‘Appalling’ Earth Day greenwashing must not detract from message, says protest founder

‘Appalling’ Earth Day greenwashing must not detract from message, says protest founder

22 Apr 2023 ( The Guardian )

Corporate greenwashing should not undermine the message behind Earth Day and has nothing to do with its original aims, one of the founders of the annual environmental event has warned.

Denis Hayes, the American environmental activist who coordinated the first Earth Day in 1970, denounced the “appalling” environmental messaging by oil, gas and other extractive companies and said he hoped it did not distract attention from the threats posed by the climate crisis and biodiversity loss, which he compared to the threat of nuclear conflict during the cold war.

Protests and events have been planned across the globe for this year’s Earth day, with millions of people expected to take part today.

Hayes was hired to organise a national teach-in about environmentalism by the US senator Gaylord Nelson while at Harvard in 1970, and helped transform it into the largest environmental movement in history. About 20 million people across the US took part on the first Earth Day on 22 April 1970 and public pressure from the event is credited with ensuring the passing of the 1972 Clean Water Act. It has since become a global movement, with China, the US and the UK among dozens of countries to sign the Paris agreement on the 2016 Earth Day.

Speaking to the Guardian, Hayes acknowledged that many companies now use Earth Day as an opportunity for greenwashing, but added that the movement has also encouraged companies to change.

“[Earth Day] is abused rather frequently. Of course, it’s particularly upsetting to me when it’s an event that I’ve had something to do with. I take some solace in the fact that I think relatively few people anywhere are motivated to accept the sentiment behind ‘Earth Day at Exxon’. It just doesn’t pass the giggle test,” he said.

“In 1970, we were focusing on the fact that schoolchildren were not allowed to go outside for recess because the air was too filthy, that streams that people swam and fished in were no longer accessible because they were laced with poison, and we were spraying everything with pesticides. These were important but more local issues. Now, the big global issues like climate change and the epidemic of extinctions are more in tune with Earth Day, somewhat akin to the threat of thermonuclear war was when I was young,” he said.

Corporate green claims are being increasingly scrutinised in the US, EU and the UK, with rules being tightened about what companies can say about the environmental credentials of their products and services. As well as encouraging genuine action to tackle the climate crisis, Earth Day has become a focal point for greenwashing.

“As early as 1990 when suddenly we were starting to get a fair amount of prominence once again, we had some of the most appalling clear cutters in the United States trumpeting their environmental credentials,” said Hayes. “We held a press conference to condemn their misuse of the name. In Houston, Enron actually sponsored a big Earth Day festival. It’s appalling but I can’t think of anything to do about it.

“It has nothing to do with the original sentiments that we had, or the things that motivate millions of people every year to come out and do something positive for the environment,” he said.