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Earth Day: Balancing consumer passions and eco values

  • Story Highlights
  • First Earth Day was held in 1970 to promote values of environmentalism
  • Today Earth Day's network reaches over 17,000 organizations in 174 countries
  • Corporations have met public's growing interest in marking Earth Day
  • Worries that 'participation' has been replaced by 'shopping'
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By Matt Ford for CNN
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(CNN) -- To consume? Or not to consume?

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Since its inception in 1970 Earth Day has become much more commerical.

The debate is dividing environmentalists on Earth Day 2008.

The international day of eco-activism was born in a different era -- literally and metaphorically.

The first Earth Day was in 1970 and it still embodies all the qualities of the environmental movement at that time: angry, impassioned and positive. If it had a soundtrack it would have been by Jefferson Airplane and if it wore shoes they would be Birkenstocks.

But the world has changed, and while Earth Day still offers the same powerful mix of education and activism, the way people engage with the message has changed.

Marking the day through marketing

This year, as well as a whole host of official workshops and other activities, companies are offering ecologically conscious citizens the chance to shop their way to a better environment; an offer some environmentalists claim is contradictory to the fundamental tenets of sustainability.

Major retailers including Virgin, Banana Republic and Dell are all marketing special Earth Day offers to their customers, all promoting the message that we can consume with a clear -- or clearer - conscience.

Earth Day claim that their "international network reaches over 17,000 organizations in 174 countries, while the domestic program engages 5,000 groups and over 25,000 educators coordinating millions of community development and environmental protection activities throughout the year."

As more and more people become interested in marking Earth Day, it seems more and more corporations want to reflect their customer's new values in their marketing.

Plus, in an increasingly materialistic world many people seem to equate "participation" with "shopping" and the mall seems to have replaced the protest march in many people's minds -- and big business is there to meet them.

So, at Banana Republic one percent of sales from April 22-April 27 benefit the Trust for Public Land.

Virgin America and Method (that company that creates the hand soap provided on all Virgin America flights) are pledging $3 for every person flying with them on Earth Day for environmental restoration projects in California.

At Macy's customers can get 10-20 percent of most merchandise in return for making a $5 donation to the National Park Foundation.

Verizon Wireless is offering customers five tips on how they can celebrate and make the world a better place.

Wal-Mart is running a series of ads promoting their "Budget-friendly prices. Earth-friendly products."

Newsweek readers can turn the cover of the April 14 issue into an envelope they can use to send old plastic bags to Target and in return receive a reusable tote bag.

Most bizarrely, perhaps, Dell is offering to plant a tree for customers in MMRPG Second Life ("Each tree carries with it a link back to our Plant a Tree for Me page on Dell.com, where we hope residents will take the opportunity to participate and offset a bit of their carbon emissions in the real world," say Dell).

The perils of trying to buy a better world

The idea that we can buy our way out of environmental problems is ridiculous for British environmental campaigner George Monbiot, who has said green consumerism is becoming "a pox on the planet."

He blames the media's obsession with wealth and beauty for confusing the issue: "There is an inherent conflict between the aspirational lifestyle journalism which makes readers feel better about themselves and sells country kitchens and the central demand of environmentalism: that we should consume less."

"Uncomfortable as this is for both the media and its advertisers, giving things up is an essential component of going green... Ethical shopping is in danger of becoming another signifier of social status."

Others argue that companies have a definite role to play in the greening of our 21st century consumer society, but that they need to prove their interests are genuine.

"While it's important that major companies pay heed to events like Earth Day, it's equally important that any initiatives they are involved with are genuinely sustainable and not just about a quick press hit," says Clare Harris, editor of New Consumer magazine.

"We know many retailers want to be more sustainable in terms of their sourcing and social policy, but they have a long way to go to prove that they will remain committed over the long-term."

Using consumer power to force companies to change their ways is nothing new: boycotts and positive buying -- the favoring of ethical goods -- has been going on for some years.

It began with a boycott of South African goods co-ordinated by anti-apartheid groups in the 1980's, and was fine tuned by organizations like Fair Trade and the Body Shop in the 1990's.

This Earth Day the message seems to be: buy better, not more - and make sure those you shop with are green all the way to the core. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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