In a lot of ways, I feel the same way about Earth Day that I feel about Black History Month and Women’s History Month. These holidays are important for raising awareness about specific issues and creating a space to talk about them, until they become entrenched traditions and periods of time in which corporate PR takes over and we do little but pay lip service to an idea. It seems like we all breathe a sigh of relief when the day or month is over, the equivalent of saying, “Phew, solved that issue for this year.” Black people, women, the earth – they’re given some time in the spotlight and then shoved aside once our guilt is assuaged so we can go right back to the status quo.
When it comes to Earth Day, we’re bombarded by greenwashing even more so than during the rest of the year. Greenwashing– PR spin to promote an organization or product as environmentally friendly — takes over. You know the t-shirts and tote bags that read “go green?” In these fast-paced times, we don’t have a lot of resources to spend on researching, and it’s easy to fall prey to false claims. Some are more blatant than others. My favorite examples include a package of plastic Huggies diapers reading “pure and natural” and BP’s “sustainability” page. You can find some more examples of Earth Day 2012 greenwashing here.
Of course, there are also a lot of people out there using Earth Day for legitimate and much needed environmental and social justice work, and I don’t want to undermine their efforts. Mike Ewall, the founder and director of the Energy Justice Network, has a great post over at wearepowershift.org about the problem of corporate greenwashing and how it affects real efforts. In a few words: corporations spend an exorbitant amount of money to make sure consumers think that their products are green and that by spending more money, you will help create a greener world (emphasis on “you”).
Corporate spin campaigns are nothing new. In “Climate Cover-Up,” James Hoggan does a great job of exposing groups like the Heartland Institute and the American Petroleum Institute and their efforts to discredit the science around climate change. In the 1950’s, the tobacco industry pulled out all the stops to convince the American public that smoking was safe.
So what can we do? First, pay attention. If you find yourself wondering when diapers and bottled water became eco-friendly, your instincts are correct. They haven’t. Second, practice the 5 R’s: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, and rot. The Zero Waste Home is a good place to find tips on how to live a greener lifestyle. Finally, don’t stop celebrating Earth Day, Black History Month, or any of the others, but make an effort to apply what you learn during those holidays throughout the rest of the year.
Caroline Selle is an environmental activist convinced that small changes have big impacts and has been known to engage in minor battles over the thermostat. When she’s not griping about the lack of public transportation in southern Maryland, Caroline is writing about the human faces of environmental issues, lobbying in D.C., or studying the impacts of media rhetoric on public opinion. She is currently working on a book about the activism around the Keystone XL pipeline. Follow her on Twitter.