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How corporations are celebrating Earth Day 2012

<p>Our survey of corporations confirms that many have planned Earth Day activities to grow employee engagement on sustainability. Here&#39;s what&#39;s happening April 22.</p>

We’re approaching another anniversary of Earth Day -- happy 42nd, kid! -- and our editors asked me to contribute to the conversation. I’m not exactly sure why, but my best guess is that their inboxes are flooded with cringe-inducing announcements that could cause a case of deep green cynicism (or, at a minimum, add to the ever-growing list of “meh”).

With our focus on the business of sustainability, I wanted to find out whether Earth Day has grown too last century or if it's still meaningful to corporate America. In looking for guidance, I turned to the GreenBiz Executive Network, our member-based, peer-to-peer learning forum for sustainability professionals from large companies.

Engaging employees

Most of the sustainability executives I contacted see Earth Day (or Earth Week or Earth Month) as an opportunity to connect and engage with their employees. Wells Fargo’s Environmental Affairs team member Krista Van Tassel has a busy April as the company encourages employees to participate in National Volunteer Week, Teach Children to Save Day, Rebuilding Together Day and Earth Day 2012 – Mobilize the Earth (which features performances by Cheap Trick and Kicking Daisies in DC on Sunday; hopefully the band names aren’t indicative of Washington’s view of the celebration).

Volunteerism is tightly coupled with most employee engagement programs: A number of companies plan park cleanups and other activities this weekend. Others are tying Earth Day activities to Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day.

Many of the executives I talked with sponsor lobby events where employees can learn about the efforts of local environmental groups or test drive an electric car. Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) will have a Fisker Karma available, along with several other different electric vehicles, Josh Henretig, group manager for environmental sustainability at the company, told me.

At many companies, employees will be able to bring in their old batteries, computers, books and other items to recycle. Marci Verbrugge, who works in sustainability communications at Sprint, told me that more than 2,000 employees came out on Thursday to recycle and learn about all things green from more than 50 eco-friendly exhibitors.

Earth Day is also a time for executives to talk about the company’s sustainability accomplishments during the other 364 days of the year. Rachel Sylvan, director of stakeholder engagement at Sodexo, uses Earth Day to promote the company's ongoing priority projects, such as Meatless Mondays and its Rural Recycling Program, in which the company collects e-waste for recycling to fund grants for disabled farmers.

Meanwhile, media companies like News Corp. (NYSE: NWS) and NBCUniversal promote environmental sustainability to a broadcast audience on Earth Day, with radio and television spots and programming such as NBCUniversal’s Turbine Cowboys.

Extra points for originality

While all of the GreenBiz Executive Network members I contacted emphasized that their real goal is to be environmentally friendly every day, that doesn’t mean they’ll miss a good opportunity to get employees thinking about energy reduction, waste and other important ways in which they can contribute to making the world a better place.

Occasionally, Earth Day also gives them a chance to make these activities more fun than, say, switching out light bulbs. Looking for ideas for next year? Here are six creative events from this year that might give you some food for thought:

Party for the planet: The Mandalay Bay Shark Reef in Las Vegas is hosting its annual Party for the Planet on April 22nd.  This Earth Day celebration promotes environmental awareness and educates people about conservation efforts both within Las Vegas and around the world. It's free to the public and attendees who complete the eco-scavenger hunt get discounted aquarium admission.

Shred a Guinness record: On April 14, Comerica Bank (NYSE: CMA), Iron Mountain and KDFW FOX 4 set a record for the most paper collected for shredding and recycling in 24 hours. The group collected 50,766.06 kilograms (111,920 pounds) of paper during an event called Shred Day DFW in Dallas, Texas. This reminds me of another record set by SCA Tork (click here for a video).

Free compost: Whitewave Foods gave away free compost, according to an announcement forwarded to me by Ellen Feeney, vice president of responsible livehood at the company.  As a longtime leader in sustainability and a sponsor of the company’s 12th annual plant sale, I guess Ellen’s just dealing with another year of the same old…compost.

Am I garbage? Sodexo is hosting a fast-paced game giving customers 30 seconds to place as many items as possible (such as a plate, fork, cello bag, clamshell, paper cup and paper boat – all clean and unused) into the proper receptacle: recycling bin, dishwasher or garbage pail. None of the containers are large enough to fit ex-boyfriends.

One small act: NBCUniversal’s campaign focuses on engaging consumers around the environment. Viewers are invited to pledge to take green actions and track how their contributions add up to make a real impact on the environment. A “digital garden” grows online with every user pledge.

Do you haiku? Elizabeth Barry, CSO for Marsh & McLennan Companies, was brainstorming with some passionate colleagues about how to attract employees to their internal website. They finally agreed to try a haiku contest encouraging colleagues to wax poetic on the majesty of the natural world or on caring for our communities. She thought she might get a couple of responses, but they've already received more than 70, with more coming in by the hour.

How are you celebrating? Those are just a few of the activities that I heard about that sound original and fun, but I'd love to hear what else is going on. Drop me a line at [email protected] and tell me what you did for Earth Day. If we get enough other good ideas, we’ll post a Part Two about Earth Day events you might not have heard about.

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