Earth Day 50th Anniversary: How Far We’ve Come ... or Not?

By Tom Szaky in Sustainable Packaging on April 21, 2020

Each Earth Day sets a new benchmark for what consumers expect from their trusted brands, muses TerraCycle and Loop CEO/founder Tom Szaky. And it can’t be growth at the expense of a planet running dry.

 

For better or worse, business is the most powerful force for change on Earth. Over the course of human civilization, business and industry have increasingly allowed us to become smarter, greener, healthier, and more connected to one another, functioning to provide products and services to fulfill public needs and desires, as well as drive innovation and global trends.

Its virtues notwithstanding, business also drove the world to the consumption fever-pitch that misaligned our activities with nature so much that it provoked the late-century environmental movement, a pinnacle of which was the first Earth Day: April 22, 1970.

Celebrating 50 years this week with the timely theme “24 Hours of Action” (updated from the more general “Climate Action” to feature fully digital programming in the advent of the coronavirus pandemic), the annual event’s impacts on the world are indelible, but not necessarily revolutionary.

The birth of Earth Day was a direct response to a series of environmental disasters and mounting public concerns about single-use packaging, litter, and pollution. Individuals, schools, and communities mobilized around the lack of protections for consumers and the environment. It was a reaction to perceived inaction, and one intended to incite the public to change.

Industry has long put pressure on governments to allow them the latitude to operate as they would like, stymying regulation and mandates for extended producer responsibility (EPR), the policy concept that extends a manufacturer’s responsibility for reducing impacts (such as pollution and waste) all the way to the hands of consumers.

More than 110 EPR laws are currently in place for 13+ product categories in more than 30 US states. However, the United States as a country — the originators of the first Earth Day and its current base — is currently one of only three nations of the 35-member Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that does not have an EPR system specifically for existing packaging or one under development, despite packaging being a significant concern regarding waste.

Some experts say voluntary industry-led programs rarely lead to the systemic changes needed to significantly impact the status quo, in addition to not providing the same sustainable funding sources as government mandates. However, industry, unlike governments, can steward reform and de-risk the political process of governments by acting in their own best interest.

The events surrounding what Earth Day founder Denis Hayes called "the largest secular holiday in the world” can reveal the annual commemoration (since expanded to include Earth Month, hosted by a different organization entirely) as more of an exercise in public relations rather than a vehicle for policy change.

Leading up to that first Earth Day, mass production, synthetic materials, and disposability took off in the 1950s, and the effects of overconsumption quickly surfaced within the decade while much of industry remained unregulated. The “business as usual” went on as long as it worked for the private interest, depending on sales to consumers and the ability of the environment to sustain its operations.

But then, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring mainstreamed the hazards of the common pesticide DDT in 1962, which turned the public eye to agriculture. The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill (the largest oil spill in California waters to date) had enough of an economic impact on commercial and ocean-related industries that it is credited with galvanizing not only Earth Day, but the formation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency later that year.

When consumers become aware that companies profit at the expense of the health and safety of their families, wildlife, and the natural world, they stop buying. So, any progress made by way of regulation and product redesign since the first Earth Day has largely been to the degree business is compelled to make a change.

When that happens, the governments are that much more supported in public-serving legislation, but this process is slow and mired by bureaucracy, special interests, and inequities around the world. In the case of global movements for social, economic, and environmental revolution, the best interests of business often then lie in serving people, the planet, and ultimately, profits.

We are upon one of the most important, monumental Earth Days of our recent history, and it occurs in the midst of what too many brands have referred to as “uncertain times,” a situation many would argue as a direct result of the very thing driving the environmental movement: the interference of human activities in nature’s balanced system.

With confidence, I can say that every Earth Day from here till the centennial will set a new benchmark for what consumers expect from the brands they let into their lives, and how they depend on companies, rather than government mandates, to protect them.

Rather than driving consumption and externalizing negatives to create growth at the expense of a planet running dry, companies have an opportunity to take action and show the world why their business is essential — now and on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

Tom Szaky

Author Tom Szaky, founder/ CEO of TerraCycle and Loop, writes for Treehugger and Happi Magazine, published an award-winning book called The Future of Packaging: From Linear to Circular ” (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, February 2019) and is the star of the reality television show "Human Resources.” Szaky and TerraCycle have won more than 200 awards for entrepreneurship, sustainability and innovation.

 

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