Insights at UBC Sauder

Does Earth Day still matter?

Posted 2017-04-20

For many people across North America, the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970 was their first introduction to environmentalism. However, in today’s eco-friendly society, where every organization touts its environmental awareness and commitment to sustainability, is the Earth Day brand still relevant?

We speak to UBC Sauder’s Professor Katherine White about whether we still need Earth Day.

According to the official Earth Day organizers, the creation of a new environmental paradigm is long overdue. Has the environmental movement lost the passion that the first Earth Day instilled in society?

I think it’s easy for people to become complacent around issues related to the environment – like resource depletion, environmental degradation and climate change – because the changes aren’t seen as being urgent and concrete. They’re gradual and some of these effects are hard to grasp, since they’re abstract in nature. I think the Earth Day organizers would do well to have clear goals and concrete issues to promote. I also think there’s value in engaging younger generations, including millennials, in imparting a desire for change.

There is a lot of evidence suggesting that when people care about something and they see the importance and urgency of the situation they will react. Recently, we saw people in the U.S. and all over the world take part in the 2017 Women’s March, partly in response to the inauguration of Donald Trump. This was no small feat of collective action—it was the largest single day of protest in U.S. history.

Would rebranding Earth Day improve the momentum of the movement?

We live on a unique and amazing planet and, as far as we know, there is no other one like it. There is no planet B. The Earth certainly doesn’t need a rebrand and I would say that Earth Day itself does not need a rebrand either. In my opinion, the Earth Day organizers are doing many of the right things. For example, they’re co-branding with the March for Science, and this year’s event is being linked to messages like #Resist, #NastyScientist and "Science not Silence." They’re linking the brand with memes that are current and relevant, and are promoting values that people are really passionate about. Some of our own research shows that getting people to link the cause with their own values makes them more likely to take more meaningful action.

Today, even oil companies tout environmental protection and awareness strategies in their marketing. How can Earth Day differentiate itself amongst the clutter?

Some savvy, future-thinking companies are making sincere changes towards mitigating climate change and other negative environmental impacts, but, in reality, many simply want to appear to care about environmental causes to create a positive impression on their stakeholders. Marketers call this “greenwashing.” If society as a whole had truly made a commitment to sustainability there would be no oil and gas companies at all. The purpose of Earth Day is to continue to increase awareness and remind people that there is always more that can be done.

Historically, the Earth Day movement has led to meaningful actions such as the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts. So there’s still hope. In the end, I think Earth Day needs to keep things fresh and relevant by connecting the day to issues that are current and topical.