Does Earth Hour Truly Benefit the Environment?

Earth Hour will be taking place this Saturday, March 26th, between 8:30-9:30pm local time.  Call it an initiative, campaign, or annual ritual, its going onto its fifth year.  People are encouraged to turn their lights out for one hour to bring attention to global sustainability issues.

Earth Hour is lead by the WWF.  No, not the (defunct) World Wrestling Federation.  I am talking about the World Wide Fund for Nature, whose mission is “to halt and reverse the destruction of our environment.”  In 2007, Earth Hour was started by WWF and the Sydney Morning Herald.   Over the past five years, Earth Hour has grown to a global reach.

Earth Hour is attracting big cities, companies, and small organizations alike.  Led by Caesars, casinos on the Las Vegas strip, known for bright lights and flashing signs, will go dim.  Arenas and venues around the world managed by AEG will also be participating.  Walgreens will turn off lights at 1,400 stores. Coca-Cola is switching off massive billboards in Piccadilly Circus and Times Square, and dozens of other global brands will make at least some effort to switch off lights.

The message is even being spread via social media, receiving where #EarthHour gets tweeted a few times a minute, leading up to the event.  With all the hoopla of Earth Hour, one must ask the question, does Earth Hour actually benefit the environment?

The short answer is yes.  As long as people and companies are participating in Earth Hour of their own choice, rather than mandate, I am game.  Here are three reasons why Earth Hour may be to our benefit:

  1. Attention –  Seizes our attention, if but for an hour.
  2. Awareness – Bringing awareness of sustainability issues.
  3. Action – Inspiring action towards sustainability, beyond the hour.

Attention and awareness are just a small part.  But the huge component is action.  Let me explain.

Earth Hour is grabbing the attention of adamant supporters.  Likewise, it is grabbing the attention of just as passionate opposition.  Some folks will participate, and others will actively not.   And I support both sides in their conviction to choose their path.

The key to this particular attention is that Earth Hour gets folks to actively turn the lights off, or keep them on in protest.  At the very least, there will be discussion of the benefits or drawbacks, and the necessity or necessity of Earth Hour.   It’s better to have some dialogue than no dialogue.  What better way to engage our fellow stakeholders?

On a side note, it is amazing how fast and wide Earth Hour has spread.  Studying this more intently may lead insights into how to successfully share a message.

Attention gets the eyes and ears.  But once we have the eyes and ears, we need to shift minds.  Some folks may be participating to acknowledge climate change.  Others may be doing so to bring to light wasted evening energy usage.  And yet others may do it to save a buck or two.

The message of sustainability comes with many different parts.  Earth Hour can help us re-examine, re-focus, and re-engage the topics that matter to us.  But at the same time, while it is a good step to be aware, awareness of sustainability issues means nothing if no action is taken.

Once a mind is shifted, there must be action.  Action is the most crucial aspect, but probably the most challenging to do.  It’s great to capture attention and share awareness for that one hour.  But the grunt work of implementing sustainability in our everyday work and personal lives from the other 8,759 hours of the year matters more.  Let’s not let one hour darken the hard work done all year towards sustainability.

So does Earth Hour truly benefit the environment?  Yes, if and only if there is action because of or despite of Earth Hour.  If Earth Hour acts as a celebration of sustainable action taken thus far, great.  It can be a time to reflect on past successes.  If Earth Hour acts as a catalyst for future sustainable action, all the better.   However, I do look forward to the day when we don’t need a special hour to recognize sustainability, but instead, it is embedded in the actions of our everyday lives.

Jonathan Mariano is an MBA candidate with the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, CA. His interests include the convergence between lean & green and pursuing free-market based sustainable solutions.

4 responses

  1. Jonathan, another great article! I wanted to make two comments:

    1. You’ve indicated that high-profile lit structures will be turned off. But what does Earth Hour do to ensure that passersby who see the unlit objects understand why the lights are off? In many cases, the dialogue that this event will raise might be limited to the business and facilities managers who discussed to strategy. I don’t see how the general public will know why the lights went off, unless they start asking around.

    2. I slightly disagree with your statement that, “awareness of sustainability issues means nothing if no action is taken.” On the one hand that might be true. However, action that stems from a new awareness is a difficult concept to track and measure. Ideally, awareness leads to a new understanding and new understandings lead to transformations in how we think. Changing how we think influences our action but, it can take a long time to change how one thinks, as well all know. So, the actions that Earth Hour influences might not come for quite some time for some consumers and business leaders.

    1. David,

      I think you point out two very important points.

      1. I don’t think there is any guarantee that a passerby will know what is going on. IMHO, much of the attention and awareness comes before and after, with the news and PR releases prior, and perhaps dialogue afterwards, assuming folks are curious enough to ask.

      2. I hear you on that. Awareness turned into action is difficult to quantify. I agree, that the awareness that Earth Hour builds may not influence action right away. But I am hoping that it will, eventually.


  2. While I am not against symbolic actions to raise awareness about issues (environmental, political, or other), I have always been skeptical about how much impact these types of events can have on influencing behaviors or policies over the long term.

    Corporations can leverage PR and actions around Earth Hour to align themselves, even temporarily, with a feel-good cause, but what impact does that have on the realities of their day-to-day operations?

    Individuals can participate and achieve that feel-good “did something” and go back to their normal everyday lives.

    This is a really challenging question to approach. How can initiatives like Earth Hour, actions, CREDO, and other causes work more in concert to not just create simple actions people can do an walk away from, but create lasting conversations that engage more and more people to not just participate in a one-off event, but to consider the action in the context of their lifestyle. It’s no simple task without resorting to “guilt marketing.”


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