On This Earth Day, A Little Less Anger

By: Laura Sutphen, Executive Director 

Calling all environmental activists!

Want to be let in on a little Earth Day secret? It’s ok not to be angry all the time. It’s also more impactful to create significant environmental change by working with the very companies you have campaigned against – because now more than ever before, you can help them change for the better.

Take it from someone who has been there and has seen the change firsthand.

I come from a long line of eco-activists: my aunt founded the first-ever Greenpeace radio show, in the 1960s my uncle was the first man ever on a Planned Parenthood Board of Directors, and my cousin is a well-known conservation biologist, to name a few. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, I also did my fair share of marching, yelling, campaigning and working for the social and environmental causes that would keep the Earth and humanity out of peril.

When my career was taking off, I was pretty biased about the clients I would and wouldn’t work with. It was more comfortable to feel like I was fighting the “good” fight.

Then in 1999, I started my own agency, focused on working on social and environmental causes. As I partnered with companies like eBay and Trend Micro to help them build their CSR initiatives, I found that there were a lot of people working on the “inside” who were wholly dedicated to creating social good, and there were quite a lot of brands who wanted to use their scale to be a good environmental citizen. But those brands didn’t know how to go about it.

My biggest lesson came in 2012 when I was asked to lead the PR agency team working on Walmart Sustainability. After one meeting around the table in Bentonville, I found that the way Walmart – and others of its size and impact – were able to make more progress on bringing organic food to more people, reducing emissions and getting to zero waste was far greater than I ever realized.

The activist in me started a new purpose that day – to help big companies make the biggest impact on environmental issues.

Times are also changing, which helps. Millennials and Gen Z are the most conscious-minded in recent generations. They are optimistic, discerning, and they are fundamentally changing the rules by requiring brands to be committed to social or environmental causes – or risk losing business. Consider these facts:

  • 91% of Millennial business leaders believe that while difficult, it will be possible to solve our climate crisis. The reason? Because they believe in the power of humanity.
  • 81% of Millennial and Gen Z consumers expect companies to make a public commitment to social purpose.
  • 91% of them will switch brands to one that shows it has a social purpose – and they stay loyal to those brands.

For an ‘old’ sustainability activist, this is great news.

You may call me a sellout or a softie, but I’ve learned that I’m helping to make a bigger impact on sustainability issues working from the inside out than maybe I ever did being on the fringe. I’m also able to parlay my old anger-driven passion into true, meaningful change, I can offer authentic straight talk to companies looking to improve their sustainability profile and I can be a useful guide for the younger generation forcing brands to be more environmentally conscious.

People have a right to know what a brand is doing to be a good environmental citizen. And we all have a responsibility to ask tough questions of brands – even when we’re furious with them for past poor decisions – because we can help make sure they are making a positive contribution that is not just talk, but focused on action. And these actions – to reduce greenhouse gasses (GHGs) in their operations, to recycle, to have an equitable supply chain – should be happening every day, not just on Earth Day.

So maybe this year, there’s a new kind of Earth Day commitment to make: one that turns anger into long-term sustainable good, working from the inside out.