In a recent blog post, Jason Clay of World Wildlife Fund made some interesting historical references to the conditions of our world dating back to the first Earth Day – April 22, 1970.   Since 1970 the human population doubled.   The non-human vertebrate species’ populations declined by an average of 58 percent.  The global average temperature increased by about one degree Celsius. In 1970, the US imported about $54 billion worth of goods and services.  That number rose to $2.7 trillion in 2016.

Manhattan skyline

Manhattan skyline in 1974, photographed by Alexander Hope for Documerica. Courtesy of the National Archives

By 1970 millions of Americans were fed-up with the state of the natural environment.  Civil society was ripe for activism and government solutions. They were ready for business and commerce to clean up their acts.

Senator Gaylord Nelson (WI (D)) understood this disgust along with the rising demands of citizens.  He proposed a national event to galvanize action – Earth Day.  “The objective was to get a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy,” Senator Nelson said, “and, finally, force this issue permanently onto the national political agenda.”

NYT first Earth Day

A throng of thousands along New York City’s 5th Ave., as far as the eye could see, came out for Earth Day 1970 demonstrations receiving front page coverage the next day

Clearly, we’ve made great progress since the first Earth Day. But so much still needs to be done.  I’d venture to say, focusing on just one day falls short of the vision of the father of Earth Day.

Our reliance on fossil fuels and the inefficient use of most, if not all, energy continues to make the most significant impact on the environment. Energy is the life blood of our economy.  But extraction, refining, generation and transmission of most of our energy sources creates enormous amounts of waste, emissions of particulate air pollution and heat trapping greenhouse gases.  Yet, many of these externalities are not accounted for on the cost ledger of our businesses or personal budgets.

What does the American public think?  According to a March 2017 Gallup Poll, 59% of Americans believe the environment should be prioritized over energy production.   This is not an unreasonable expectation.  Just think about the amount of solar energy hitting the earth each day. If properly collected, stored and transmitted, solar energy could provide more than is needed to meet our daily energy needs.

LED bulbs avoid the use of significant amounts of energy.  They reduce maintenance costs and eliminate mercury associated with fluorescent bulbs.

Imagine if procurement officials from colleges and universities gave preference to recycled materials and low carbon commitments in setting selection criteria for goods and services?

Would energy efficiency and use of renewable energy increase significantly if fossil fuel energy use by industry and commerce were listed on the loss side of balance sheets?

Senator Nelson said, “The wealth of the nation is its air, water, soil, forests, minerals, rivers, lakes, oceans, scenic beauty, wildlife habitats, and biodiversity…that’s where all economic activity and jobs come from.”

This Earth Day, by all-means, plant a tree, organize a clean-up, recycle.  Better yet, organize efforts to make long-term commitments to reduce the impact of your organization.   What material impact does your company have as a result of the use of energy, water and waste generation across the entire supply chain?  Do you measure it?  Do you set expectations for your suppliers to reduce natural resource use? Can you meet and exceed the environmental expectations of your customers?

If not, I encourage you to set stretch, time-based goals. Work to make the change you want to see in your organization and the world.  Look for opportunities to embed sustainability measurements, goals and requirements across all functions of your organization and with all your suppliers and customers.

If you don’t do it.  Who will?Gaylord Nelson quote