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Earth Day and the Sustainability Industry

Posted by: GreenCE Sustainable Design and Construction // Sustainable Content Creator at GreenCE

Earth Day and the Sustainability Industry - 1

I was a sophomore in high school, in the early 90s, when I first heard about Earth Day. I jumped on the tree hugging movement gladly, and adopting the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” phrase as my mantra. I frequented a shop in downtown Portland, OR, that sold earth friendly items, many that had phrases or images intended to encourage others to save the earth (or at least antagonize the ones who didn’t want to!) My favorite item was a t-shirt made of sustainably sourced, organic cotton with a screen-printed image of the Earth on it, and the phrase, “Save Me Before It’s Too Late”. Before it was cool to ditch the plastic straws and bags, I was getting in people’s faces to tell them how bad plastic is. I shopped at a well-known natural cosmetic store found in most malls, thinking I was saving the world by purchasing over-priced, but wonderful, cosmetics that were made by the “world’s most ethical and sustainable global business” (the fact that the company is still going strong and that I still love the products does speak to their values and commitment to bettering the world). I did everything I could do in my state of being a teenager to save the earth. Earth Day was my introduction to sustainability and environmentalism. But I just recently learned that Earth Day wasn’t a new concept back in the 90s, like I naively thought.

Earth Day was relegated to the tree huggers and hippies of the world when it began in 1970. It was founded by Gaylord Nelson, who was a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin at the time. He witnessed the ruin from the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California and wanted to somehow take the same level of energy poured into the anti-war movement and pour it into saving the earth. At the time, public understanding of air and water pollution was growing, and he felt it was an opportunity to encourage the government to wake up and pay attention. The first year, it was called a “national teach-in on the environment”, and according to, “On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment in massive coast-to-coast rallies. Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment. Groups that had been fighting against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife suddenly realized they shared common values. Earth Day 1970 achieved a rare political alignment, enlisting support from Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, city slickers and farmers, tycoons and labor leaders. By the end of that year, the first Earth Day had led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean AirClean Water, and Endangered Species Acts. This is how Earth Day functioned, for two decades. But then as the 90s were approaching, Denis Hayes was asked to organize another big push for Earth Day, except on a global level this time. Two-hundred million people across 141 countries were reached in on Earth Day 1990, boosting worldwide recycling efforts and opening up the opportunity for the 1992 UN Earth Summit.

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