Earth Day critics: business and industry

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This document features 4 letters from business leaders responding to Gaylord Nelson's request for donations to the national Earth Day coordinating office, Environmental Teach-In, Inc. Their authors represented several heavy industries: steel appliances (A. O. Smith), industrial chemicals (Hercules Inc.), canning (Libby, McNeill & Libby), and aluminum (Reynolds Metals Co.).

Business and industry generally remained marginal to Earth Day - neither reliable supporters nor outspoken detractors. But these letters make clear they were not ignorant of it.

In these letters, the executives reveal they were aware they faced a swelling suspicion of modern production methods. While they all rebuff Nelson's solicitation for funds, they also showed their attempts to get ahead of the coming criticism. They professed a trust in innovation and new technologies, believing industry could develop its own solutions to ecological challenges.

To the degree that industry became involved with Earth Day 1970, this defensive perspective was brought to panels and debates. This document shows that Hercules was eager to send a representative to remind teach-in audiences of "significant facts" often lost in a slate of "emotional presentations."

The letters boast of reforms already made. This supports Nelson's argument that, while curbing pollution necessarily will require great expenditures, market incentives can be built in that make conservation and recycling measures economically attractive - both through cost savings to the company and job creation for the labor market. The letters reveal the exectuives' concern for managing their reputation among consumers in the coming "environmental decade." After these were written, for instance, in 1974 A.O. Smith released a new line of water heaters branded "The Conservationist."

Though Nelson envisioned a place for industry on Earth Day (or at least its money), student organizers were more wary. While the Washington office benefitted from the funds Nelson begged from Colgate-Palmolive, Kraft, IBM, and AT&T, its coordinators rejected thousands of dollars offered from Standard Oil, Proctor & Gamble, and agricultural giant Monsanto (see page 6 of this financial document).

For the youthful idealists, businesses provided a better common enemy than ally. Denis Hayes, the head of the Earth Day coordinators, remarked later with disdain that "industry has turned the environment problem over to its public relations men," and resolved, "We will not appeal any more to the conscience of institutions because institutions have no conscience."