What's Happened to Earth Day?

Two Steps Forward

What's Happened to Earth Day?

I'm old enough to remember the very first Earth Day, in 1970. It was my senior year at Skyline High in Oakland, California. Many of us walked to school that day (as opposed to taking public transit, my normal means of getting to class). There was a student fair with a few rickety card tables displaying information about how to recycle, use less water, pick up litter, stuff like that.

And then there was the car.

This, in fact, is my main memory of Earth Day 1970: Someone, somehow, procured an unwanted sedan -- a Ford Fairlane, as I recall -- and parked it outside the cafeteria. Students took turns pounding the crap out of it with a sledge hammer. (Clearly, this was before schools were taken over by lawyers and safety geeks.) Members of the football team and other would-be he-men went at it with a vengeance. I have a distinct image of one kid standing on the roof of the car and bashing in the rear window just below his feet.

It seems a bit odd looking back that the principal activity of highschoolers on Earth Day 1970 was to bash a car to smithereens. It was mostly about protest and symbolism then.

Earth Day 1990 was another matter altogether. The run-up to that event became media extravaganza. Nearly every media outlet -- TV, radio, magazines, newspapers -- produced an Earth Day special of some sort. The organization behind the event had conscripted some of Madison Avenue's finest to ensure that Earth Day 1990 would miss no one's attention. As I wrote in my 2008 book, Strategies for the Green Economy:

The event's advertising work was done by Pacy Markman, the agency veteran who crafted Miller Lite's indelible slogan, "Everything you always wanted in a beer, and less." Earth Day's organizers sought major corporate sponsors and hired a Los Angeles company that handled merchandise licensing for such movies as Platoon and Robocop to generate revenue from Earth Day -- branded clothing, gear, and souvenirs. Perhaps ironically, given that the original Earth Day in 1970 was a protest against corporate environmental misdeeds, Earth Day 1990 may have been the world's first major green marketing campaign.

What about today? What has Earth Day become?

It's a question I've been asking as I've watched the run-up to this year's 40th anniversary celebration unfold. Earth Day is 1,001 events -- possibly more -- of every conceivable description, from the ridiculous to the sublime.

From where I sit, watching the corporate world, Earth Day has taken on a variety of hues. As my colleagues at GreenBiz.com report, companies are engaged in a wide range of activities. Some have shunned the event, viewing Earth Day as a sort of red herring -- something that distracts us from having to think about environmental issues the other 364 days of the year. Every day should be Earth Day, they believe.

My colleague John Davies recently surveyed more than 2,300 members of the GreenBiz Intelligence Panel, a group of corporate executives we poll from time to time, about their Earth Day attitudes and activities. Fully 72 percent said they celebrate Earth Day at their company, with about half staging some kind of on-site employee event, and nearly as many engaging in employee volunteer activities. Fifty-two percent said their company's involvement in Earth Day activities has increased compared with five years ago; only 2 percent said it had decreased. More than 81% agreed with the statement "Earth Day is valuable because it shines a light on an important topic." That's an overwhelmingly positive response.

It's the marketing side of Earth Day that starts to get worrisome. My GreenBiz.com team reports being deluged with PR come-ons this year -- far more so than any year in memory.

Is that because more companies are engaged? I'm not so sure. I think it has more to do with the fact that Earth Day has become like many other annual holidays -- an excuse to sell stuff. Or, at least, sell your ideas, no matter how thin the thread to the notion of environmental sustainability. I could fill pages with examples, but my colleague, Matthew Wheeland, has already done a splendid job of that.

During the precise moment I was writing these words, an e-mail popped up in my in-box with a press release headlined: "Innovative Ecofeminist Smart Phone App Aims to End Dry Cleaning Pollution for Earth Day." I rest my case.

I don't mean to dis Earth Day (or ecofeminists, for that matter). I'm generally pleased that for at least one day a year -- and maybe a week or so leading up to it -- there is increased attention paid to environmental problems and solutions.

But when I step back and look at what Earth Day has become, it sometimes feels little has changed: Earth Day seems largely an exercise in symbolism, much like that car-bashing of 40 years ago: a series of random acts that allow people to feel environmentally engaged, even powerful, at least for a day.

Joel Makower is Executive Editor of GreenBiz.com.