Is sustainability part of your corporate social responsibility commitment? This year’s Earth Day festivities mark the 49th year of the global awareness event and brings into focus a pressing concern for all Earthlings—from CEOs to regular Joes. To the point where a joke is perhaps the best way to sum up what Earth Day is about.
Q: What did Earth say to the other planets?
A: Get a life.
It may come as a surprise to learn how big an event the first Earth Day was. On 22 April 1970, an estimated 20 million people across the United States took part in peaceful demonstrations calling for environmental reform. In what has been widely cited as the launch of the modern environmental movement, the first Earth Day spawned groundbreaking U.S. laws:
- Clean Air Act
- Clean Water Act
- Safe Drinking Water Act
- Endangered Species Act
Europe also moved forward with a range of environmental laws within a few years of the first Earth Day, and the official EU website notes, “Green growth is at the heart of EU policy to ensure that Europe’s economic growth is environmentally sustainable.”
The Earth Day Network, which grew out of the inaugural event, went global in 1990. EDN now works with more than 50,000 partners in 193 countries, and more than one billion people participate in Earth Day activities each year.
The theme this year is Protect Our Species (from extinction), which touches on all manner of environmental concerns, from localized pesticide use to global climate change. People across the world will march, sign petitions, meet with elected officials, plant trees, and clean up their towns and roads. Corporations and governments will make pledges and announce sustainability measures.
Spotlighting CSR and ESG
While Earth Day is the largest civic observance in the world, it also gives the business world plenty to think about.
For one thing, companies might deem it timely to reassess their corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies and ethics strategies, or lack thereof. Due to many developments over the past decade or so, these may extend to international laws and the authority of various organizations that take voluntary CSR self-regulation beyond individual companies to industry-wide initiatives and mandatory schemes at regional, national and even transnational levels.
There’s also the matter of growing investment in sustainable and ethical companies, and the three central factors in measuring it: environmental, social and governance (ESG). When considering CSR and ESG, companies might like to note that Earth Day has always been of great appeal to young people. In the U.S. in 1970, about 2,000 colleges and universities, and 10,000 primary and secondary schools, took part in the inaugural event. Very recently, of course, it is young people, including very young people, who have passionately seized the initiative in driving the call for genuine, committed action on climate change.
Millennials prioritize sustainability—and the brands that support it
By young people, read: consumers and investors of the not too distant future. To a significant degree, the millennials, or Gen Y—the children of the baby boomers, born between the early 1980s and early 2000s—have arrived already.
“Millennials are already coming into their own as an up-and-coming economic powerhouse, which means companies that embody their compassionate views have an opportunity to build a strong relationship on the ground floor,” says the global measurement and data analytics company Nielsen in its recent report Unpacking the Sustainability Landscape.
“When it comes to purchase behavior, it has become abundantly clear that consumers care. In fact, 73 percent of global consumers [adults of any age] say they would definitely or probably change their consumption habits to reduce their impact on the environment. As consumers become increasingly aware of what they put in and on their bodies, they are also interested in buying—and sometimes paying more for—products that simultaneously help the environment. In fact, 41 percent of consumers from around the world say they are highly willing to pay more for products that contain all-natural or organic ingredients.”
In surveys Nielsen conducted in the U.S. in 2017, 83 percent of millennials (aged 21-34) said it was extremely or very important to them that companies implemented programs to improve the environment. This compared to 66 percent of Gen X (35-49) and 62 percent of baby boomer (50-64) respondents. Similarly, 75 percent of the millennials said they would definitely or probably change any purchase/consumption habits to reduce their impact on the environment, compared to 46 percent of Gen Xers and 34 percent of baby boomers.
While the breakdown of responses to such questions varies in different parts of the world, there is clearly an ever-increasing need for companies to address CSR and ESG, to monitor for risk on environmental issues, and to thoroughly assess the threat of reputational and financial risk if they fall short.
It could be said that when it comes to Earth Day 2019 and its relevance to the world of business, Protect Our Species refers to more than the survival of threatened animals of the furred and feathered kind.
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