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Editorial: Consumption for a cause?

When the first Earth Day was held in 1970, it was a low-key event by modern media and marketing standards, driven largely by events on college campuses and school grounds around the country.
In Rowan County, some Boyden High students donned masks to symbolize the dangers of air pollution while holding a mock burial for the internal combustion engine. In Chapel Hill, college students visited an ecological food store and attended environmental speeches; at Duke, a four-day “teach in” highlighted environmental problems, including the “population crisis” ó when the world had about 3 billion fewer citizens than today. N.C. Gov. Bob Scott listed water shortages, beach erosion, silted streams and roadside litter among the state’s environmental problems, concerns that remain relevant today.
Now, 39 years later, Earth Day has morphed into a global extravaganza. Events range from educational programs similar to those held back in 1970 to the Earth Day themed “Lord Salisbury” celebration promoted by Downtown Salisbury Inc. last Friday to encourage commerce while raising environmental consciousness.
In fact, the popularity of Earth Day events has raised concerns that an event founded on grass-roots environmentalism is in danger of becoming just another overhyped, over-commercialized holiday, with companies vying to establish themselves as eco-friendly brands. This week, for example, Banana Republic is donating 1 percent of sales to benefit the Trust for Public Land. Through Macy’s “Turn Over a New Leaf” campaign, shoppers who donate $5 to the National Park Foundation receive 10 percent or 20 percent off most merchandise this weekend. Even Wal-Mart, the behemoth of merchandisers, is touting its green side, running commercials that bear the tagline “Budget-friendly prices. Earth-friendly products” and promote T-shirts made of recycled bottles and organic coffee, among other things.
Back in 1970, some mistrustful souls viewed Earth Day as part of a radical plot by “tree huggers,” as if the green movement were the successor to communism’s pink and red. Now, environmentalism is so trendy, Barbie has her own green-accessories collection, and 28 percent of Americans say they have made “major changes” in their lifestyles to protect the environment. According to a Harris Interactive survey, almost two-thirds of Americans have reduced the energy used in their homes; 43 percent have purchased more energy-efficient appliances; 27 percent have started purchasing more locally grown food, and 21 percent have stopped drinking bottled water. Meanwhile, almost 200 million Americans report buying green products.
It’s encouraging that Americans are striving for more eco-friendly lifestyles in substantive ways such as buying more energy efficient appliances, choosing more recyclable products and promoting locally grown food. It’s also laudable that more corporations are striving to reduce their environmental footprint. But it’s a strange twist when environmentalism becomes yet another marketing strategy, as if we could somehow consume our way to sustainability. That’s a contradiction in terms, and not at all what the original Earth Day proponents had in mind back in 1970.

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