How Companies Celebrate Earth Day

[ editors Jonathan Bardelline, Leslie Guevarra and Tilde Herrera also contributed reporting for this article.]

[Editor’s Note: This article has been slightly corrected to reflect the fact that Timberland is based in New Hampshire, not Vermont as previously stated. We regret the error.]

At the dawn of Earth Day 2009, after more than six weeks of being inundated with press announcements solid and silly, from companies large and small, we decided to take a look at what companies are actually doing on April 22 and beyond, as opposed to what they’re talking about. (See our companion article, “The Selling of Earth Day 2009: The Good, Bad and Ugly” to get the scoop on what companies are telling the world about their Earth Day commitments.)

We spoke to top executives at nearly two-dozen companies to discuss the value of Earth Day to their companies, their employees and their partners, and see what — if anything — they’ll be doing internally to commemorate the day.

What it seems to come down to, lumping the bulk of the responses into broad categories, are four types of happenings: On-site events, creating or acknowledging “green teams,” awarding and recognizing achievements, and community service efforts make up the majority of the responses. In addition there are some notable “miscellaneous” activities that companies described to us.

But if there is one theme we learned from all these interviews, it’s that Earth Day should be every day. Almost all the companies we spoke with acknowledged this widespread belief, and many offered examples of how Earth Day is just a culmination of a year’s green efforts.

François Ajenstat, Microsoft’s director of environmental sustainability, put it most succinctly when he said, “Anchoring these events on Earth Day creates a forcing function, which raises the volume a little more than on other days.”

With that in mind, let’s look at the ways companies are celebrating Earth Day 2009.

On Site Events

“Sustainability is one of a very few parts of the business that you can have everyone contributing to,” explained Patricia Calkins, Xerox’s vice president of environment, health and safety. As a result, “we use Earth Week as a time to highlight, focus and get more people involved and engaged in driving these programs.”

For Xerox, that means offering a handful of community building events at some of their locations, ranging from an e-waste collection drive to offering free home energy audits and exhibiting super-efficient cars at some European offices — a BMW and a Vauxhall that both get more than 62 miles per gallon will be on display to familiarize employees with these green machines.

E-waste collection is something of a recurring theme among the companies we interviewed. Microsoft and Nokia will both host e-waste events on their campuses. For Nokia, who has been holding similar drives for the past four years, the timing is fortuitous beyond Earth Day itself.

“Just as some people are environmentally aware and active all year, there are those that keep their closets uncluttered. However, a large number of people spend much of the year ignoring the environment, and their cluttered closet, deciding to take action once a year,” explained David Conrad, the head of environment for Nokia North America, in an email interview. “In terms of environment and Earth Day, these are the same people who ask, ‘What can I do?’ or ‘Can I really make a difference?'”

After four years of Earth Day e-waste collections, people are starting to associate Earth Day with the ability to recycle unwanted electronics, so the company plans to continue their drives well into the future.

Another key element of these companies’ Earth Day activities involve educational forums, often in the shape of vendor fairs. Hewlett-Packard is hosting a handful of these events around the U.S.: The company is offering Earth Day Fairs at its Cupertino and Roseville, Calif. facilities to give employees tips on reducing their impacts at home and work. Employees at HP’s Vancouver, Ore., facilities will encourage employees to leave their cars at home with an informational “Alternative Commute Welcome Station,” a bike tune-up clinic, and lunch presentations about electric vehicles.

Symantec headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. is also holding a vendor fair, bringing in partners such as Pacific Gas and Electric and Sustainable Silicon Valley to set up tables and explain during the lunch hour what employees can do to be more energy efficient and environmentally friendly at home and at work.

Green Teams

Bringing every employee on board with a company’s sustainability goals is a far-reaching yet universal aspiration.

To bring employees on board, Microsoft is launching a pilot program of “sustainability captains” — volunteers based in five different buildings on the Redmond, Wash., campus who will be responsible for monitoring how those facilities perform on a range of environmental issues and implementing in-house initiatives, including working with facilities on lighting and heating issues, running brown-bag lunch presentations on green topics and educating co-workers one-on-one.

Jones Lang LaSalle, the global real estate firm, has put its “A Cleaner Tomorrow” internal taskforce to work on identifying opportunities to save energy and improve environmental performance in areas such as recycling, air quality and water conservation. The group will launch an internal campaign to announce the initiative and encourage employees to start the effort on Earth Day.

For Symantec, the development of green teams is fueling much of the company’s environmental activity, both on Earth Day and beyond. The company launched its employee-led, voluntary green teams program six months ago. Already the company boasts 26 teams around the globe, with more being added every month. The teams engage and educate employees on a range of environmental issues, but the key rests on each team defining in a site-specific way how they want to transform Symantec’s corporate responsibility platform into reality.

Symantec’s green teams also spurred the company’s participation in Earth Hour last month. Employees at company headquarters had been discussing how to participate and word spread, eventually leading the company to become an official participant in the event. “It wasn’t an executive decision, or facilities or HR — it was an employee decision,” explained Cecily Joseph, Symantec’s director of corporate responsibility. “That’s how I rate success or gauge if we’re making progress: How these teams can impact and affect the culture of the company.”

Awards for Green Performance

Following on the work of dedicated green teams, several of the companies we spoke to are using their internal Earth Day events to celebrate and recognize the achievements of individuals or groups within the company, whether for their efforts in greening their job or greening their personal lives.

AT&T today presents its annual AT&T Champions of the Environment Award, honoring 10 employees and teams for community work and workplace projects. Last year, bragging rights went to a woman who makes her own biodiesel, and a man who installed a windmill generator in his backyard capable of generating 1,600 kW of energy annually, among others.

Last year’s team awards included a low-flow toilet installation project in San Antonio, Texas, that will save the company 13 million gallons of water and $52,000 each year; other winning efforts include teams that developed ways to reduce annual paper use by 15 tons, and created and secured funding for a plan that added 105 alternative fuel vehicles to the company’s fleet.

Microsoft will hand out its second annual environmental impact award to an employee who’s gone above and beyond their job duties to bring awareness and action to sustainability efforts at the company.

TAC, the Building Automation Business Unit of Schneider Electric Company, has planned a full week of events for employees, but the culmination comes on Thursday, according to Brandi McManus, the company’s global business development and energy services manager. That’s when the nearly month-long “Who is the Greenest of Them All” contest concludes — the employee with the greenest all-around work and life practices will win an iPod Nano.

Community Service Efforts

Going beyond internal celebrations to expand sustainability efforts in the community is a recurring theme. eBay’s Austin and Omaha, Neb., offices, for example, have organized volunteer cleanup events to mark Earth Day at nearby parks and trails, while the company’s Salt Lake City location will hold an open house and book drive to benefit the local Big Brothers and Big Sisters organizations.

Timberland, too, will hold a series of sponsored green community service events around the world on or around Earth Day, which, according to internal surveys, rank highly as a reason employees want to work for the New Hampshire-based outdoor clothing company. “We invite our business partners and vendors to join us in service, not only to increase our collective impact, but also to strengthen our relations with each other, with our communities and with our partners,” said Atlanta McIlwraith, Timberland’s community engagement leader. “A day of service builds team and morale in powerful ways.”

Other Ways to Celebrate Earth Day

Some of the company efforts we encountered this year just didn’t fit any easy description. Whether they were not-quite community-building projects, not-quite award projects, or just so innovative as to be outside of any category, there were a handful of companies pushing the envelope in different ways.

Most unique of all was the plan from real estate management software company Tririga. On Earth Day, the company will “go dark” in all three of its offices. President and CEO George Ahn and the 200 other Tririga employees in Pleasanton, Calif., Las Vegas, Nev., and Philadelphia, Penn., will be at work — but it will be strictly lights off.

“We’ll use daylight instead of electric lights to show employees how easy and effective it is to use daylight on more of a regular basis,” said Ahn, who came up with the idea.

Cisco will launch on Earth Day a “Think Green, Act Green” project, a pledge-oriented activity based on a model that emerged from Cisco in Canada called “One Million Acts of Green.” The pledge’s underlying premise is that individual acts have the power to better the environment and that human engagement helps fuel that change. The goal of the program, which Cisco Canada opened to the broader community and invited public participation, involved obtaining pledges for a million acts of green within six months. The program hit the target in just 90 days, Gianola said.

“It’s an inspirational activity,” said Gianola, “that will hopefully be just as viral here.”

In the past, Sun Microsystems used Earth Day as an educational opportunity for its employees, but this year the company decided to take the event one step further.

“This year we really wanted to focus on engagement and get employees thinking about what they can do,” said Marcy Scott Lynn, Sun’s director of corporate social responsibility. “We’re really trying to bridge the gap between people at home in their personal lives and at work.”

For Sun’s Earth Day challenge, called “Change (Y)our World,” the company partnered with EarthLab to create a custom online calculator for employees to measure their environmental impacts and make pledges to change a type of behavior. Two weeks before the close of the challenge, the initiative had employee participation in 40 of the 48 countries in which Sun has offices. Three of the most popular pledges included refraining from dumping used cooking oil down the drain, using leftover plastic bags as garbage bags, and recycling newspapers and encouraging others to do so, too. The challenge began on March 20, Global Earth Day, and concludes today.

And in a post on our always engaging LinkedIn group, Bruce Klafter, Applied Materials’ senior director of corporate responsibility and sustainability, explained his company’s events. “We are very conscious that Earth Day can be too crowded a day or week to get everything scheduled that we would like to do. […] One new thing we’re doing this year is sponsoring an employee challenge called ‘Do One Thing.’ We’ve asked employees to do at least one thing for the environment in the month of April and then to record it on our sustainability intranet so fellow employees can see what everyone is doing.”

At the conclusion of the challenge, the company will plant one tree for each employee that logs an activity — and after two weeks 774 employees had pledged to take actions.

Every Day Should Be Earth Day

For these companies, the mantra that every day can and should be Earth Day is a reasonable proposition. These companies have all adopted dedicated stances toward environmental sustainability, and are harnessing the passion of their employees, suppliers and communities to achieve their goals. But not every company is either as engaged or as serious about Earth Day.

Although companies are enthusiastic about Earth Day as an educational and celebratory event, some expressed concern about whether the over-hyping of Earth Day would damage its effectiveness.

“I think we’re at risk of that,” Xerox’s Patricia Calkins said. “We haven’t gotten there yet, but that’s why it’s important to keep the sobering message out there; doing things like bringing out Silent Spring,” and talking about other pressing environmental problems. “Green isn’t just this feel nice fuzzy wonderful thing; it’s really fundamental, serious, and important.”

In some ways, Earth Day has become a day for everyone else, and for dedicated green companies to sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labor from the other 364 days of the year. When asked if companies that are already deep in the world of green should celebrate Earth day, Dennis Salazar of Salazar Packaging (and a regular blogger) replied, “This is almost like asking, ‘Does a baker get a cake on his birthday? I assume so, but it’s unlikely to be anything he hasn’t tasted before.”