Why business is the new Earth Day activist

Speaking Sustainably

Why business is the new Earth Day activist

Earth Day events corporate sustainability
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Events on Earth Day are becoming a popular corporate branding tool.

The health of our air and water in the U.S. has come a long way since Earth Day was first celebrated in 1970. So has corporate sustainability.

From the beginning, Earth Day has had a mix of grassroots fervor and corporate/government support. The first Earth Day — the brainchild of a senator — was both the perfect reason to hold community celebrations accompanied by folk music and openly challenge the status quo, including how industry was affecting the environment.

There were companies participating in those early years. Target, for instance, gave out tiny trees to customers, and in 1972, dedicated its first parking lot recycling center for the use of the surrounding community. Other companies are more recent converts to the cause, thanks to a steady cultural shift within corporate leadership and the population at large.

Today, we expect to read about events our favorite brands are sponsoring in various communities or how they’ve teamed up with a nonprofit to support a specific cause. As I’ve been writing this, an email landed in my inbox announcing that Apple has teamed up with World Wildlife Fund and 24 developers for "Apps for Earth." Proceeds from these apps support WWF’s conservation efforts.

We also expect our own workplaces to do something to support Earth Day. In fact, for a lot of us, thinking about Earth Day conjures up associations with our jobs, not with our communities or personal lives.

Each April, I run across articles expressing concern that businesses have co-opted Earth Day, and that people everywhere are learning that buying products marketed as green is a better environmental solution than getting actively involved and writing your congressman. (In fact, here’s an older but particularly noteworthy example of such an article. It cites a study that found the folks most worried about climate change were way more likely to live out their concern by buying green products than by contacting an elected official multiple times.)

What’s most interesting to me, though, is that these articles’ authors aren’t as worried about businesses using Earth Day for PR as they are disappointed that the power and excitement of the early Earth Days has been so watered down.

Indeed, the fervor of the 1970s environmental movement is largely absent from today’s discussion on the environment. I could point to some clear reasons why:

  • Climate change is the bad guy now, and it’s much more abstract than the visible pollution that burned your eyes and caught rivers on fire in the years leading up to the first Earth Day.
  • Environmental issues have become way more politically divided since the '70s. (Remember, a Republican administration launched the EPA and most of our foundational environmental legislation.)
  • We do see some environmental passion playing out on social media and blogs — but in our individual lives these days, we’d really prefer to let others take care of the big issues for us (which is something we repeatedly see in our research).

That’s exactly why business’ participation in Earth Day is important — and powerful in a different way. Businesses have the opportunity to be modern grassroots leaders helping Americans be much more mindful of the environmental impact of their daily decisions.

So it’s not just about selling greener products that your customers can feel a little less guilty about purchasing; it’s about helping them see how the decision to purchase that product can create a positive chain reaction, in the supply chain and in their own behaviors.

If enough businesses connect these dots for consumers, we’ll begin to move Americans to a social norm where sustainability is quite simply "the way we do things around here."

Earth Day, then, is a catalyst for that storytelling — and a terrific opportunity to generate some excitement and interest in the environment, whether you’re a global manufacturer or a local retailer, a utility or a solar panel company.

So start thinking about Earth Day as your opportunity to lead, to connect dots and to tell compelling stories. Done right, that will create excitement, energy and, more important, results. No folk music required.

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