Earth Day: Rallying Cry or Sales Opportunity?

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On the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, I’m glad to see mainstream media attention turning to the 800-pound gorilla in the environmental movement: corporate influence. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post published Earth Day stories that explore big business’s buy-in to green groups and green marketing, and question whether commerce has co-opted the movement.

According to the Times,

So strong was the antibusiness sentiment for the first Earth Day in 1970 that organizers took no money from corporations and held teach-ins “to challenge corporate and government leaders.”

Forty years later, the day has turned into a premier marketing platform for selling a variety of goods and services, like office products, Greek yogurt and eco-dentistry.

The Washington Post points out that we the consumers are also to blame, having been convinced by many companies that buying their green product is the best way to save the planet. Reports the Post:

This year, a poll conducted by professors at George Mason, Yale and American universities showed that respondents who were most alarmed about climate change were more than eight times more likely to express their concern through shopping for “green” products than by contacting an elected official multiple times about it.

From the anti-consumer bent of the first Earth Day, “we’ve gone to the opposite extreme. We’re too respectful of business,” said Adam Rome, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies environmental history. He said that Americans have continued to buy more goods and use more energy in the past four decades–and that, in many ways, American pollution was outsourced, as manufacturing moved overseas.

Of course, there’s always been griping by “pure” environmentalists that business has a suspect agenda–but the debate has gone beyond whether business should be a partner in change to whether it is actively pulling the strings in major environmental groups. Last month, The Nation set off a kerfuffle in environmental circles with an article, “The Wrong Kind of Green,” that called out groups like Conservation International and the Sierra Club for being tainted by corporate ties. (A fiery exchange ensued.) And last year Christine MacDonald’s book Green Inc., which I reviewed in Utne Reader, made a similar case at greater–and quite convincing–length.

It’s a vital discussion, and I for one am glad that it’s finally being had. It seems no great coincidence that on this Earth Day, President Obama took a stern line with our nation’s largest financiers over their irresponsible behavior. Talk about unsustainable: The titans of Wall Street can’t even keep their corporations sustainable in the short term, let alone for the long haul on a planet with dwindling resources. Are they our partners in creating a healthy, safe, and beautiful world? Or our enemies?

Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, The Nation, Green Inc.

Image by mandiberg, licensed under Creative Commons.

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