Apr 19, 2021 - Politics

Colorado CEOs take lead role on climate activism

Illustration of suited hand holding a climate protest sign.

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Colorado's corporate leaders are becoming increasingly engaged on political issues — particularly when it comes to climate and the environment.

Why it matters: It reflects a national trend that has seen CEOs of respected brands move into a role as the 4th branch of government, serving both as a spur and a check on politicians.

  • The shift is driven by a generational change in which younger workers — as well as customers and shareholders — want brands to reflect their values.
  • The pushback against Georgia's voting laws — and the freezing of corporate political donations — was just the start.

Driving the news: Timed to Earth Day, Colorado companies are participating this week in campaigns to raise awareness about climate change and how to address it.

  • New Belgium Brewing is releasing a tool for beer drinkers to demand that their favorite Fortune 500 brands adopt a 2030 carbon-neutral plan.
  • The Snowsports Industries Association, which hosts its winter confab in Denver, is hosting a ClimateUnited Week to educate members on how to get engaged on environmental and climate justice.

The backdrop: The actions follow a collective effort from Denver's tech sector at the start of the pandemic that helped push Gov. Jared Polis on the need for a lockdown.

  • "I do think we all have a responsibility to take some level of a political stance on issues with broader implications for everybody," said Jon Frederick, the U.S. manager based in Louisville for outdoor brand Rab, which is active on the environment.

The other side: The risks for companies are obvious. In a polarized society, a political stance can alienate half the customer base. And political leaders are pushing back, urging companies to stay in their lane.

  • New Belgium CEO Steve Fechheimer acknowledged the potential downside, but the Fort Collins brewer has long built its values and beliefs into its brand.
  • "That's why a lot of our coworkers work here ... and why fans and beer drinkers drink New Belgium — because they know who we are as a company," Fechheimer told John.

The state of play: New Belgium's new campaign is one of the more aggressive approaches. "Last Call for Climate" is designed to goad the estimated 70% of Fortune 500 companies without a plan to reduce emissions to zero by 2030 to take action, like the brewery did.

  • The beer maker says it's already seeing how severe weather associated with climate change affects the company's supply chain, from hops to fruit.
  • To drive the point home, New Belgium made a beer — Fat Tire Torched Earth Ale — using only ingredients available in "a climate-ravaged future." It features smoke-tainted water, weeds like dandelions, and drought-resistant grains.
  • John's taste test: It tastes like beer, but it's not pleasant. You can buy it online and at the brewery though.

The bottom line: Companies walk a fine line when it comes to politics. The key is credibility, leaders say. For outdoor companies, that's the environment.

  • "We are not afraid to voice our opinion on areas we genuinely believe in," said Drew Saunders, the U.S. manager for Salewa, Dynafit and other outdoor brands, "but we are not a political organization."

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