Above Photo: Disney aims to cut its net greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2020 and bans depictions of smoking in its theme parks and child-oriented films. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
Letter from pressure groups says the trade body’s campaigning against climate change legislation and for tobacco products is at odds with companies’ stance
Disney, the Gap and Pepsi are being pressured to quit the US Chamber of Commerce, America’s largest lobby group, amid criticism of its big-money efforts to fight climate change legislation and promote tobacco products.
A coalition of pressure groups including Action on Smoking and Health, Greenpeace, Public Citizen and the Sierra Club have written to the CEOs of the three companies asking them to stop funding the powerful business group.
In a letter to Disney’s boss, Bob Iger, the coalition points to the media company’s commitment to reduce its net greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2020, its support of the Paris climate agreement and its ban on depictions of smoking in theme parks and all G, PG and PG-13 movies.
“Unfortunately, the US Chamber of Commerce is doing everything it can to block efforts to combat both climate change and anti-smoking laws and regulations. It opposes the Paris Agreement that you publicly support, is suing to block the implementation of the Clean Power Plan, consistently lobbies against legislation aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and spends millions of dollars in money on elections ads urging voters to back candidates who support the fossil fuel industry and oppose efforts to combat climate change,” they write.
The US Chamber of Commerce is the world’s largest business organization and represents more than 3m businesses, large and small. Under its president and CEO, Thomas Donohue, who took over the chamber in 1997, it has become a political powerhouse with global influence, although it is secretive about its membership.
Last year alone it spent $104m on lobbying, the most of any lobby group. It has used its influence to fight anti-tobacco legislation across the world. The chamber campaigned against US sanctions on Russia after its incursions into Ukraine and Donohue met Egypt’s authoritarian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, after his recent White House visit.
The activists’ campaign comes as some of the world’s largest companies have quietly severed ties with the chamber. According to an analysis by Public Citizen, at least 13 of the world’s biggest companies (Costco, eBay, Hewlett-Packard, General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft Heinz, Mars, Mattel, Mondelēz, Nestlé, Starbucks, Unilever and Walgreens Boots Alliance) have quit the US Chamber of Commerce in recent years amid political disagreements and worries about its stance on the environment.
A number of those companies confirmed to the Guardian that they were no longer members but would not speak on the record about their reasons for leaving. Other companies did not return emails and calls for comment. A spokesman for the chamber disputed the companies that had left and their reasons for leaving but she declined to confirm which companies had stayed.
“The chamber has never disclosed and does not disclose its membership and therefore I will not be able to confirm or deny who is or isn’t a member. However, I can tell you that your list is simply wrong, and it would be inaccurate for you to report that those companies have left the chamber for the reasons you mentioned in your inquiry,” Blair Latoff Holmes, vice-president of media and external communications, said.
The chamber claims to be a bipartisan organisation but has become increasingly partisan. For the first time last year, 100% of its election spending backed Republican candidates. Holmes said: “Our endorsements are made by a lawmaker’s scorecard, and their views on the issues that are important to our membership and the American business community, based on economic growth and job creation. In recent years, Republicans have scored higher than Democrats on issues of importance to the business community but we have maintained a bipartisan approach to the candidates we support and have bestowed awards such as the ‘Spirit of Enterprise’ award to Republicans and Democrats alike.”
The pressure group’s lobbying has already led to a number of high-profile, and public, departures. In 2015, the pharmacy giant CVS quit, citing the lobby group’s pro-tobacco work. CVS, the first major drugstore to remove tobacco products from its shelves, said it had been “surprised” by a New York Times report that the chamber lobbied foreign governments to ease restrictions on tobacco sales.
In 2009, the chamber called for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to hold “the Scopes monkey trial of the 21st century” – a trial that put creationist theory up against evolutionary science – in order to discuss humanity’s role in climate change. That same year, Apple and the utility companies Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and Excelon left the chamber, citing its anti-environmental advocacy.
“We find it dismaying that the chamber neglects the indisputable fact that a decisive majority of experts have said the data on global warming are compelling and point to a threat that cannot be ignored,” the PG&E chairman and chief executive, Peter Darbee, told the chamber.
Nike too has voiced criticism of the lobby group’s climate stance, saying it “fundamentally disagrees with the US Chamber of Commerce’s position on climate change”.
Dan Dudis, director of chamber watch at Public Citizen, said activists would target other chamber members in the coming months. “We are looking at companies that have explicit public policy positions that run counter to the chamber’s stance.”
He said the chamber was “pushing the interests of a minority” by claiming to represent a broad swath of businesses. “Those businesses might give $500,000 or $1m for trade lobbying but money is fungible,” he said. “That cash frees up money for the chamber to lobby against climate change legislation, for tobacco and against the interests of many of its members.”