, the Board of Directors and members of the Chamber have put their own reputations on the line. And consumers are taking notice. Public polling shows Americans expect companies to operate responsibly to address social and environmental issues. That’s why companies like Apple, Pacific Gas & Electric, Exelon, and CVS have severed ties with the Chamber, knowing too well that the Chamber’s actions could ultimately inflict a devastating blow to their brands.
Public Citizen has called on Pepsi, Gap, and Disney to honor their pro-health and pro-environment public commitments by joining the ranks of companies that have decided to leave the Chamber. Purchasing a product even as small as a soda or a shirt should not result in customers unwillingly funding the Chamber’s anti-environment, anti-health agenda.
It is time all Chamber members took a long, hard look at whether the Chamber truly represents their values. Consumers know that actions speak much louder than empty pledges and promises.
U.S. Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)