The Commercialization of Earth Day — “Saving” Our Environment and What We Can Do About It

Happy Earth Day?

I suppose it was inevitable that Earth Day, founded 42 years ago in 1970, would be co-opted. I stopped reading the countless emails from company after company I received this week exclaiming “Happy Earth Day!” and offering “free shipping!” “Save 10%!” or “40% off!”

On the one hand, we all want to celebrate the Earth. Yay! But on the other, we want to really celebrate it, not via meaningless hype from companies that throw a few words on their packaging and once a year set up a booth at an Earth Day Fair and yet everything else they do – from production, packaging and disposal – reeks of irresponsibility with profit before practice, irretrievably polluting our precious water, air and land.

With the environment such a hot topic and a marketers’ dream to boot, how do we discern what’s real and what’s “green washing“? Even newer, small companies on the scene boasting “organic” “sustainable” “local” can start to appear less about being authentic and more about jumping on a trend.

How Earth Day Began and What It Meant

The roots of all this began over 40 years ago. On the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day in 2010, author, activist and professor Brian Tokar wrote a piece for the Indypendent, “Reclaiming Earth Day — With Climate Chaos on the Horizon, the Environmental Movement needs Traction” reflecting on its origins:

While environmental awareness has seeped into mainstream U.S. society since the 1970s — the era when 20 million people hit the streets on Earth Day to demand action — the structures of power remain largely the same. The mass mobilizations around the original Earth Day helped spur then-President Richard Nixon to sign a series of ambitious environmental laws that helped to clean contaminated waterways, save the bald eagle from the ravages of pesticides and began to clear the air, which in the early 1960s was so polluted that people were passing out all over our cities. Most environmental victories since then have benefited from those changes in the law, but more fundamental changes seem as distant as ever.

the original Earth Day on April 22, 1970, was initially a staged event. Politicians like Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) and Rep. Pete McCloskey (R-CA) took the lead in crafting the first Earth Day celebration that unexpectedly brought millions of people out around the country. The events, however, were supported by establishment institutions like the Conservation Foundation, a corporate think-tank founded by Laurance Rockefeller in 1948. Nixon even began the year with a presidential proclamation saying that the 1970s would be the “environmental decade.”

To everyone’s surprise, Earth Day turned out to be the largest outpouring of public sentiment on any political issue to date. It drew public attention to environmentalism as a social movement in its own right. And it set the stage to pressure Congress to pass 15 major national environmental laws over a 10-year period and establish the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In addition to the formation of the EPA, in the early 70s, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act were all passed. 

Promise Unfulfilled?

It’s a great history, and yet, with all the uber-focus on the environment currently, it still has not lived up to its promise. Tokar notes that legislation and our government have not made the strides after that first Earth Day, plus the big environmental non-profits have allowed themselves to be co-opted thereby losing their effectiveness and essentially their focus and mission.

Just the other day, eco-writer Jennifer Grayson at the Huffington Post asked, Should we Forget Earth Day? She notes that she started out wanting to publish an optimistic piece but the more she thought about it, the more depressed she became.

Grayson writes:

But here’s the reality: After planting a tree at a local event or recycling their old electronics, the majority of people (companies, our government) will go back to business as usual. They’ll make choices that are beneficial to the environment when it’s convenient or profitable; they’ll look the other way when it’s not.

Why? Because we haven’t set the stakes high enough. In fact, we’ve missed the mark entirely. Save the planet, goes that familiar refrain each Earth Day.

But it isn’t the planet that’s at stake this Earth Day; it’s us.

A Story of Two Earth Days (NYC)

Yesterday, I stopped by an Earth Day event outside NY’s Grand Central Station. A young man was handing out free Honest Tea and Odwalla bars (both now owned by Coca Cola). He seemed enthusiastic but perhaps a bit disenfranchised himself about this task. When he walked away from me and my friends, he said (unironically) “Don’t forget to recycle.” It seemed he knew that it was part of a much larger conversation but he wanted to impart something to us. I was pretty much speechless (is that what it’s come down to?) as he turned and walked away to hand out more Odwalla bars to people with hands out eagerly awaiting them.

Of course, he didn’t know that nine (or ten) years prior, a group I co-founded, Recycle This! held a table at this same Earth Day event (at the time, it was held indoors). As a grassroots activist group, we had qualms about doing so. We were worried it was too corporate an event, but we also felt it was important to get the word out that our Mayor Mike Bloomberg – who has since positioned himself as “green” – had cut recycling of plastics and glass citing that the effort “cost too much.” [We ended up feeling it was a good event at which to table as we reached people we wouldn’t have encountered elsewhere and many were not aware and/or glad to voice their opposition via signing a petition and taking information.]

What we realized shortly after forming our group was that it was not just about recycling which can become sort of a ‘feel good’ effort but isolated from everything else. A larger look at the big picture was imperative; one which included reducing, reusing, & re-THINKING and also altering our consumption patterns. (Also, we realized much of the problem lies outside of the individual as companies use excess packaging without considering its disposal; the life cycle of a product is purposefully shortened so consumers need to buy more, and commercial businesses need to be taking a look at their disposal methods to keep items out of the landfill.)

There was also another lesson there — the repercussions of that bad decision by NYC’s Mayor: 10 years later, with recycling reinstalled, the program still has not regained the levels of recycling rates it had achieved in 2002 (the halting and starting again caused much confusion and the media repeated back endlessly the mayor’s viewpoint on the “costs” involved) and New York City lags behind most other cities.

So What Do *We* Do?

The environment IS us. It reflects our care for, and the ways in which we inhabit, the earth. Our actions (and inaction) impact other species and it all interrelates. It’s sort of simple in that way.

Right now, so much (or, in many instances, all) emphasis by marketers and media is being placed on the individual — you and me. What WE buy; our environmental consciousness is being promoted as key to the salvation of the environment. But, as Grayson writes in her piece, the problems are “the powers that be (Big Oil, Big Ag, Big Chem)” and the co-opting of our elected officials by lobbyists and big corporate money. We are not going to find corporate America or our government – at least right now – doing the right thing. But they can be pressured to do so ultimately.

The thing is — this is beyond a debate over purchasing Seventh Generation* vs. Tide. While that is important, it’s also SO much larger than that. It is important is to be as informed and authentic and active as possible. As any and all of these identities: as a person, business owner, consumer, parent, member of your community and perhaps most importantly inhabitant of this world.

Independent, local, sustainable, fair trade, organic, petrochemical-free – those are ALL important. But, to me, what’s equally or more important is that people are INVOLVED in their lives – in the decisions in their lives and in what’s going on around them. That first Earth Day – even if initially a politically contrived “staged event” – changed things. But we need things to change faster, bigger and smarter. We’re at the mercy of a political system that is largely rigged and inefficient. But we – each one of us – can be doing things and, in effect, making that change happen.


“Who Owns Your Food” by Rachel Cernansky (my former co-hort in Recycle This!)/Planet Green/

A professor at Michigan State University put together these charts illustrating Who Owns What in the Organic Industry

Mother Nature Network looks back at the environment in the U.S. over the last 42 years (warning: this chart is a bit depressing)

*Seventh Generation is one of the few independent successful companies which has not been subsumed into a larger corporate entity.

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3 thoughts on “The Commercialization of Earth Day — “Saving” Our Environment and What We Can Do About It

  1. One of the biggest contributions any of us can make to the environment is reducing or eliminating our consumption of animal protein. Factory farming of animals not only consumes an outrageous amount of grain and water – a highly inefficient use of those resources – but it also contributes more greenhouse gases than all forms of transportation combined. If you care about the environment, animals and your health, adopt a healthy plant-based diet.

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