Is Earth Day the New Christmas?

As More Marketers Pile On, Consumerism May Eclipse Spirit of Event

By Published on .

NEW YORK ( -- It's nearly Earth Day: Time to consume more to save the planet.
Newsweek subscribers can actually fashion the cover of the April 14 issue into an envelope to send plastic bags to Target in return for a reusable tote bag.
Newsweek subscribers can actually fashion the cover of the April 14 issue into an envelope to send plastic bags to Target in return for a reusable tote bag.

As April 22 approaches, marketers of all stripes are bombarding consumers with green promotions and products designed to get them to buy more products -- some eco-friendly, some not so much. And while that message seems to contrast with the event's intent, the oxymoron seems to have been lost on marketers jumping on the Earth Day bandwagon in record numbers. This year it seems that just about everyone has found a way to attach themselves to what is fast becoming a marketing holiday that barely resembles the grass-roots event founded in 1970.

"This month I've definitely seen a lot of companies that I never would have associated with green popping up," said Steven Addis, CEO of Addis Creson, a branding firm. "Companies are saying, 'We need something to green ourselves up, so let's ... sponsor Earth Day.' ... It's really now in this hype curve, and hopefully we're getting toward the top, so we can start having some fallout."

Sustainable for one day
Indeed, many have begun to worry that as nearly every company out there paints themselves green, they are losing touch with Earth Day's reason for being. "My concern is that some companies just view [Earth Day] as a marketing event, like Thanksgiving or Christmas," said Larry Light, chairman-CEO of Arcature, a management consulting firm. "Then they've fulfilled their obligation for the rest of the year. The whole issue of sustainability means that a commitment also has to be sustainable. If it's only for one day, then it's a marketing event."

To be fair, many companies are already looking beyond the month of April by embracing comprehensive sustainability programs. But, regardless, the fact remains that as Earth Day approaches, consumers will find it difficult to avoid green messaging.

Consumers can, for example, shop at Banana Republic, where 1% of sales from April 22 through April 27 benefit the Trust for Public Land. Or they can participate in Macy's "Turn Over A New Leaf" campaign by making a $5 donation to the National Park Foundation. In exchange, customers receive 10% or 20% off most merchandise the weekend of April 26.

Newsweek subscribers can actually fashion the cover of the April 14 issue into an envelope to send plastic bags to Target in return for a reusable tote bag. Then there's Toys 'R' Us' launch of "enviro-friendly playthings," Sweet Leaf Tea's missive to "Don't just think green. ... Drink green" and Fairmont Hotels' introduction of "Lexus Hybrid Living Suites." These days even Barbie has a green-accessories collection.

Seeing green
Major marketing dollars are behind these efforts. Experts concede it's difficult to quantify the amount of money spent on green marketing, but, collectively, it's clear companies are spending tens of millions.

This month, Wal-Mart is running seven national 30-second spots, created by the Martin Agency. The commercials, bearing the tagline "Budget-friendly prices. Earth-friendly products," promote T-shirts made of recycled bottles and organic coffee, among other things.

In addition to charity shopping days, Macy's campaign involves giveaways of saplings and reusable totes, promotes eco-friendly merchandise and includes TV and newspaper advertising, as well as mention in the retailer's direct-mail catalog and in-store signage.

Clorox is also flexing its green muscles this month. Its Brita brand's integration with NBC's "The Biggest Loser" has resulted in the elimination of plastic water bottles from the show's campus. And with the season finale slated for Earth Day, the brand is planning plenty of in-store marketing around the TV program.

"It's not black or white," said Mr. Addis, of the Earth Day conundrum. "It's great that people are paying attention. It's great that companies are starting to do something, but what really drives me crazy is when it's used as a vehicle of greenwashing. I call it the 95-5 rule. Five percent of somebody's business is green, but 95% of their PR is green."

Wolves in green clothing
And that seems to be the sentiment among many experts, who recognize that separating the good from the bad is a tricky endeavor.

"There are some companies that are still feeling their way around and probably greenwashing to some extent," said Ken Rother, president-chief operating officer of Tree Hugger and VP-operations of Planet Green Interactive. "This is the problem of our times, but anything that raises awareness is good."

Experts said that, generally, initiatives that raise money for a specific cause or increase awareness, such as Macy's "Turn Over a New Leaf" campaign, are in keeping with the Earth Day message. However, those companies that play up tenuous links to Earth Day simply to drive sales are contributing to the din and confusing consumers.

The Federal Trade Commission has begun to respond to concerns about that. It announced in November it would begin reviewing its green-marketing guides, last updated in 1998, this year. The move comes a year ahead of schedule, in response to the increase in green-advertising claims, the FTC said.
Wal-Mart: Ads tout recycled materials.
Wal-Mart: Ads tout recycled materials.

But until the FTC updates its guidelines, the green-marketing landscape is akin to the Wild, Wild West. Anybody, it seems, can claim the mantle of green, if it suits them.

"The combination of indiscriminate messaging, where everybody has a green message [and some are] flat out greenwashing, and people who are clearly not friends of the environment portraying themselves as that is leading a lot of people to be a little more skeptical," said Alex Steffen, executive editor of World Changing, a sustainability blog.

Saving the world ... yawn
And, if skepticism among consumers increases, one concern is that they could stop paying attention altogether. "Consumers can see through messaging that is not backed with a longer-term commitment to green," said David Wigder, senior VP- Digitas and author of the blog Marketing Green. "Moreover, if consumers are bombarded with too much messaging, they may simply tune it out."

Maureen O'Connor, publisher of sustainability blog Alternative Consumer, said the number of green pitches hitting her inbox is just one indication of the amount of noise in the market. "There are so many wannabes, it's frightening," she said. "There is such a proliferation of PR efforts that are over the top."

That is leading some to declare Earth Day an overcommercialized event that has lost the cachet that made it so successful in the first place.

"Earth Day's usefulness has passed," said Mr. Steffen. "The idea that we're going to direct our attention to the planet for a day or a week ... is not a sufficient response anymore. An awful lot of people view Earth Day as the time to express the idea that they are sympathetic to change. We need to move from being sympathetic to change to actually changing things."

Beware the Bloggers

As consumers become increasingly skeptical of green marketing messages, there's no better forum than the blogosphere.

Bloggers, with their witty posts and reputation for carefully vetting information, are fast becoming the most trusted resource for truly green products and promotions. As David Binkowski, senior VP-director of word-of-mouth marketing at Manning Selvage & Lee put it, "[It] better not just be window dressing, because bloggers fact-check everything."

A recent report from Nielsen Online ranked Tree Hugger, World Changing, The Oil Drum and Alternative Consumer among the most popular sustainability blogs on the web. And all are far from ragtag operations.

Motley crew
The sites boast a mix of activists, scholars and experts in topics as varied as green building, energy and nutrition. Some came to the cause early -- one of Alternative Consumer's bloggers is Zach McGrath, a high-school junior -- but others, such as Tree Hugger's Kenny Luna, turned green more recently in response to climatic events.

Tree Hugger is the largest of the environmental blogs, with 10 staffers and more than 50 regular contributors around the world. Its founder, Graham Hill, dabbled in fashion, viral e-mail and plant-based air filters, among other things, before launching the site in 2004. He's also the guy that designed the ceramic cup that looks like a paper cup and reads, "We are happy to serve you."

According to Ken Rother, president-chief operating officer, as one of the more influential green sites out there, Tree Hugger aims to take advertising that adds as much value to the site as the content. Advertisers include Wal-Mart, Simple Shoes, Envirolet composting toilets and a band, The Weepies.

Pitching in
But even a smaller organization, such as Alternative Consumer, has eight regular contributors. Founded in 2007 by Maureen O'Connor, a native New Yorker, the site takes more of a lifestyle approach to green topics. Recent posts highlight hemp skirts and outdoor furniture made from recycled milk jugs, detergent containers and the like. Advertising, meanwhile, runs the gamut from smaller green companies touting plastic-free diapers and eco-friendly dog sweaters to national brands such as GE, Sun Chips and Hush Puppies.

The nonprofit blog World Changing counts 150 contributors around the globe, with 25 regulars and five staff members. Its ranks include writers in Stockholm, Shanghai, Mumbai and Las Vegas, as well as one "Global Nomad." The Oil Drum, which carries only barebones Google ads, is slightly more mysterious. Its writers are largely anonymous and include "Prof. Goose," a professor in the social sciences, and "Heading Out," a faculty member in an energy production discipline.

-- Natalie Zmuda and Michael Bush
In this article:
Most Popular