What comes to mind when you imagine celebrating Earth Day this year on April 22? Paying a premium price for a case of Nestlé’s Eco-Shape water bottles? Drinking “sustainably sourced” coffee from McDonald’s McCafé menu? Probably not. But as more and more people look for ways to reduce their ecological footprint, Nestlé and other transnational corporations have turned Earth Day into a corporate “greenwashing” bonanza.
It’s more than ironic, given how these very same corporations have long lobbied against the environmental protections created following the first Earth Day in 1970. Not to mention how many of these corporations have been cheering as the current U.S. administration dismantles these protections. But on April 22, these Big Polluters will roll out a green swath of corporate PR designed to convince us that they are part the solution to the climate crisis.
Here’s why we’re not buying it.
The roots of Earth Day
In 1969, two major events put pollution into news headlines across the country. A massive oil spill off the California coast near Santa Barbara killed thousands of birds and sea creatures in the same year that the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire due to industrial pollution. In response to these disasters and growing public concern about the environment, students and activists organized the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Students in thousands of universities, high schools, and primary schools across the country took part in teach-ins. The largest rally took place in New York City’s Union Square, where tens of thousands of people called for environmental reform.
This radical action calling out corporate polluters and government inaction had lasting effects. Later that year, President Nixon and Congress created the Environmental Protection Agency and passed the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.
The environmental movement that spurred these legislative acts has resulted in remarkable progress in some ways. The decades following the first Earth Day saw a reduction in industrial pollution, cleaned-up waterways, the regulation of water usage, and the development of renewable energy sources. “Reduce, reuse, recycle” became a slogan for many. Electric cars came on the market. Carrying reusable water bottles is the norm on many college campuses, at the gym, and in National Parks.
Big Polluters continue polluting
But scratch the surface, and you can see that the corporations driving the environmental and climate crisis did as much as they could to continue their destructive business practices.
As Big Polluters faced increased environmental regulation, they sited their chemical plants, landfills, and factories in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods. Exploiting and exacerbating racist systems that devalue the lives and voices of people of color, these corporations continue to endanger communities around the country. The powerful environmental justice movement rose up to challenge this environmental racism, led by groups like Deep South Center for Environmental Justice.
Also during this time, Exxon’s scientists discovered that their product was causing climate change. As a response, the corporation spent the following decades and millions of dollars casting doubt on climate science. And the entire fossil fuel industry inserted itself into the U.N. climate treaty process to halt any potential progress on global climate policy.
Reject false solutions
Almost five decades after the first Earth Day, people around the world are losing their homes, livelihoods, and lives to climate change. And the very corporations responsible for our planetary disaster use this day to position themselves as leaders in environmental innovation and indispensable “stakeholders” in climate policy.
For example, Shell promoted an employee beach cleanup in Washington State on Earth Day last year, while BP tripled its advertising budget during the weeks following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.
On Earth Day this year, there will undoubtedly be a tsunami of social media and blog posts from fossil fuel corporations. They’ll give us tips on energy efficiency, tell us how to reduce our carbon footprints, or post pictures of their employees riding bikes to work.
And, in a week, those very same corporations will be wreaking havoc at the U.N. climate treaty meetings. As government delegates meet to write rules for international climate policy that could unlock a sustainable future, they will be facing enormous pressure from the fossil fuel industry to do just the opposite
So this Earth Day, as Big Polluters and other transnational corporations ramp up their greenwashing tactics, raise your voice for real climate impact. Kick Big Polluters out of climate policy!