Earth Day, at the Mall
Somehow Americans manage to turn every holiday -- from Christmas to Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, Father's Day, the 4th of July, Veterans Day, Memorial Day, so-called President's Day and the rest -- into a shopping opportunity.
Perversely, this is now happening to Earth Day, as companies try to persuade us that we can shop our way to a cleaner, greener planet.
Crazy, isn't it? Along with coal plants, gas-guzzling SUVs and climate deniers, the American way of producing and consuming and discarding, buying lots of stuff we don't need that isn't going to make us happy anyway is, not to put too fine a point on it, trashing the only planet we have.
This is not what the first Earth Day -- 40 years ago, in 1970 -- was all about. It was a political event. It was about building an environmental movement. It was led by young people and scientists and counter-culture types and it arrived at a time when support was building for other political and social movements as well -- the opposition to the Vietnam War, the feminist movement and the gay rights movement, all of which were inspired by the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s.
None of these were mainstream, at least not at first. None were about shopping.
Earth Day led to the environmental laws of the early 1970s, which brought real and dramatic change: Our air and water are cleaner, parks and wilderness have been conserved, species have been protected.
Today, Earth Day is mainstream. An recent MBA grad I know says that's a good thing. She told me by email:
I think it's generally good if green is mainstream as more companies are offering environmental products. That way we Berkeley types aren't the only crazy ones!
I'm not so sure. Buying a T-shirt or tote bag won't curb climate change or protect endangered habitat. That takes politics, organizing, hard work.
Here are some of the Earth Day products that have been brought to my attention in the days leading up to the 40th anniversary.
These are bhappybags -- I'm not making this up -- and they are described as an "attractive yet durable line of reusable shopping/tote, wine, yoga and dry-cleaning bags" that "help to eliminate the destructive overuse of disposable bags."
The shower curtain below, available from Dream Designs, is made from natural hemp fabric that I'm told:
"... does not require a plastic or vinyl liner, thus eliminating the concerns for toxic off gasing. When it's dirty, just throw it in the washing machine."
And there is this "only all-natural, whole-kernel corn litter that is biodegradable and renewable, flushable, septic safe and chemical free (no synthetic chemicals, clays or perfumes)," sold by World's Best Cat Litter.
There's more, much more, alas.
Fortunately, not all companies see Earth Day as just another revenue driver. Starbucks, as an example, did something smart and meaningful last week. It gave away a free cup of coffee to everyone who brought in a re-usable mug, using social media, including this entertaining video, to promote the event. This may be about branding but it's true to the spirit of Earth Day, a reminder to people that you don't need that iconic white-and-green cup, which is going to find its way into the trash, to enjoy your morning brew. Nor is this a one time event. Starbucks has also made public commitments to serve more of its coffee in reusable mugs and making the cup recyclable.
Major league baseball is also taking Earth Day seriously. Teams are hosting Earth Day events to promote recycling, energy efficiency and conservation. The Phillies are recycling cell phones and buying renewable energy, the Indians are giving away caps made out of recycled plastic bottles, and my Washington Nationals are discounting tickets for fans who take metro, as opposed to driving to the game. Good stuff.
More important, big league baseball has agreed to begin collecting environmental data at all 30 stadiums about energy use, waste generation, water use and paper procurement, and then share best practices among the teams. You can read more about it from Allen Hershkowitz of NRDC, who calls this "arguably, the most important environmental initiative in the history of professional sports, worldwide."
So you can see that I'm not opposed to companies capitalizing on Earth Day to promote themselves, provided they are pushing for change -- as opposed to selling us T-shirts, tote bags and mugs that we probably don't need.
GreenBiz.com Senior Writer Marc Gunther is a longtime journalist and speaker whose focus is business and sustainability. Marc maintains a blog at MarcGunther.com. You can follow him on Twitter @marcGunther.