NOTE: This story was originally published on April 17, 2015.
This year, Kristen Bell is doing it—as are the stars of Disney’s Monkey Kingdom.
Bell—that’s ‘Anna’ from Frozen—is on YouTube these days pitching Neutrogena Naturals’ disposable makeup remover wipes as a way to save water and contribute to conservation through its #wipeforwater campaign. Meanwhile, Disney is promising a donation to wildlife conservation with each ticket purchased for Monkey Kingdom, a live-action feature that tells the story of a family of simians moving “from the real jungle to the urban jungle.”
Neutrogena and Disney are just two of the many companies that will take a moment of your time this Earth Day to introduce you to the greener side of their businesses.
The environmental values highlighted on Earth Day, which began in 1970 to raise awareness about environmental damage that many of its organizers blamed on large corporations, is now embraced by big business, according to Vanitha Swaminathan, a professor of marketing at the University of Pittsburgh Katz School of Business.
“Consumers are highly concerned with their environment,” Swaminathan says. “And if you think about it from a corporation’s standpoint, corporations often want to appear relevant to consumers concerns. And what better way to do that than by connecting some part of their branding to issues consumers really care about—like the environment, communities and diversity in the workplace.”
But Swaminathan says there is a danger for companies who try to oversell their green credentials.
“Something that companies have to watch out for is being viewed as hypocrites.”
WATCH: Kristen Bell hawks Neutrogena Naturals
A classic example is the response from BP to the gulf oil spill. The company spent millions of dollars trying to highlight the gulf’s recovery and its own cleanup efforts, but many people weren’t buying it.
“I remember looking at the ads myself and thinking ‘Who’s really going to buy this?’” says Swaminathan. “We’re savvy consumers, we understand what’s really going on here.”
Swaminathan says companies should avoid promoting any Earth Day effort unless it’s something they do on the other 364 days of the year. And Ben Schmitt of the Pittsburgh marketing firm Z Brand Group also says sincerity is key.
“Don’t promote it unless you’re really doing something that’s seriously helping the environment,” he says. “If you’re not, and people figure it out, it’s going to bring down your company, your narrative, your story.”
Social media has made it easy to pick out companies whose Earth Day messages don’t jibe with their environmental records.
LISTEN: “Has Earth Day Gone Corporate?”
Joel Makower is CEO of Greenbiz Group, which helps big companies become more sustainable. He was a senior in high school in Oakland, California during the first Earth Day in 1970.
“Someone had brought a beat up car as a symbol of what were seen as cars’ evilness,” he says. “You’d never imagine this today, but the jocks were just hitting this thing with a sledgehammer.”
Today, it’s more likely to see a company like GM sponsoring a stream clean-up than getting their products symbolically smashed by teenagers. Makower says that doesn’t necessarily mean Earth Day has gotten too corporate.
“It’s not ‘Earth Day brought to you by Miller or Coors,’” he says. “This is Earth Day going back to its roots as a teach-in kind of moment.”
In that spirit, some companies will sponsor litter pick-ups or encourage employees to walk or bike to work for a day. Others, however, will keep a low-key profile on Earth Day. Makower says if General Motors, for instance, were to build an ad-campaign around its efforts to get to zero-waste at its factories, it could draw the wrong kind of attention.
“They risk getting Greenpeace or Sierra Club saying ‘How dare you talk about landfills when you make internal combustion engines,'” Makower says. “The reality is, if you’re a company trying to be seen as environmentally responsible, no green deed goes unpunished.”
Even so, many companies will be trying hard this Earth Day to subtly remind its customers of just how green they are. In fact, there is a whole industry that caters to this kind of green messaging.
“A typical week for us leading up to Earth Day could be a number of orders,” says Heidi Reimer-Epp, who runs Botanical PaperWorks in Winnipeg, Canada. The company makes seed-paper used on wedding invitations and promotional materials. She sells a lot of seed-paper to companies trying to communicate their eco-friendly values on Earth Day. “We could have 50,000 coasters going to a special event on Earth Day, and at same time, we might be doing a 1,000 business cards for a lawn company.”
Reimer-Epp says she’s aware of the possibilities for companies to be called out for ‘greenwashing’—which is why her company lists its sources for recycled paper on its website.
“I think that an important part in not doing greenwashing is being transparent,” she says.
Greenbiz Group’s Joel Makower agrees companies need to be transparent about what they are doing to become more sustainable. But he says they shouldn’t be blamed for using Earth Day as a marketing opportunity.
“There are a lot of people who assume pretty much any enviro statement that comes out of a company is a greenwash,” Makower says. “But if you look at the definition of ‘greenwash’—in terms of saying one thing and doing another, and pretending to do something we’re not, it’s us. It’s the consumers.”
He says most people aren’t crafting five-year plans to go carbon neutral or consume less water over their kitchen tables at night.
“How many consumers do you know who say ‘I recycle,’ or ‘I drive a hybrid car?’ But it’s really just marginal. We want companies to be genuine, [but] we’re not setting a very good example.”