What is Earth Day? Corporate America Helps Push Environmental Action


Earth Day is not just a day when the words "reduce," "reuse," and "recycle" take on increased meaning. It is a day to focus on what the environment means to you. It is also an important day for businesses to attract environmentalists with their own “greenwashing initiatives.”

Corporate America did not hijack Earth Day. Greenwashing, a form of PR when a company advertises their eco-friendly products, still serves a purpose. For example, it is good that BP is attempting to promote tourism in the Gulf of Mexico where they have a large carbon footprint. The massive oil spill tarnished their image so they needed to help promote the regional economy.

Dating back to its roots, Earth Day was more about teach-ins than consumerism. However, big business plays a positive role, especially in terms of funding and marketing, in celebrating Mother Earth. Advances in technology have even made it easier for companies to become more environmentally friendly.

The successes in the past 42 Earth Days owes a lot to successful partnerships between corporations and environmental activists, such as the US Climate Action Partnership. USCAP was behind the stalled cap-and-trade legislation proposed early in Obama’s first term.

Opponents of this method argue that greenwashing is simply a ploy to increase sales. The act of sending out press releases advertising how their products or facilities are greener, conserve energy, or made from recycled predecessors, points to higher profit margins.

Dennis Hayes, the national coordinator behind the first Earth Day in 1970 felt that big business’ greenwashing tactics channeled every year on April 22 is counterproductive to Earth Day’s grass roots origins.

“This ridiculous perverted marketing has cheapened the concept of what is really green … It is tragic,” Hayes said.

Technology has changed tremendously in the past four decades of Earth Day’s existence. Multinational tech giants such as Google and Apple pioneered new technologies that cut back on carbon-emitting practices. An executive could hold meetings with their counterparts halfway around the world without leaving their office. A teenager could effortlessly download entire albums on their iPods without even purchasing a physical CD. Banks now offer paperless statements and communications strictly through emails.

These examples cut back on greenhouse gas emitting travels and plastic and save forests. They are also not confined to one day throughout the year.

The theme of this year’s events is climate change. Earth Day Network, a coordinating organization, is requesting pictures of people with their stories on how the issue affects them as a way to place a face on climate change. Earth Day helped bring about greater awareness of global warming and energy efficient practices.

There are still certain industries that are harder to make more environmentally friendly. The oil and natural gas companies are making billions off of mining, transporting, refining, and selling environmentally hazardous, but still necessary materials. These corporations also have a vast impact in Washington, D.C.

Hayes also draws a strong distinction between the Republicans in the 1970s under Nixon, who signed the Clean Air Act, and the current Democrats and Republicans in Congress today:

“Remember, in 1970 we had a Republican president who was okay with signing a Clean Air Act and creating an Environmental Protection Agency, and that has just dramatically changed. Richard Nixon, for all of his conservatism, was arguably more progressive than the majority of the current democratic members of congress.”

The first Earth Day brought about change in Washington by helping pass the Clean Air Act, which created an entire new government agency. Now, the Environmental Protection Agency is under attack by conservatives for attempting to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

It is common to see eco-consumerism year round, but it shouldn’t be viewed negatively. It is a positive movement where small businesses to billion-dollar multi-national corporations market their green footprint on the world. As a consumer, you could purchase GE’s environmentally-friendly CFL light bulbs. You could go to a Philadelphia Eagles game and drink out of cups made from corn, not plastic. Businesses and environmentalists are not mutually exclusive.

Earth Day is just a day, or a week in some instances, but some companies remain at least partially green throughout the year. To keep businesses absent from the Earth Day movement would be a step backwards as businesses need to stay alert to new green initiatives.