By Elizabeth Doty

Trade associations are key players in helping businesses and industry sectors deliver on ambitious sustainability goals, stakeholder priorities, and an ultimate interest in a healthy environment. In these efforts, public policy is a critical lever. As a natural vehicle for industry advocacy on sustainability policy, trade associations lobby and sometimes make political contributions. Yet, specific views on sustainability issues are diverse, and some players will bear more of the cost of regulatory changes.

In March 2024, we spoke with Renee Henze, Chief Sustainability Officer, International Flavors and Fragrances — a world leader in food, beverage, scent, home and personal care, and health — and Nathan Sell, Senior Director, Sustainability, American Cleaning Institute — an industry association serving the growth and innovation of the U.S. cleaning products industry by advancing the health and quality of life of people and our planet.

Together, Henze and Sell discussed how their industry’s work toward sustainability has been made stronger through collaboration, why sustainability is tied to political advocacy, and how differences of opinion can lead to stronger outcomes for everyone. “It’s our responsibility as the leaders of different industries to work together to advance our shared values and needs,” Henze said.

She also shared how political responsibility is a natural outcome of the work to uphold the industry’s responsibilities in other areas. “We talk about responsibility to the environment, communities, and people, and that leads us to being politically responsible,” she said.

Below, find an edited summary of the conversation. 

On the power of collaboration for sustainability work across an industry:

One of the key benefits of the collaborative nature of trade associations is the shared learning and progress it enables for its members. “The more information our member companies are supplied with, the better equipped they are to make decisions,” Sell said. “Some of our member companies are leaders in the space, like IFF. They have brought forth their expertise in helping to develop our programs to the benefit of the whole so members that don’t have, say, a lifecycle-assessment team or a huge sustainability team can still access that information and start conversations around product development.”

Decision-making at ACI is driven by members, and sustainability professionals in the industry are empowered to help shape the sustainability program. “As a trade association, we don’t do anything without vetting it through our membership, and our committees are the vehicle through which we do that,” Sell said. “ACI’s sustainability committee has over 100 representatives from different member companies. Sustainability professionals join both to get information and to help shape our overall program. ”

On embedding sustainability into industries and companies:

Because customers are often not willing to pay more for the sustainability attributes of cleaning products, sustainability professionals need to focus their work on aligning with business priorities, Henze said. “As a sustainability community, we need to have an understanding of what the business drivers and needs are and then embed sustainability into those,” she said.

Sell agreed with the need to embed sustainability measures across an organization, including through government affairs programs. “Embedding sustainability throughout a company is the only way to enable sustainability gains,” he said. “At ACI, we’ve found we need sustainability embedded in our communications, government affairs program, and business pillars…As we continue to grow our sustainability work, we build more robust alignment. We always go back to data and science. We serve as a role model for other organizations, and using data and science to support sustainability principles is what makes that work.”

On the intersection of sustainability and public policy:

Both Henze and Sell agreed that integrating sustainability and policy advocacy is a critical component to serving their companies and industry. A key service ACI provides its members is in helping them stay ahead of new regulations. If we can proactively work ahead of regulation and sustainability, there’s less scrambling when regulations come along,” he said.

Alignment between government advocacy and sustainability is critical, both for the effectiveness of lobbying efforts as well as for longer-term alignment and accountability. “As a trade association, we interact with regulators across the country regularly to ensure that bills relevant to our industry make sense, both for what the regulators are trying to accomplish and for our companies in terms of capabilities and timeframes,” Sell said. “We’ve overlaid our sustainability roadmaps with a set of government advocacy principles so we know our government affairs team and our sustainability teams are speaking with one voice when they’re lobbying.”

Henze said alignment across internal teams is also critical at IFF: “We have a sustainability team, a scientific and public affairs team that works on advocacy, and a regulatory team. The three of us work very closely together and we’re very aligned.” That internal alignment is crucial to ensure positivity and transparency around products and claims with consumers, Henze said: “We do a lot of work on communication around green claims and the process and governance around that. As you can imagine, we’re developing new products all the time so we need to be aligned from a claim standpoint, a policy standpoint, and a regulatory health and safety standpoint.”

On political responsibility and legitimacy:

Henze has found that a variety of stakeholders are increasingly engaged with both sustainability and political responsibility, even if they don’t use that term. “We don’t typically couch our work in terms of being politically responsible,” she said. “We talk about responsibility to the environment, communities, and people, and that leads us to being politically responsible. More and more stakeholders are asking about these issues. For example, the investor community has a set of expectations, even for companies that are not quote-unquote ‘impact companies.’ If you are, for example, a company that uses something harmful like asbestos and you’re lobbying to use more asbestos, the investor community and the shareholders are not going to support that.”

She also says transparency with consumers, and robust internal systems around claims, are critical requirements of business today. “Because of the globalization of the world and the speed of communication, a misstep on safety or sustainability has the potential to create a huge hit to the bottom line in a matter of hours, so you have to be cognizant of what you do,” she said. “We have a robust process internally so that as we’re developing products and making claims, whether health- or product-related, we’re ensuring everything we say is correct and verifiable.”

Sell homed in on the concept of legitimacy, and the importance of considering where and when his industry should use its voice. “We want to make sure anything we’re engaging with in terms of political advocacy or statements is directly tied to cleaning products and the cleaning products supply chain,” he said. “The areas where we do the most work around our supply chain are workers’ rights and regulations around certain ingredients such as palm oil.”

On managing differences of opinion within the association:

Any organization with hundreds of members is going to experience differences of opinion. Sell shared how ACI manages those differences within the organization and its committees.Our CEO, Melissa Hockstad, often says that a trade association is only as strong as its members, and what she means by that is our members’ sweat equity in helping us all be better,” he said. “In the event that a member is dissatisfied on an issue, ideally they bring that issue to us and get involved. Through that process, disagreements or differences of opinion benefit everyone, because if you have a concern, it’s likely other people do, too. Benefiting from the expertise of our members and having an open dialogue is always the best way to bring about change or advance us on a topic we were not paying enough attention to. Of course, we’re not going to pivot on a dime or drop everything for a single perspective, but we have systems to guide us through that kind of strategic planning with our board and our many member voices. It has to start with dialogue and openness from our members.”

On what businesspeople and trade association leaders interested in sustainability can do:

Henze and Sell both shared the same advice for business leaders interested in furthering sustainability within their organization or industry: get involved.If you are part of a trade association, ask what they’re doing in terms of sustainability and get involved, especially if you’re a sustainability expert,” Sell said. “Offer your expertise to them.”

Get involved,” Henze said. “Yes, it takes time and commitment, but the payoff is well worth it for all the reasons we portrayed here. It’s our responsibility as the leaders of different industries to work together to advance our shared values and needs.”

Business leaders seeking resources on whether and when to weigh in on policy issues can consult the Erb Principles for Corporate Political Responsibility. See the CPRT website for additional information, and sign up for newsletter updates.

The CPRT is strictly non-partisan and does not advocate, promote or support any political party or candidate. While speakers and participants in the Expert Dialogues may express their views freely, the CPRT does not endorse particular organizations, individuals, parties, policies or legislation.