The Business of Earth Day: A Valuable Environmental Event or Exploitative Marketing?
The money in Earth Day
Does Earth Day promote environmental action or is it merely a marketing blitz meant to sell product? The answer is of course both, Earth Day is an event that encourages environmental action throughout the year, it is also a time when marketers think of ways they can find points of identification with anything that is remotely green.
It is understandable that marketing campaigns that exploit Earth Day without offering any real environmental benefit can induce cynicism. However, there is another type of cynic that is far more destructive than those whose only crime is being zealous defenders of a livable planet. The more destructive group of cynics is composed of people who deny that we have serious environmental problems. This vast army of righteous, ill-informed, anti-environmentalists loves to deride the “tree-hugging hippies.”
Sadly the number of people who are growing disinterested with the environment is increasing. These disinterested anti-environmentalists would be insignificant were it not for the fact that their apathetic message is spreading. Over the last few years, they have been able to achieve more through denial and irrational rhetoric than environmentalists have been able to achieve armed with reason and science.
A green attitude poll suggests that Americans now seem to be less interested in the environment than they have been in years. As reported in a new Harris Poll, over the past few years, Americans have become less likely to say they care a great deal about the current and future state of the environment. Similarly, there is less interest in organics, water conservation, and waste.
The study also suggested that Americans would be more likely to help Mother Nature "when the efforts also help himself." An Earth Day SodaHead.com poll reported that 85 percent of respondents said being “eco-friendly” is very important or moderately important, but as corroborated by the Harris poll, they are not willing to do much about it unless it serves their personal interests.
People may recycle, but 59 percent stated that they are not more likely to buy a product just because it is packaged in recycled materials. Even when people are concerned about the environment, they are not prepared to pay for it as evidenced by the fact that 72 percent of respondents said they would switch to a hybrid vehicle or an electric powered car, only if it did not cost more.
Even the mainstream media, in typical news cycle fashion, is no longer covering important environmental issues. As revealed by a 2011 study, Donald Trump gets more media coverage than climate change.
Together, these results show that Americans are losing interest in environmental issues, or as some have put it, they are suffering from green fatigue. Unless people see a personal benefit, they do not yet seem very interested in doing much about it.
Earth Day is about more than a consciousness raising exercise, it is about encouraging people to connect the dots and see the massive stake they have in a healthy planet. Only this awareness will be able to muster the collective will needed to bring about the required social, political and economic changes.
We already have World Environment Day on June 5, so why do we need an American made environmental event like Earth Day? The reason we need Earth Day is because in the world’s largest economy, huge numbers of people persist in resisting the facts about the state of the environment.
Earth Day is an important day for the business community and many use the day to educate the public about important environmental issues. Collectively, companies spend tens of millions of dollars on Earth Day promotions, and much more on sustainability initiatives.
While some Earth Day marketing has merit, a lot of it is little more than greenwashing. A recent Greenbiz article offered some illustrations of Earth Day marketing efforts that give us reason to be cynical. Referring to Earth Day communications, the article states, “Like a plague of cicadas (only more frequent and more devastating) this time of year brings us once again an inundation of marginally relevant, cynicism-inducing announcements”
As is pointed out in the article, “Tying your sales strategy to Earth Day means you're part of the problem.” It should be obvious to all that buying things, even if they are truly green, is not a panacea for our environmental ills. It should also be obvious that that misrepresentation is not part of an effective marketing strategy.
Forward looking companies know that the best and most enduring way to position themselves is through earnest environmental initiatives and honest advertising. Those who market without integrity are taking a huge risk. When marketing masks environmentally destructive practices under the guise of environmental sensitivity, there is always the possibility of a reputation destroying backlash.
Smart companies mitigate their reputational risks and understand that greenwashing is counterproductive. Consumers have ever more access to information and it is getting harder to fool an increasingly informed population. Companies that promote sales in conjunction with Earth Day open themselves to scrutiny. Unsubstantiated Green claims or associations could be exposed and this could prove detrimental to a company's reputation.
The Earth Day marketing frenzy may not be such a good deal for marketers anyway. Another GreenBiz article questions the value of promotions at this time of year. According to Albe Zakes, the global vice president of media relations for TerraCycle, Earth Day is not the best time for green marketing. TerraCycle, which helps companies with recycling programs, actively dissuades their customers from launching major initiatives on or around Earth Day.
"With everyone and their mother doing some kind of quasi-green messaging around Earth Day, you risk a truly environmentally responsible promotion, product or service getting lumped into consumers’ green fatigue and being considered green washing," Zekes says.
This view is mirrored by some of the largest PR and marketing firms in the US. Susan McPherson, senior vice president and global director of marketing for Fenton, says she no longer finds Earth Day promotions of value to clients.
The increasing popularity of Earth Day as a marketing opportunity has decreased the reach and penetration of individual green messages. All the activity taking place around Earth Day has actually decreased the value of running a promotion at this time because it is hard to have your message heard above all the noise. Legitimate environmentally themed messages are being suffocated by a plethora of green advertising or by those who are greenwashing.
Eddie Fernandez, vice president at OgilvyEarth, the sustainability arm of international PR, marketing and advertising firm Ogilvy, said "up until four or five years ago, Earth Day made sense as a relevant and timely opportunity to raise awareness of sustainability news and initiatives. But in the last few years it has become so overcrowded that it's harder to place media stories as reporters are being bombarded with a 'green' story from every company under the sun. Visibility around major initiatives and campaigns companies may want to announce is not getting the same [return on investment], and the allure of Earth Day has caused some companies to greenwash, further devaluing it for other companies."
To be successful with Earth Day promotions, include research in your marketing communications. Research cuts through the clutter of Earth Day marketing mayhem. "Research is a hot commodity for media to weave into their Earth Day stories," Fernandez says. "If companies are conducting sustainability research with broad appeal, they could still earn great media attention."
Marketers seeking to promote a green message may wish to consider other environmentally oriented days, which can offer far more exposure due to a much less crowded marketing space.
Despite concerns that Earth Day is an overcrowded promotional space, many companies are marketing responsibly at this time of year. Sears offered recycling services and big discounts on some of its greenest products like Energy Star appliances. Sears also reviewed its sustainability efforts over the past year and pledged to continue to reduce its footprint and help its customers to do the same.
In addition to their ongoing sustainability efforts, Best Western International and Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations (BATO) worked with the Earth Day Network to sponsor this year’s event. BATO also announced a unique program aimed at improving the environmental performance of the tire industry including a global goal of 35 percent reduction in CO2 emissions from the company's total operations, including the complete life cycle of the tires it makes.
Earth Day is a good opportunity to communicate internally. As reviewed in a Green Biz article titled How Corporations are Celebrating Earth Day 2012, most sustainability executives interviewed see Earth Day as an opportunity to connect and engage with their employees. Companies are encouraging their employees to get involved in environmental activities like recycling, cleanups and other volunteer efforts.
Admittedly, Earth Day is a highly commercialized event, but those who criticize should remember that commerce is the language of action. Earth Day is indeed a marketing bonanza, but it is far more than just one day of smoke and mirrors. Earth Day is an opportunity to share research and engage employees and perhaps most importantly, educate the public.
The serious environmental problems we face will not be solved by any one event. However, until people accept a fact based understanding of the world, we will not see the necessary social, political, and economic changes.
With so many getting involved it is hard to ignore the social momentum. Once America achieves the critical mass of a majority, they can exert their democratic rights and demand that recalcitrant members of Congress do what they must do to legislate on energy and the environment. Until then, many responsible businesses are leading the charge towards planetary health. These business leaders will always be remembered as pioneers, while those who exploit the Day and offer no environmental benefit risk serious reputational damage.
Earth Day is indeed an over-commercialized marketing event, but many in the business community are paying homage to the day while using the rest of the year to forge the way to a greener tomorrow.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, a leading sustainable business blog and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.
Image credit: The Unsuitablog