A Short History of Environmentalism
Environmentalists anticipate Earth Day all year, and then we're secretly relieved when it’s over. It seems to represent our dearest aspirations, and some of our best opportunities for media coverage, and yet compresses them impossibly into one, reductive, feel-good day a year. We have vestigial expectations that Earth Day will be spontaneous and revolutionary, like the first one was in 1970.
But the environmental movement has changed a lot since then. Like the movement itself, Earth Day began as a consciousness-raising effort. Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson conceived it as a “teach-in”¯ for the environment and was astonished when 20 million Americans participated in the first Earth Day in 1970. He touched a nerve, tapped the zeitgeist.
After that first outpouring in 1970, environmentalists’ focus shifted from public education to Washington, D.C., winning legislative and regulatory victories, achieving the world’s first effective national body of environmental statutes.
In the 1980s, environmentalism became litigious as it fought to enforce the new laws against corporate and government opponents. It was the environmental crusaders vs. evil polluters, in the courts and on the high seas. The weapons were lawsuits, media stunts and boycotts. Environmentalists used this culture of confrontation to good effect, scoring many successes.
Sometime approaching 1990, however, the limitations of this comfrontational model became apparent amid a growing sense that the movement, with its language of military metaphors, was winning battles but losing the war. Entire ecosystems were disappearing, deforestation accelerating, greenhouse gasses accumulating, large die-offs looming, and the sense of global unsustainability grew palpable.
This unease was the germ of today’s “corporate responsibility”¯ and “sustainable development”¯ movements, whose basic calculation was that stemming the tide of environmental degradation in a globalized world required the voluntary partnership rather than the enmity of big corporations, some of which have more wealth and bigger environmental footprints than many countries.
In the 1980s there had begun to emerge voluntary schemes that helped businesses thrive in a greener way. Some used very concrete systems of accountability, such as independent certification regimes.
One of these, the Rainforest Alliance, was formed in 1987 by activists who realized that boycotts of tropical hardwoods, coffee or bananas weren’t sufficient to save the rainforests. Instead, they worked with NGOs in producer countries to frame rigorous environmental and social sustainability criteria for these goods and to certify producers who met them.
The Rainforest Alliance certified its first forests in 1989 and its first farms in 1993. Two Chiquita banana farms were certified in 1994, then Chiquita invested some $22 million to bring all its company farms up to RA standards.
Once a particular lightning rod for boycotters, Chiquita’s turnaround helped the voluntary certification idea gain credibility. Today, serious certification regimes such as Rainforest Alliance, Forest Stewardship Council, Fairtrade and organics are all experiencing explosive growth. Forest Stewardship Council timber certified by the Rainforest Alliance grew 500% since 2000 and covers 2% of the world’s working forests, an area the size of Ecuador.
The global FSC market is worth over $5 billion. Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM coffee acreage multiplied over twenty times since 2000 and is now about one percent of coffee production worldwide, growing rapidly as Kraft Foods integrates it into its mainstream coffee brands such as Yuban. Including Chiquita, Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM is about 15% of world production. Benefits to workers, wildlife, and habitats have exploded along with them.
While we still need campaigning tactics, legislation and confrontation of wrong-doers, just as we did in the 1970s, today environmentalists have a new set of tools for leveraging global change. If Earth Day teach-ins once expressed our latent desire for new environmental values, sustainable certification buy-in expresses pent-up, global demand for new products and markets that translate those values into economic reality.
Tensie Whelan is the executive director of the non-profit Rainforest Alliance, www.rainforest-alliance.org, hosting a sustainable certified products marketing workshop in New York City May 17 with participants from Kraft, Chiquita, and other leading corporations, small business and NGOs in the vanguard of the global sustainability movement.
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