A Green Chamber of Commerce Offers a New Voice for Business

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The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has—how to put this—not been a friend of environmental legislation or regulation. The Chamber—which represents more than 3 million U.S. businesses—spent millions to lead the successful fight against carbon cap-and-trade legislation, along with health care reform and most of President Obama’s other legislative goals. It remains an implacable opponent of EPA environmental regulations—of greenhouse gases or just about anything else, arguing that they raise costs and hurt job creation.

But while the Chamber leadership may be fighting tooth-and-nail against efforts to protect the country’s environment, not every business wants to join the battle. Major companies like Pacific Gas and Electric and Apple left the Chamber in protest of its fight against cap-and-trade, and now a group of progressive businesses in San Diego is working to provide an alternative to the Chamber. It’s called the Green Chamber of Commerce, and it offers a place for businesses that want to embrace sustainability, not fight it. “There are businesses out there that want their voices heard,” says David Steel, the president of the U.S. Green Chamber of commerce. “They don’t feel represented by the positions that the U.S. Chamber might have.”

The group began in San Diego, home to a number of green businesses and sustainability-minded citizens. Like most local chambers of commerce around the U.S. just form committees dedicated to sustainable business—assuming there’s a demand—but the green companies of San Diego wanted something more. So they broke off into their own chamber, a place where entrepreneurs and executives working in renewable power or energy efficiency could trade contacts and advice. San Diego was fertile territory—the city is studded with solar installations, and San Diego’s biotech hub now features startups working on next-generation biofuels. “It was a place where you could network with the like-minded,” says Steel.

But it wasn’t until Proposition 23 that the San Diego green chamber realized that they might be able to go national. Prop 23 was a ballot initiative in California that would have all but suspended the state’s landmark climate change law. Outside business interests—including major oil companies—spent heavily supporting the initiative. But they were beaten at the polls last November—a rare victory in 2010 for environmentalists—thanks in no small part to the organizing efforts and campaign cash of green businesses throughout California. “We spoke about Prop 23 to every city council in San Diego county,” says Steel. “We hope it could represent a real turning point for businesses in California and the rest of the country.”

The success of the anti-Prop 23 effort convinced Steel and his fellow San Diegans that they had something special. Last week the Green Chamber of San Diego announced that it would go national,  forging alliances with E2—Environmental Entrepreneurs, along with businesses in Orange County, Texas and Florida. “We’re looking for companies that are out there being sustainable,” says Steel. “We want to give more visibility to what they’re doing.” If they get loud enough, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce won’t be the only voice representing businesses on Capitol Hill.