This year marks 51 years of Earth Day and one thing is for sure, our collective home needs us now more than ever before. COVID curtailed quite a bit of emissions due to lack of commuting and travel, but the pandemic’s impact certainly hasn’t been all positive for the environment. The increase in single use plastics over the past year, due to the need for PPE and a huge surge in takeout for the restaurant industry, has presented yet another environmental challenge that can’t be ignored.
For those of us in the corporate social responsibility (CSR) space, Earth Day is an important moment to consider our role in environmental sustainability, and ensure that we don’t respond to real needs with “greenwashing” or empty messages – especially if we are responsible for reporting on our company’s progress on these issues.
The Roots of Earth Day
Many aren’t familiar with the roots and history of the first Earth Day that took place in 1970. In the United States, the 60s and 70s saw a wave of increased activism and protesting- from the Anti-War movement, Civil Rights movement, Mexican-American movement, American-Indian movement, and more. Earth Day was no exception to the trend of using protesting and collective action to voice concerns and enact change.
Prior to 1970, many industries in the United States operated with little regard for their environmental impacts and there were few regulations at the state or federal level to protect the environment. Frustrated with the lack of concern around environmental issues, junior senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin came up with the idea for Earth Day. Originally, the focus of Earth Day was to harness the energy of anti-war, college-age protestors, and it was decided that April 22 was perfect timing between Spring break and final exams.
The core team focused on bringing Earth Day to life quickly realized the potential to engage Americans beyond just the college-aged demographic and worked diligently to expand their reach. The inaugural event saw 20 million Americans take to the streets and voice their concerns and support for more environmental regulation. At the time, that represented 10% of the country’s population. Today, 10% of the United States’ population would be more than 32.8 million people.
This massive mobilization of advocates created real, tangible change. The first Earth Day inspired and brought to life major legislative moments, including the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the passing of laws like the Clean Water Act, OSHA, Clean Air Act, and Endangered Species Act.
The roots of Earth Day clearly weren’t in corporate greenwashing or a simple celebration of the place we call home. It was advocating, activism, and creating lasting change. EarthDay.org is still pushing for policy reform, but many companies have sunk their teeth into making April 22nd a good social media or employee engagement moment. Unfortunately, the challenges we face around climate change will need more than beach clean ups and reusable coffee cups. Celebrating Earth Day is important but advocating and safeguarding for our future is even more crucial.
We All have a Role to Play
Every company has a role to play in pushing to fight climate change, whether you have explicit environmental goals or whether your CSR efforts focus on other issues. We are all human, all sharing the same planet, and are all subject to the impacts of an increasingly volatile planet. The National Centers for Environmental Information has been tracking ‘billion-dollar disasters’ since 1980. Since they started collecting this data, there have been 291 Billion Dollar disasters in the United States alone, totaling over $1.9 Trillion in damages. The pandemic didn’t slow down these catastrophes either- 2020 was the most active year on record with 22 disasters recorded. In recent history, the winter storm that brought down Texas’ un-weatherized power grid in February of 2021 is estimated to have cost between $195 billion all the way up to $295 billion.
If your company is an advocate for racial and social justice, it doesn’t matter if your products and business directly cause ocean or air pollution. Our environmental challenges aren’t just playing out in the natural disasters we see capturing national headlines. Climate change is an issue that affects vulnerable members of society the most, and as a CSR leader you have an opportunity to make the connection between sustainability and the other issues you are working to address. The NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) is a nonprofit that is dedicated to ensuring ‘the rights of all people to the air, the water, and the wild’. They published this article “What is Climate Gentrification?” last year that gives a synopsis of how climate change is pushing low-income communities out of their neighborhoods as extreme weather & rising sea levels have high-income households looking for higher and more stable ground.
The American Lung Association has been vocal about the unequal impacts of air pollution on the health of communities. This article on the “Disparities In the Impact of Air Pollution” provides a stark look at how communities of color in America, especially predominately Black neighborhoods, are at a higher risk of premature death due to particle pollution than white neighborhoods.
The fight against climate change is a fight to ensure everyone has access to a healthy and save environment. If you’re looking for a place to start, many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are focused on intersecting topics of sustainability and human impacts.
Tips to Avoid Greenwashing Your Company’s Earth Day Celebrations
Taking time to celebrate and raise awareness is an important aspect of all social movements. As climate change continues to impact our planet, it’s crucial that companies go beyond a one-day celebration and make their sustainability efforts a year-round priority – and in the CSR space, we have a key role to play in making this a reality. Below are a few tips to maximize the effectiveness of your Earth Day celebrations:
- Less is More. Making a t-shirt specifically for your Sustainability Employee Resource Group or giving out a reusable water bottle might not be as positive as you think. In a world of excess, adding another token isn’t a sustainable action. Instead, consider launching a small-scale match campaign centered around a select group of environmental nonprofits for employees to participate in. Another idea is to issue a consumer-facing social media campaign! Tell your audience to tag your social media channels with why they celebrate Earth Day and for every post, your company will donate $X.
- Use Earth Day as a Launching pad. Rally your employees around new environmental focused initiatives and non-profit partnerships by using Earth Day as a launch date to communicate and activate. You could host an internal panel with a nonprofit partner to highlight the commitment your company has with them and the work they are doing.
- Move towards Activism. Trash pick-ups and beautification projects can be great components to your sustainability programs, and many of your employees probably love activity-based projects that can be done outside amongst nature. But beyond these volunteer events, make sure you’re supporting organizations that are proponents of climate advocacy. Outcomes are important. Partner with nonprofits focused on activism by offering skills-based volunteering opportunities that can be done virtually. There’s plenty of ways your employees can give back utilizing their skills without literally getting their hands dirty. Consider letting employees count their advocacy efforts as volunteer efforts, whether that be protesting or writing their elected officials about legislation relevant to climate change.
- Make it Intersectional. It’s not just about saving the planet, it’s about ensuring equity in the process and making sure vulnerable communities aren’t left out. Examine your nonprofit partnerships and efforts around Sustainability- have you considered the intersection of identity in environmental impacts? Have you specifically researched how low-income communities in your geographic footprint are left out or brought into discussions and actions on pollution? How about safety in the outdoors and access to parks and recreational spaces for different communities and identities? What Indigenous communities were original stewards of the land where you live and work?
Happy Earth Day – may the future of our planet look safe, healthy, and equitable for all!