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. Continue reading