The Business View of Earth Day

The Business View of Earth Day

For our coverage of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, we spent a lot of time talking to people who work on the big picture -- sustainability leaders at large companies, people driving change at environmental NGOs, and so on.

But to get a look at how Earth Day celebrations take shape on the ground, we turned to the GreenBiz Intelligence Panel, our group of more than 2,000 executives and thought leaders in the area of corporate environmental strategy and performance.

We sent our panelists a short questionnaire about Earth Days past, present and future, and received, as per usual, an overwhelming number of thoughtful responses. Combined, these responses illustrate how environmentalism's big day takes shape in offices around the country.

How they Celebrate

It's perhaps not surprising that almost 73 percent of respondents say their firms recognize Earth Day in some way or other, and 52 percent say they're doing more now than they were five years ago.

What these companies are doing runs the gamut. Although there are, of course, a large number of "Every Day is Earth Day" types of non-responses, in the broadest sense, Earth Day-specific activities break down as the chart below shows.

 How does your company celebrate earth day
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Some examples of on-site events for employees include movie screenings ("No Impact Man," "Garbage! The Revolution Starts at Home"), competitions for personal sustainability efforts, company-wide lunches, bike-to-work days, and dumpster dives to showcase the amount of waste a company creates.

Other companies encourage their employees to volunteer in the community and/or for the environment on Earth Day; some contribute money to environmental causes, and some host customer- and public-facing events highlighting green projects and products that individuals can do every day.

Despite the ever-present concept of "Every Day is Earth Day," among our Intelligence Panel responses, only a tiny group thinks Earth Day is only a distraction from the other 364 days of the year or is too commercialized and shouldn't be celebrated at all.

In addition to how companies recognize Earth Day itself, we also wanted to get a sense of what ideas, innovations or practices have made the biggest impacts in the everyday work of these companies.

We offered panelists 25 options, ranging from inventions like compact fluorescent lightbulbs to green business leaders like Interface's Ray Anderson, and here's what we found:

 top three innovations
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The relatively low-hanging fruit options of recycling and certified green buildings took the lion's share of votes, while more complex practices like life-cycle analysis and developing an ISO 14001-certified environmental management system fall to the middle of the pack.

There was less consensus on the top thought leaders in the survey -- Al Gore's documentary / slideshow "An Inconvenient Truth" ranked highest overall, with 12 percent of votes, while Paul Hawken's "Ecology of Commerce" landed 9.6 percent of votes, and the aforementioned Ray Anderson scored 6.8 percent of votes.

In the write-in section, an even wider list of names and ideas surfaced, notably various flavors of carbon footprinting, carbon management software, and the Climate Disclosure Project's work; the Natural Step and Paul Hawken's "Natural Capitalism" also received several write-in votes.

It is perhaps encouraging that, when it comes to environmental heroes, there is essentially no consensus. Encouraging because that means there are so many positive environmental role models that our Intelligence Panel couldn't agree any overwhelming favorites.

Out of several hundred write-in votes, here are the top 10, and the number of votes they received:


Rank Name # of Votes 1 Al Gore 11 2 Bill McDonough 7 2 Ray Anderson 7 4 David Suzuki 5 4 Ed Begley, Jr. 5 6 Amory Lovins 4 6 Me 4 6 Thomas L.Friedman 4 6 Barack Obama 4 10 Annie Leonard 3

Note the appearance of "me" tied for sixth place -- plenty of self-esteem among this crowd...

In addition to giving companies a chance to showcase what they've done for the planet in the past year, Earth Day offers the world a heaping bowl of optimism. Even if that optimism comes in the form of companies trying to convince potential customers that buying their products or services will make their lives greener, it suggests that change is possible, and that humanity will reach a lower-impact future.

So for the final question in our survey of GreenBiz Intelligence panelists, we wanted to find out what they think we'll be talking about in 10 years, on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, as the issue that will have had the biggest impact on the environment between 2011 and 2020.

Respondents believe that the biggest impact by far will be the shifting energy landscape from fossil fuels to renewables, with the biggest sub-topic being decreasing our dependency on oil, followed by increasing efficiency and solar.

{related_content}The second-biggest issue among respondents is water scarcity, and along with it access to clean water.

Thirdly, respondents believe that by 2020 (hopefully much sooner), the science of climate change will be widely and popularly accepted.

Finally, greenhouse gas emissions was the next-most widely mentioned topic, mostly focused on GHG legislation and/or a global agreement on climate change.

Perhaps more notable than what we will likely be talking about in 2020 is the pessimism revealed in some of the responses, notably:

  • "Ha! The end of human civilization as we know it. You don't really believe there will be a need for Earth Day 2020, do you? If we haven't figured it out and radically shifted by then..."
  • "water levels, water scarcity, water pollution. it'll be all water all the time ~ either that or "how to keep varmints off your property and out of your stuff after the collapse of civilization due to peak oil" lol....just kidding"

This was, thankfully, offset by some at-times-guardedly optimistic notes:

  • "I hope the largest movement is to have our atmosphere declared a UN protected area."
  • "By 2020, energy saving, recovery stimulating, innovation funding, incentives and rebates will be taught as history, and the truth behind green economics will be the dominant force in preservation and restoration of the earth ... Happy Earth Day 2020!"

We couldn't have said it much better ourselves.