Green Thumb: Earth Day USA

Media sightings on the Greening of America

“Green” is the latest media buzzword in news, features, entertainment, and advertising. U.S. newspaper mentions of “going green” have jumped ten-fold since 2005, according to a LexisNexis search, and show no signs of slowing down. Green is still the new black, as the saying goes. But is it a fad that will fall out of fashion? Will it help or hurt the environmental movement? And is the omnipresent moniker used to signal true eco-awareness or just “greenwashing” to promote people and products?

The Observatory is on “green” watch. We thought Earth Day was a good day to start a new feature. We will shout out sightings of the greening of America and welcome your picks and comments. Here’s our rating system:

•THUMBS UP: Eco-friendly
•THUMBS DOWN: Greenwashing

THUMBS UP - Earth Day 2008. Green will be a legit buzzword today for people around the globe celebrating the thirty-eighth Earth Day. Earth Day Network, founded by some of the folks who organized the first event in 1970, and the Green Apple Festival have teamed up to launch “A Call for Climate” to get the public to make one million calls to members of Congress to push for strong climate-change legislation. Green Apple Festival got started early, with events Sunday in eight cities around the U.S., from New York City’s Central Park to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Participants were urged to “walk, bike, row or take public transportation” to minimize their carbon footprint.

The biggest event was set for the National Mall in Washington, D.C., but Mother Nature got in the way. According to The Earth Times, torrential rain and lightning put an early end to the D.C. event, which had scheduled an obligatory army of eco-friendly politicians, like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and entertainers like actor Edward Norton and Grammy winner of the Black Eyed Peas.

The Green Apple Festival’s events got lots of advance plugs from places like ABC News, The New York Times, and USA Today (which also appears as a sponsor on the Festival Web site).

USA Today continued its coverage yesterday in its Life section with “Shades of Green,” a feature that included stories about comic strips focusing on Earth Day (“What’s green and funny and read all over?”) and actor Ed Begley living the “green life.” Stories today include how to develop a “truly green thumb;” the “eco-adventures” of actresses Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Kate Hudson, and eco-friendly beauty products and clothing. Not much policy here.

A skeptical look at how Americans like to talk green but not necessarily do something about it is found in The Oregonian: “Earth to Us: Talking green isn’t the same as living green.” It’s a sane antidote to the hyped-up, corporate nature of Earth Day 2008. An even more pointed essay by Hank Stuever in today’s Washington Post asks, “What Killed Earth Day? Too Much Fuss and No Bother.” He says that “celebrity piety” and “corporate baloney” were mainly to blame, concluding that, “to save the Earth, Earth Day had to go.”

CARBON NEUTRAL - Turning Over a New Leaf. Corporate America is playing a big role in promoting Earth Day (of course, burnishing the businesses’ own green images as well). The biggest corporate sponsor of the Green Apple Festival is JPMorgan Chase, which is promising to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and add “green bank branches.”

Department stores are also getting in on the act. The Macy’s chain launched an Earth Day environmental campaign (kind of an Earth week, really) called “Turn Over a New Leaf.” In a prominent, full-page ad in Sunday’s New York Times, the company announced that the first hundred customers in each of its stores today will get a sapling “to inspire awareness… Plant the tree, grow the concept.” It also has a national eco-sweepstakes with a chance to win a Ford Escape hybrid or a vacation to Yosemite, Grand Canyon, or Yellowstone national parks. Reusable totes are selling for $3.95, with $1 of that going toward the National Park Foundation. Macy’s says it also will reduce energy use, adopt renewable energy sources, consume less paper, and buy more recycled goods.

Macy’s flagship store in NYC’s Herald Square took out its own ad asking customers to “go green with eco-events for Earth Day.” That includes recycling used cell phones; supporting MillionTreesNYC; cooking demos from “The Go Green in East Harlem Cookbook”; implementing recycling tips from the city sanitation department (including a worm bin that shows live worms turning food scraps into compost); and attending panels on green investing and “eco-friendly living in NYC.” For the kids there’s a photo op and sing-along of “I Love Trash” with Oscar the Grouch of Sesame Street fame! (Can’t miss that.)

On the religion beat, there is hopeful (especially when American politics are taken into account) news in the article “‘Green’ Faith aiding the Earth,” from the Stamford Advocate in Connecticut. It is a look at how religious leaders are embracing environmental issues (this year, the Vatican included pollution in a list of seven new sins). In a similar vein, from The State in Columbia, South Carolina comes “A green dream: Pedal power from the Pulpit.” Members of the local Unitarian Universalist Fellowship are having a “Bike-In” to get to church.

THUMB’S DOWN - Bloomies. Bloomingdale’s took a Green Lite approach in its short, Sunday Times ad, “Get in a Green Mood.” In language whose superficiality insults its customers, the store asks: “Are you ready to help save the planet and get a new denim look?” If the answer is yes, you can celebrate Earth Day by meeting Rogan Gregory, co-creator of Loomstate denim, at Bloomie’s premier NYC store on 59th Street. “Plan your green style statement during informal modeling of the brand’s organic fashions.” Hmmm. Maybe not. Or perhaps I’ll do something that’s actually meaningful, like planting one of Macy’s trees.

In the equally innocuous category is a story headlined, “Pet owners find ways to go green,” from The Associated Press. Apparently, is one of at least a dozen online retailers specializing in eco-friendly pet products. Want a dog bed from recycled materials and low-impact dyes? At $120, it’s a top seller. Really.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Cristine Russell is a CJR contributing editor and the immediate past-president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter.