Friday was Earth Day! And we were absolutely inundated with press releases announcing that every corporation under the Sun is doing something ~*~special~*~ to mark the occasion. There’s no question that this holiday, which started from radical beginnings, has largely become the purview of greenwashing and PR spin.
But some companies really have some balls in the ways they choose to “celebrate.” Big polluters, plastic wasters, dark money launderers — it seems that there’s no barrier in getting into the corporate Earth Day game these days. Here’s some of our favourite irony-laden, hypocritical, and just plain weird corporate campaigns.
We’re really starting off with a bang here. In 2019, Koch Industries posted a video on Facebook celebrating its company’s “pollution prevention practices.” (The video was technically for International Earth Day, which is in March, not U.S. Earth Day, but the irony is so dark that we’re gonna let it get the top spot anyway.) In the video, shots of a family exploring a beautiful forest by a lake are set to up-tempo music, with title cards celebrating the strides that the manufacturing giant has made in eliminating production-related “waste” from its facilities (no specifics on what kind of “waste” the company is talking about here).
“You love the Earth,” the video’s title cards read. “So do we.” OK!
The chairman of Koch Industries is Charles Koch, who, along with his late brother David, used some of the fortune earned from his family’s company to become heavily involved in right-wing activism. The Koch brothers are perhaps the two people who have most significantly shaped the climate denial machine of the past two decades, spending billions of dollars over two decades funding dark money groups that deliberately delayed climate action and promoted fossil fuel interests.
Strangely enough, none of that is mentioned in the video. Loving the Earth by spending millions so that fossil fuel companies can keep polluting sure is a weird flex, though.
Basically every major oil company has done some sort of pandering for Earth Day on a national or local level, but nothing hits like this one. ExxonMobil, one of the most polluting companies of all time that also waged a decades-long campaign of climate change misinformation, has publicly celebrated its supposed eco-friendliness. In a video released last year, ExxonMobil profiles its employees across the world who, it claims, are “work[ing] tirelessly to reduce emissions and move towards a low-carbon future.” Sure, ok.
While the french fry giant has done its share of pandering to eco-conscious customers for Earth Day throughout the years, this vintage play set of plastic shovels, bird feeders, terrariums, and binoculars made for Earth Day in 1993 really triggered my nostalgia. The play set’s accompanying activity booklet has a simple message emblazoned across the top: “PLEASE PUT LITTER IN ITS PLACE.”
There’s a particular irony in mass-producing plastic toys, all which came wrapped in single-use plastic, for a holiday to celebrate the planet. These were distributed out the drive-through window in the early 90s, when oil and plastic companies were still successfully convincing the public that recycling works and that garbage is wholly our responsibility, not theirs. A simpler time! Of course, global plastic production has since shot up from 137 million tonnes in 1993 to 381 million tonnes in 2015.
McDonald’s announced just last year that it would phase out plastic toys in all its Happy Meals, with the goal of completing the global overhaul by 2025. Apparently, the company said, this change alone will be the equivalent of 650,000 people not using plastic for a year. So, uh, they were producing a lot of plastic in the intervening decades between when this playset was birthed into existence and now.
Ah, Jeff Bezos, so desperate to be our Climate King, despite his company illegally firing employees demanding climate justice and continuing to work with fossil fuel companies. Amazon has busted out a bunch of bullshit initiatives over the years for Earth Day, and this month is no exception. At the start of April, the company put up a whole post featuring its various sustainability initiatives, ranging from the genuinely laudable (powering its operations with renewables) to the greenwash-y (putting a vague green label on products including… disposable makeup wipes?).
But one of this year’s really tickled my funny bone. You can now order your home robot Alexa to plant a tree, and she’ll chip in money (from your account, natch) to a charity to plant one tree, tapping into the favourite climate solution of big businesses and anti-climate-action politicians that helps them distract from the real decarbonising work that needs to be done.
Sure, this is a company where workers reportedly weren’t allowed to leave a warehouse during dangerous weather last year. But hey, Alexa can help with the whole planting tree thing! Maybe it’ll make customers ignore the fact that Amazon’s carbon footprint rose 19% in 2020 and 15% the year before that.
You have to hand it to the King for this 2015 post. I’m struck by its simple, awesome beauty. No half-hearted attempts to greenwash over the fact that beef is a huge source of methane emissions or paltering moves to customers about planting trees or saving animals: just a flat ketchup-and-cheese Earth on a beef patty. Beautiful, no notes.
Not to be outdone by all these other companies getting green kudos, Chase joined in the fun in 2019, with a tweet bragging about its paperless card services. “Celebrate #EarthDay by saving a tree. 🌳” the tweet reads. (Trees again!!!) “Over 16K+ trees are saved annually through paperless enrolment.”
Again, trees are cool! But conveniently, this post leaves out the fact that parent company JPMorgan Chase is one of the top funders of fossil fuel projects around the world, investing billions in oil, gas and coal last year — even after making net-zero promises. Makes those thousands of trees seem like chump change.
We’ll end on a surreal note. In 2020, carmaker Hyundai partnered with Korean pop sensation BTS for Earth Day. The brand encouraged fans to take a selfie with the lights off, then tag the Hyundai account on Instagram for a chance to win BTS-themed prizes.
If you’re wondering what a selfie in the dark has to do with Earth Day, you’re not alone. I looked through a lot of the campaign materials, and there are scant mentions of Earth, nature, conservation, what have you. Heck, there’s barely anything having to do with the outdoors in this campaign, except for brief shots of the BTS boys on the beach, in the snow, in the rain, and walking among trees in the promo video, which ends with a shot of them next to a Hyundai hydrogen-powered car. (The brand’s press release said that the video is “presenting the company’s vision for hydrogen energy as the positive energy for a better tomorrow.” Cool.)
The selfie is supposed to indicate… what, exactly? The mind boggles, the soul reels. Earth Day has reached its logical end: absolutely meaningless corporate drivel.