The Selling of Earth Day 2009: The Good, Bad, and Ugly

The Selling of Earth Day 2009: The Good, Bad, and Ugly

[ editors Jonathan Bardelline, Leslie Guevarra and Matthew Wheeland also contributed reporting for this article.]

Our email accounts have been flooded for weeks with story pitches, promotions and products ahead of this year's annual Earth Day celebration.

The lengths to which some go to connect their wares to the event made us chuckle: "Free solar LED Christmas lights for Earth Day!" "Chair massage is the perfect renewable energy source."

As we waded through all the Earth Day clutter and spoke to a number of businesses of varying size and sector, we noticed the initiatives, campaigns and announcements fell into three broad but basic buckets.

Clearly, what started as an environmental call to action nearly 40 years ago has grown into a blitzkrieg of an occasion that businesses use externally as a platform, marketing opportunity and engagement tool to define and accentuate their green credentials. (See our companion article, "How Companies Celebrate Earth Day" to get the scoop on how companies are celebrating Earth Day internally.)

"It's this one day that gives businesses a platform to really talk in-depth about where we stand on our commitments to sustainability and where we stand on reducing environmental impacts," said Marcy Scott Lynn, director of corporate social responsibility at Sun Microsystems. "It's like this great spotlight on what companies are and aren't doing."

That spotlight seems to have grown brighter this year, which seems counter-intuitive because of the recession. The economic downturn, however, isn't stopping companies from using Earth Day as an opportunity to tell their stories.

Spreading the Word

eBay, for example, partnered with Hearst Corp. to launch "30 Days of Green," a consumer-facing initiative with advertorials running in Hearst's 14 publications, which run the gamut from Good Housekeeping to Cosmopolitan. The storyline casts eBay as a "pioneer in sustainable commerce" because buying pre-owned merchandise helps eliminate the environmental impacts associated with the manufacture of new products while also reducing the stream of unwanted goods into the country's landfills.

Along with imploring consumers to join its Green Team, the promotion offers tips for eco-friendly shopping at eBay's websites (One example: "When searching eBay, use terms such as "last season," refurbished," "pre-owned" or "used" for great deals on first-generation iPhones, HDTVs and digital cameras."), while also touting its own environmental accomplishments, such as operating the largest solar panel installation in San Jose, Calif.

Interface releases its latest Ecometrics results on Earth Day to give the public its annual self-measurement system for energy, water, waste, materials, greenhouse gas emissions and safety. The company reduced its net greenhouse gas emissions 71 percent between 1996 and late 2008, 34 percent of which was accomplished by direct reductions and 37 percent from offsets. Interface also reduced energy consumption per unit of production by 44 percent.

Advanced Micro Devices explains its environmental accomplishments to its employees through electronic promotional materials today, which include details on how the company's Sunnyvale, Calif., headquarters recycled half of its solid waste stream last year while its Lone Star campus in Austin, Texas, earned LEED-Gold certification in January, making it the largest LEED-Gold commercial building in the state.

Earth Day serves as the backdrop today for commercial real estate services giant Jones Lang LaSalle's (JLL) launch of a 76-kilowatt solar panel installation atop the office complex of its client Bank of New York Mellon in Everett, Mass. The system, one of the larger in the greater Boston area, will cut energy costs by as much as $15,000 a year, reduce annual carbon dioxide emissions by 50 tons and trim sulfur dioxide emissions by 425 pounds.

The array is 5,762 square feet with 364 solar modules in a "direct tie" system from which generated electricity flows directly into the building's power lines. BNY Mellon and JLL, which coordinated the installation, expect the system to produce 103,000 kilowatts a year.

Have I Got a Green Product for You

Of course, Earth Day wouldn't be Earth Day without businesses using the event to sell their green products. Earth Day is a prime marketing opportunity, and with the increase in green goods entering the market, the occasion represents a timely chance to introduce the public to their offerings when environmental issues are top-of-mind.

Here are but a few product pitches that came across our desks:

Wal-Mart is highlighting 10 environmentally friendly products under $10 all month. (The world's largest retailer rarely does anything small. Earth Day at Wal-Mart has morphed into Earth Month.) It is also offering flip flops in India made of recycled materials, compacted laundry soap in Canada and compressed pillows in China that reduce transportation costs and shelf space.

• For Symantec, a relative newcomer to the green world, the company has been focusing on internal activities for Earth Day more so than external outreach, but for Earth Day 2009, the company is offering a discount on its consumer-facing GreenPC service. A NortonLive expert will connect remotely to a customer's computer to optimize power management and energy efficiency settings of a PC.

Sears is offering $99 Earth Day home energy audits between April 20 and April 30. Part of the Home Performance with Energy Star program, the audit can reduce utility bills by up to 40 percent, according to the company. Sears also offers information on how homeowners can generate for them up to $1,500 in tax credits.

Sony's PlayStation Store is tying Earth Day purchases to environmental donations. The company will donate $1 for each of the first 10,000 movies and TV shows purchased through the PlayStation Network on Earth Day, with the funds going to Conservation International. The PlayStation Store will also include a "Save Our Earth" section of movies, such as "The Day After Tomorrow," which portrays the Earth in danger.
Dennis Salazar, president of Salazar Packaging and Globe Guard Products, sees both pros and cons in the way that companies are using Earth Day as a way to promote products. Salazar Packaging itself is holding a sale for its Globe Guard Products from April 20-24, giving a 20 percent discount on all packaging products.

Earth Day, he said, creates interest in green products and green businesses, presenting a unique opportunity for exposure that many businesses normally don't receive.

"(But) Earth Day is running the risk of almost becoming too commercialized to the point that there is likely to be a 'morning after' drop off in interest and that is not a good thing," Salazar explained. "The real question is what do you do after the Earth Day promotion and sale is over?"

Making Earth Day Every Day Through Education and Engagement

Several companies offered the familiar expression: "Every day is Earth Day at ____ (fill in the blank)."

What many had in common in their efforts to make this a reality involved raising awareness of environmental issues through educational or engagement initiatives to get the public or their customers to learn or practice environmentally responsible behavior. Gap Inc., for example, has organized a trash sorting race at its San Francisco headquarters for kids between 5 and 9 years old and will host a Green Festival for Bay Area businesses to showcase environmentally friendly products and services. Tririga, a real estate management software firm, will hold a series of webinars with energy saving tips, with one in particular geared toward helping school systems. The company also will distribute an Insight for Earth Day email bulletin with tips and best practices for improving building efficiency.

Office Depot will host an event today at its Boca Raton headquarters for its business customers called "Smart Steps to Your Greener Office." Beginning with a buffet lunch and green vendor expo, the event will include speeches from Chris O'Brien, executive director of the Responsible Purchasing Network, and Yalmaz Siddiqui, director of Office Depot's environmental strategy, to give attendees tips to immediately save money and create a less wasteful office environment why also learning about the underlying environmental reasons for doing so.

On the opposite side of the country, Cisco and the city of San Francisco unveil the Urban EcoMap today, an open-source tool that allows users to see the effects of their collective positive behavior on climate change.

The behaviors are grouped into three key areas: transportation, chiefly reduction in miles driven; energy, in terms of reduced consumption; and recycling, which tracks efforts to reduce waste. In the pilot project, impacts can be displayed by ZIP code, neighborhood and the city as a whole. The idea is to give individuals a vivid portrayal of the climate outcomes of their actions and those of others, so that they can drive change for the better.

Getting out into the community means bringing the environmental message to stakeholders. A relatively new component of Xerox's Earth Day activities, for example, involves traveling to eco-fairs and environmental education events at their customers' locations to spread the word on how they can reduce their environmental impact at work, according to Patricia Calkins, Xerox's vice president of environment, health and safety. Calkins will also participate in a panel discussion in Washington D.C. with U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis at the Department of Labor. Their "women and the green economy" roundtable will explore the panelists' experiences in greening businesses and how they can drive the economy forward in the most sustainable ways possible.

For TAC, the Building Automation Business Unit of Schneider Electric Company, Earth Day also allows employees in customer-facing roles to accelerate their community and client outreach programs, said Brandi McManus, TAC's global business development manager for energy services.

The company encourages staff who work with clients to facilitate a light bulb or grocery bag exchange to swap an energy efficient CFL for a incandescent light bulb, or a plastic grocery bag for a reusable one made by TAC. Employees who work with accounts are also encouraged to arrange a tree planting at their clients' properties with a tree the account rep purchases or obtains as a donation from a local nursery.

"Tree-planting at the customer site, especially if it is a school or city government facility, is a great community activity," McManus said. "Earth Day activities are not only a way to get TAC employees excited internally, they're also a way for us to strengthen our connections with the community outside the company."

Getting consumers and employees to act upon their newly found knowledge presents a challenge -- but there's nothing like a little incentive to give some a nudge, according to Nokia.

The company has spent the last three years encouraging customers to recycle cell phones at their flagship stores around the U.S. on Earth Day. This year, anyone who recycles a cell phone will receive two free tickets to see the IMAX film "Wild Ocean." Taking the green element one step further, these tickets are printed on seed-bearing paper, and will produce wildflowers when planted.

Said David Butler, Nokia North America's head of environment: "We have focused our Earth Day messages and events over the years with the idea that we want to give people one simple action that indeed will make a difference."