Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Silencing Earth Day Critics

Earth Day is an important day for business, collectively companies are spending tens of millions on Green marketing. But others have expressed their concerns that Earth Day constitutes little more than another over-commercialized marketing event. As Natalie Zmuda writes in an article, "It's Earth Day: Time to consume more to save the planet."

Others are even more cynical, "My concern is that some companies just view [Earth Day] as a marketing event, like Thanksgiving or Christmas," said Larry Light, chairman-CEO of Arcature, a management consulting firm. "Then they've fulfilled their obligation for the rest of the year. The whole issue of sustainability means that a commitment also has to be sustainable. If it's only for one day, then it's a marketing event."

Some are resolute in their dismissal of Earth Day. "Earth Day's usefulness has passed," said Alex Steffen, executive editor of World Changing, a sustainability blog. "The idea that we're going to direct our attention to the planet for a day or a week ... is not a sufficient response anymore. An awful lot of people view Earth Day as the time to express the idea that they are sympathetic to change. We need to move from being sympathetic to change to actually changing things."

For years Grist has derided Earth Day, two years ago David Roberts was complaining about it, noting that it wasn't enough, saying “The time for "small steps" is long past. It's time for people to wake the hell up.” This year Grist unveiled an appropriately titled Screw Earth Day campaign. The purists behind Screw the Earth think that we do not do enough to get the message across. They feel we need to do more to protect the environment. As they expain, “It’s not about a single day, dude, it’s about living green every day.”

Grist's David Roberts points out, "Green is all the hype everywhere. So you might think that the public would be engaged in this push....polls find public interest as low as ever, and opinion about climate and energy policy is as inchoate and incoherent as ever. There are no rallies. There are no emails and letters and phone calls streaming into Congressional offices. There is no real social movement behind energy/climate action. There’s nothing to push a recalcitrant member of Congress in the right direction."

Although Mr Roberts may be correct about the hype surrounding Earth Day, he is wrong on just about every other count. Earlier this year, one Billion people around the world turned out their lights to vote for climate change action during Earth Hour and today another billion are expected to get involved with Earth Day events. The social momentum of environmental interest is obvious and irrefutable. This is an important period of transition, and although the mediums by which this interest will express itself are not yet fully formed, the mechanisms of change are coalescing.

Contrary to Mr Robert's assertions, public interest in the environment is not low, studies are finding that despite the recession the interest in Green continues. Earlier this month Joel Makower pointed this out as the one constant from the polling data on consumer environmental attitudes, "Vast majorities of consumers say they have adopted greener habits in their daily lives, and shop for at least some products with a keen eye on their environmental provenance and energy and climate impacts. In other words: the marketplace is getting greener -- way greener."

At least one criticism is well founded. As more companies and marketers jump on the Earth Day bandwagon it is evident that some are guilty of masking environmentally destructive practices under the guise of environmental sensitivity. This practice, commonly referred to as greenwashing, dilutes the integrity of Green branding efforts. And this prompts concerns that consumers will stop paying attention to Green altogether.

Earth Day is not only an opportunity to move product, such events also exert pressure on companies to improve their environmental record. All companies who promote sales in conjunction with Earth Day open themselves to scrutiny. Unsubstantiated Green claims or associations will be exposed and this could prove detrimental to a company's reputation. Although some companies are guilty of greenwashing they will be punished by consumers and legislators.

The business community is an important contributor to the environmental crises we are confronting and they are an equally important part of the solution. Forward looking companies understand that greenwashing is simply counterproductive, these companies know that the best and most enduring way to position themselves is through earnest environmental initiatives that have integrity. That is why many companies are already looking well beyond events like Earth Day and emboldening their commitment to sustainable business practices.

For business, Earth Day is a marketing opportunity, and as such an opportunity to grow profits and increase market share, but businesses are also using Earth Day to fund environmental projects and raise awareness about the environment. If the world is to change, people's attitudes must change and public events like Earth Day are an important part of the transition to a Greener world. Earth Day engages people and helps to transform the wider culture.

Although it is easy to respect the dedication of many Green activists, it is sometimes difficult to understand the approach of certain eco-purists. The anger they vent as they rail against popular movements like Earth-day seems at times incomprehensible. It is easy to appreciate the purists' roles as watchdogs and stalwart activists, even their impatience has its place, but at times their comments detract from the urgency of the Green message.

As a force within the broader efforts eco-purists serve a valuable purpose, but when they hijack the mainstream discussion, they foster anger, apathy and cynicism. Environmental extremists may attract a core of misanthropes, but they alienate the general public and send businesses looking for loopholes instead of contributing to the discussion. Thankfully many corporate leaders are participating in finding solutions, and many more appear ready to follow.

Are eco-purists trying to help the planet or as it sometimes appears, do they prefer distancing people with unproductive vitriol? Some purists go so far as to call for a revolution that does away with capitalism and the whole free market system. However, it is clear to almost everyone that these nihilistic reveries do not serve people or the planet.

More reasonable approaches envision ways of bringing about change without bloodying our streets. It seems obvious that the most expedient change will occur by working within our system. For example, proposed climate change legislation in the US would put a price on carbon emissions and unleash the power of free markets expediting an efficient transition to a carbon restricted world. Perhaps the most reasonable approach involves sending a loud message to our elected representatives.

As purists rue the popularity of Earth Day, Green businesses are taking advantage of the opportunity to highlight their Green initiatives and eco-entrepreneurs are hopeful that events like Earth Day will expedite the task of bringing their innovations to market. Earth Day is effectively turning the wheels of our free market economy.

Sadly some green-purists appear confused, they fail to understand that sustainable consumerism is not the enemy it is the goal. Their cynical rants further serve to illustrate that their approach does not engage the public nor influence politicians.

Admittedly, Earth Day is a highly commercialized event, but those who criticize should remember that commerce is the language of action. If we are to see a Greener world, businesses must not only be amongst those who contribute solutions, they must lead.

For businesses and consumers, Earth Day is about more than a point on a calendar. The Earth Day event has amplified a message that will reverberate throughout the year.


ShellyT said...

I agree with Grist. One day is not enough. : )
Even so, I like Earth Day and I'm optimistic.

Thanks for the comments on Futurism Now... and your dedication shows in your writing.

wallrock said...

I agree 100%. Excellent post.