Imagine the year 1970, Earth Day had just been founded by United States Senator Gaylord Nelson with the intention to teach the U.S. about our earth and begin the nationwide conversation about the protection of it. Denis Hayes was the national coordinator in 1970 and took the mission international in 1990, with events organized in 141 nations world wide. The United Nations designated April 22nd International Mother Earth Day in 1990. In 1970 the idea of bringing the U.S. in on a global conversation about the conservation of the land we live on was instrumental, inspirational and effective for that time period. It was grass roots in its truest of meanings, with more than 2,000 colleges and universities, over 10,000 high schools and grade schools, and 20 million citizens participating, that would be nearly ten percent of the U.S. population at that time. American Heritage (October 1993) magazine referred to this first Earth Day as "one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy..."
During this time there seemed to be a real urgency, without the influence of big documentaries, big celebrities or big brands with big budgets, but just people paying undiluted attention to what would constitute real change. A joined effort by influential senators convinced President Nixon of the need to consolidate the nation's marine agencies. Nixon issued the plan to establish NOAA on July 9, 1970, less than three months following Earth Day. In the order establishing NOAA, President Nixon, recognizing the need for marine resource protection, declared:
The oceans and the atmosphere are interacting parts of the total environmental system upon which we depend not only for the quality of our lives, but for life itself. We face immediate and compelling needs for better protection of life and property from natural hazards, and for a better understanding of the total environment-an understanding which will enable us more effectively to monitor and predict its actions, and ultimately, perhaps to exercise some degree of control over them.
10 years following that quote there was serious legislative momentum, with a flood of acts such as the Clean Air Act, Toxic Substances Control Act, Safe Water Drinking Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, The Endangered Species Act and many more. This was one of the rare times in history where awareness translated into direct action, with the intent to propel the course of history in the right direction. With these acts in place and a day to celebrate the earth world wide, there seemed to be traction and a reason for optimism.
Fast forward to 2011.
For every "like" on Facebook a percentage from x brand will go towards this "green" non profit. For every "x" product sold, a non disclosed amount will go towards an "eco friendly" initiative. Now introducing our "earth friendly" line of... and the list goes on, sound familiar? Every major brand is now playing in the "green" space, but that color has never meant less. As Jasmine Malik asked in her 2008 TreeHugger article "Is Earth Day the new Christmas":
Does turning Earth Day into a marketing blitz promote the cause or contribute to green fatigue? Until the Federal Trade Commission reviews its green-marketing guidelines, which were last updated in 1998, well, corporate giants can paint the town -- and the sweatshops they continue to operate -- any shade of green they want.
There are a hundreds of differences between 1970 Earth Day and today, one of the key themes being the introduction of cause marketing and rapid fire sharing through internet based technology. The ability to "wash" terms, language and education is on an exponential increase. This is dangerous, for several reasons. One, younger generations are being exposed to much more "talk" and far less "walk," and we are conditioning an entire generation of people to develop green fatigue. If you are over the age of 30, reading this article and have already experienced this feeling, imagine what someone born 10 years ago will feel in 5 years.
Do we really know what kind of change we are trying to make and do we actually think we can get there by painting it green? The hundreds of millions of dollars spent on surface efforts by corporations would be far more efficient if some fundamental smaller steps were taken in logistics. Puma took a small step forward with the introduction of their "clever little bag box" which begins distribution in the second half of 2011. It took 21 months to develop, got great traction as a viral video, and will reduce their cardboard waste by 65%.
Another example is Walmart who is easy to villainize (and at times has without zero doubt deserved it) but nevertheless the monster conglomerate has incorporated social responsibility in a way that has made every big box retailer pay attention. "When Walmart asks its 60,000 suppliers to shape up, the world listens; a demanding packaging goal will have companies the world over scrambling to fit the requirements. In Walmart's 2011 Global Responsibility Report, we get a glimpse at just how far along the company is in meeting its ultra-ambitious goals. Goal: Reduce our global plastic shopping bag waste by an average of 33% per store by 2013 (2007 baseline). In 2010, the retailer cut down on plastic bag waste across its global operations by approximately 3.5 billion bags. This is a 21% reduction from the company's 2007 baseline" -- Ariel Schwartz Fast Company
There are tons of examples of big corporations doing variations of earth friendly right, and then a plethora of those doing it wrong. Eventually for those that want an authentic relationship with how they intend on making a difference there needs to be a shift in perceived reality of how we think we are making the earth a better place. It won't be with the now Hallmarked 1 day a year where easy "tips" and "top ten" lists are trending. It won't be with sharing articles with catchy head lines that make you sound engaged on environmental issues (that wasn't read in its entirety) or joining a cause on Facebook, or clutching a water bottle and eco tote.
The shift begins with individuals that are going to push through their egos and personal motivations. We need to look past celebrating a day and start looking at implementing changes in the year and years to come. It starts at home. It can begin where it is not necessarily celebrated, when no one is "liking" your recommendations or giving you a pat on the back. The simple stuff, like actually recycling, turning off lights, saving water at home. Then a little bigger with integrating education in product purchases, going past the green label and finding the brands that are doing it right. Every dollar you spend is a vote, this is especially important about the things that you need every month (food, cleaning supplies & clothing, etc). Sites like GreenerChoices.org, Greenercars.org, and the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) can help you make sense of manufacturers' claims on big-ticket items; the Environmental Working Group and Responsible Purchasing Network have helpful information on smaller items like cosmetics, cleaners, and food.
One step further is who is taking care of the land in which you call home, who is your Mayor, MLA, government representative and what are the things you should be paying attention to? Fresh water resources? An incoming plan to build over what should be preserved? It takes one person to ignite a conversation locally on what should or should not take place using precious local resources. After all that there is the global conversation, but to jump over local and think global on the individual basis to me is like building a roof on clouds, it will fall through. Think about the foundation and start micro & tangible.
We don't need to stop monetizing everything in regards to our earth. We have to. Human beings are the only species on earth that take more than they need, we owe it to this little marble to spend more than one day world wide looking at how we treat it, and when we do, let's lose the antics. Here's to Earth year 2011.