By DINA CAPPIELLO Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle Environment Writer RESOURCES
Earth Day, which began 33 years ago today as a nationwide rally to clean up the planet, has become the latest victim of the corporate takeover.
From Houston to Hong Kong, companies are seeking to polish their green image by sponsoring Earth Day events, which grass-roots groups and cities struggle to fund.
This year, garbage haulers, coffee companies and even missile manufacturers are underwriting Earth Day festivities, a public relations strategy that has divided environmentalists and led to protests of Earth Day itself.
While some in advocacy circles consider the commercialization of Earth Day "greenwashing" (think Earth Day Inc. or McEarth Day), others, including the day's founder -- former Sen. Gaylord Nelson -- consider the melding of Wall Street with Mother Earth proof of the celebration's success.
"We are seeing more and more of it," said Eliza Barclay, a spokeswoman for the Earth Day Network, which coordinates events held by more than 800 organizations. Despite the trend, only a fraction receive corporate donations.
But "there are definitely two camps on this topic," Barclay said. "There are the anti-World Trade Organization groups that look at any capitalistic agenda to be bad. On the other hand, there are groups that need funding and are hard up."
Houston Earth Day 2003, held this past Saturday by the Rice Environmental Club and the Citizens' Environmental Coalition, was made possible by a $15,000 donation by Waste Management.
The Houston-based company operates 293 landfills in North America, 146 recycling centers and has been named responsible for numerous hazardous waste sites. In 1986, the company sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to get permission to burn toxic waste on ships at sea -- not exactly the most sterling environmental record, some say.
"Waste Management sponsoring Earth Day is similar to Enron sponsoring a seminar on corporate responsibility," said John Stauber, author of Toxic Sludge is Good for You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry, which examined how companies disguised poor environmental records beneath glitzy green advertising and marketing.
Alesha Herrera, founder and chair of Houston Earth Day, said she solicited help from Waste Management because she needed money, and because the corporation had a commitment to ensuring the event stayed true to its mission -- environmental education.
"We try to do our part to show that we are an environmentally sensitive company," said Debbie Figueras of Waste Management.
In 2001, Herrera and others in the city's environmental community pulled out of the annual Earth Day concert put on by KRBE and Enron because they were concerned with its focus.
"Corporate interest and corporate money does a lot of bad things these days," Herrera said. "But we can do a lot of good things. Yes, Waste Management has had its problems. Every big company has. What we were hoping to get from this is a partnership that is local."
The same thinking led Tucson Earth Day 2003 to make Raytheon Missile Systems, the largest private employer in southern Arizona, its main sponsor for the ninth year in a row. The festival is also backed by the local electric company, Home Depot and Texas Instruments, which donated between $500 and $2,000 each.
The corporate support prompted environmental groups to protest the Earth Day parade this year and to launch their own event for 2004.
But for organizers, the decision was necessary for the festival to go on.
"All of these people, for whatever sin they may be accomplishing, feel this is a worthwhile cause," said Susan Green, coordinator to Tucson Earth Day.
Nelson, the founding father of the first Earth Day in 1970, agrees. The former governor and senator from Wisconsin, who is a staunch conservationist, said that even the first Earth Day had corporate support, from the baking soda company Arm & Hammer.
"If 33 years had gone by and nobody wanted to be identified with Earth Day it would have been a complete flop. Now everybody, even polluters, want to be identified with Earth Day and that means the whole idea has been a success," Nelson said.
And that success is growing, as is the controversy it generates.
In 2001, several advocacy groups pulled out of Chicago's Earth Day Festival because it was partly backed by corporations that owned nuclear and coal-fired power plants.
In Hong Kong, Sony, Shell and Epson helped bankroll Earth Day 2001 when government funding for the day fell through.
And in Louisville, Ky., in 2000, environmentalists protesting sponsorship by Louisville Gas & Electric Co. held an alternative festival. Last year, the event was funded by Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky.
The corporate funding of the eco-celebration even extends to college campuses, where Earth Day sprung from the energy of the anti-Vietnam War movement.
In 2002, HSBC Bank USA underwrote the Earth Day festivities at Buffalo State College, luring nationally renowned speakers.
"Earth Day has become like mom and apple pie," said Amy Fried, an associate professor of political science at the University of Maine. In 1996, Fried surveyed individuals in 18 environmental groups across the country about their attitudes toward Earth Day. She found that environmentalists were most divided on the issue of corporate sponsorship and what being good to the environment means.
"You can print up bags at McDonald's and say you love the Earth and recycle," Fried said. "But it doesn't mean you support policies" that change the planet.
Even Earth Day Network is guilty of dipping into corporate coffers. The organization is working with Office Depot to provide water testing kits to schools. And for three weeks around Earth Day, its logo with the question "Who says you can't change the world?" will be wrapped around every Starbucks coffee cup.
"When it comes down to it, the money has to come from somewhere," said Sara Doss, the administrative director of the Citizens' Environmental Coalition. "They are trying to change the way they do business. We all pollute when it comes down to it.":