Business and the Evolution of Earth Day

Business and the Evolution of Earth Day

It seems now that almost every company is tied into Earth Day in some way, whether through sales on greener products, releasing or rehashing their environmental news, or throwing or participating in events like tree-plantings and park clean-ups.

Last year we took a look at the many ways companies participate in Earth Day, but this year we spoke with companies about how their interaction with Earth Day has changed, the relevance of Earth Day, and what value they derive from the day.

Timberland and Seventh Generation have in a way gone against the grain by placing less importance on the day itself.

"Twelve years ago," said Timberland CEO Jeff Swartz, "when Timberland first started organizing community service projects on Earth Day, it was a fairly episodic event: Take a day, shut down the office, everyone pull on their boots and go do something good for the environment. Twelve years later, the emphasis is no longer on Earth Day -- or any individual day, for that matter. Environmental awareness isn't episodic, it's ... something we apply time and effort against every day, in an effort to reduce our environmental impact on a much greater level."

Many other companies have changed what they actually do on or around Earth Day and where they focus their efforts.

Hewlett-Packard's view on Earth Day has shifted along with changes to its environmental programs, said Michelle Price, manager of worldwide environmental strategic marketing for HP's imaging and printing group.

Prior to the 1990s, the company mainly focused on itself and how to improve its own environmental performance. In the late '80s it started to move towards helping customers improve their performance as well.

HP measures it progress on a number of environmental issues, and shares its findings internally and with customers. "Through that, we use Earth Day as an annual reminder to evaluate our programs and challenge ourself to take things further," Price said.

It also used Earth Day to improve its internal communications when, in the early 1990s, it added a four-page pamphlet about its environmental efforts to its monthly employee magazine. From using Earth Day as a kicking off point for expanding employee knowledge of HP's efforts, the company now communicates with its workforce through regular updates via its intranet, email, Facebook, Twitter and team meetings.

Last year, communications company Alcatel-Lucent launched its Let's Be Eco-Friendly campaign, which was aimed at its workforce and raising awareness about the changes they could make in their daily work to use less energy, minimize waste and more.

This year, the company has organized Earth Day events at corporate and local locations. One change in its Earth Day communications is more emphasis on how it can help its customers reduce their environmental impacts.

FedEx was primarily concerned with environmental compliance throughout the 1970s and '80s, said Mitch Jackson, the company's VP of environmental affairs and sustainability. "Now, 40 years later from that first Earth Day, we focus on integrating environmental sustainability into business objectives, making it part-and-parcel of our business."

Just this week the company announced its new EarthSmart program, which will seek out and recognize environmentally responsible business solutions, along with covering workplace culture and community outreach.

And one company, Anheuser-Busch InBev, still participates in Earth Day, but has chosen a different day as it primary environmental rallying point.

"Last year we decided that World Environment Day, a project of the United Nations Environment Program that is celebrated each June, should serve as the focal point for activating our commitment to the environmental health of the communities in which we operate," said Marianne Amssoms, the company's VP of Global Communications.

On that day, the company's facilities took part in 250 activites like river clean-ups and recycling drives in 24 counties. This year, Anheuser-Busch InBev is using World Environment Day, and the lead-up to it, to focus specifically on water conservation. Its Canadian breweries and warehouses, for example, are seeking employee ideas for conserving water at facilities and in communities.

One common concept that many companies touched on is that their environmental efforts expand well beyond the 24 hours in Earth Day. Efforts to conserve resources and make greener products last all year long.

So if some of these efforts are happening 365 days a year, does there need to actually be an Earth Day? Is it still relevant to companies? What value does the day provide?

For HP, it's useful both externally and internally. April is when the company puts out its Global Citizenship Report, updating customers on its performance and progress. It's also when HP organizes a number of educational opportunities for employees, such as its Vancouver events, which will include sessions on how to green up work areas and a vendor fair for local companies to show off products.

IBM's Wayne Balta, vice president of corporate environmental affairs and product safety, sees Earth Day as providing dual roles. "First, as an individual, it reminds us to appreciate the beauty, diversity and fragility of the Earth and its natural resources ... and in doing so, it prompts us to self-assess whether each of us is performing our roles in a way that is helping to protect that for future generations," he said. "Second, as a business person, its presence on the calendar further motivates us to marshal IBM's resources in innovative ways to literally change the way the world works."

Sodexo is another company that has shifted from engaging only employees on Earth Day to using it as a platform to spreading information to customers. "Earth Day gives Sodexo a well recognized and established opportunity to highlight the value we create through our sustainability efforts to the thousands of client organizations and the millions of people we serve every day," said Arlin Wasserman, Sodex's VP for sustainaibility and corporate social responsibility.

"It's also an opportunity to partner with out clients on innovative programs at their sites, from a meal that draws ingredients from a 15-mile radius to highlighting the behaviors we can all adopt to reduce our carbon footprint at work and at home," she said.

Seventh Generation's Jeffrey Hollender offered a much different view on Earth Day.

"Each year Earth Day becomes a little more like Christmas and a little less like the celebration that holds the same meaning it did 40 years ago," he said. "It's a bit like a carnival now. Everyone wants to get into the act. I get hundreds of e-mails. Everyone suddenly has something to say. Everyone has something to sell. I think the planet would probably be better off if we cancelled the whole thing and started over."

The cleaning products company, however, still gets something out of the day.

"Bigger sales! We hope that each year all the hoopla draws more first-time customers in the door and that many of these become repeat buyers," Hollender said. "But in terms of lasting value, the event doesn't produce as much as we need it to. There's no question that some of the educational messages play a positive role, it's a day when people give the planet a little extra attention, but people hopping on the bandwagon for a day doesn't create lasting change."

Others argue the day is still important.

"It is still helpful to have a day (or week) in which to take a step back and reflect on where we have come and what we still need to accomplish," said Patricia Calkins, vice president of environment, health and safety. "Plus it helps to re-energize people, engage new people, new ideas and new partners."

Anheuser-Busch InBev, which is primarily focusing its activities around World Environment Day, also finds value in Earth Day, too.

"In addition to participating in local grassroots initiatives on Earth Day, AB InBev will use this valuable opportunity to build momentum as we prepare for our global World Environment Day celebration," Amssoms said. "Consequently, the greatest value of Earth Day is that it reminds us that our commitment to the environment is not limited to a single day but extends throughout the year and impacts everything we do."

And even Timberland, which has reduced its emphasis on Earth Day, finds the day relevant.

"It serves as a reminder that for all the good that we're doing -- and the good being done by other organizations and individuals throughout the world -- the need for environmental action still exists," said Swartz. "Especially when we get so bogged down in the details of what we're doing -- reducing emissions, looking for ways to use less energy and more recycled and renewable resources -- Earth Day serves to refocus us on what we're striving for -- a cleaner, more sustainable planet."

[Editor's Note: GreenBiz.com editors Matthew Wheeland, Leslie Guevarra and Tilde Herrera also contributed reporting for this article.]