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Why Earth Day Welcomes Corporate Support

When I helped organize the first Earth Day in 1970, only one business of national note supported the event: Arm and Hammer. I happened to know the sister of one of the top executives, so they offered a monetary contribution to our organization.

Since then, corporate support for Earth Day has increased every single year.

More and more of today's entrepreneurs recognize that you can't continue consuming natural capital -- air, water, soil, forests -- and counting it on the profit side of the ledger. It's sort of like inheriting 12 million dollars and spending a million a month: You’re "rich" right up until the last month of the year and then suddenly you're bankrupt. Over the past 33 years, I've met plenty of businesspeople who have looked over the edge of that precipice and come back with a genuine concern for our sustainable future.

Are businesses doing all they can to support environmental protection and promote sustainable practices? Alas, no. Some companies seemed more concerned with appearing to be on the "right side." In its success Earth Day has become a kind of commodity in terms of public perception, so that even the environmental foot-draggers want to be identified with it.

To my mind, however, this in itself is a mark of the great strides we've taken over the past 33 years. Corporate executives now understand -- as they didn't 33 years ago -- the importance of a clean environment to the whole economy. Many of these executives are in their 50s and 60s and were raised during an era of expanding resource and environmental concerns. The business community is now simply more aware of the issues and the need to address them.

This trend continues today. I speak at a lot of grade schools, and what I've noticed is that kids now in 3rd and 4th grade ask better questions than the college graduates did in 1970. They've simply been more exposed to the issue at an earlier stage of life. And these are the kids who are growing up to run for elected office, pass the bar exam, teach their generation's children, and lead today's corporations through the 21st century.

I frequently get asked the question: "What do you think of business or corporations taking over Earth Day?" Well, I take exception to the premise of that question. Corporations haven't "taken over," but they are players. They must be players, because all segments of the population -- business, labor, education -- have an important role to play in our sustainable future.

Gaylord Nelson, a former Wisconsin Senator, founded Earth Day in 1970. He is author of Beyond Earth Day: Fulfilling the Promise, a discussion of the state of the environment and the environmental movement. He remains actively involved in Earth Day affairs.

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