Disney's Stunt Is No Help to the Planet


So here's something that's no doubt inevitable as consumers, especially families, become more eco-aware: environmentalism as publicity stunt.

Walt Disney (Stock Quote: DIS) is releasing a movie called "Earth" on Earth Day, April 22, and is promising to plant a tree for every nature or Disney buff who sees the movie in its first week of release. I hope it's not the start of a trend, because I don't think such one-off events are really the most thought-out ways to practice to be eco-smart.

The gimmick has gotten a lot of attention from environmental and entertainment blogs. This is good because Disney doesn't include any detailed information about the program on the movie's Web site. It does provide a link for buying tickets.

According to a press release I found via Google (Stock Quote: GOOG) (Disney inexplicably limits access to the press Web site for its movie division and wouldn't grant me access), most of the trees will be planted in Brazil's Atlantic Forest. The company calls it a "hot spot" for biodiversity, and one that's in critical danger because 93% of it has been destroyed. The Nature Conservancy corroborates this information and points out that even in its diminished state, the forest is home to 5% of the world's vertebrae, including 200 bird species found nowhere else.

That sounds good, but even so, it's easy to be cynical about a stunt like this, and people are. A U.K. columnist has written off Disney's overall attempt to curb its environmental impact as mere green washing. Meanwhile, Treehugger wonders, like I do, who will make sure that Disney follows through on its planting plans after the credits have rolled on "Earth's" opening week.

The press release says Disney will "oversee" the planting but doesn't give a timetable or name a partner organization that will do the actually digging. There has to be one. But I think Disney purposely left the group anonymous so moviegoers could imagine an army of animators and amusement-park workers heading to Brazil with saplings and shovels in hand.

A query e-mail and phone call to the company went unanswered.

The press release also failed to estimate how many trees we're talking about -- probably because this would effectively be an outlook on expected ticket sales. The New York Times' Carpetbagger surmises that if the movie does very, very, very well, there could be a half-million new trees in the Atlantic Forest.

But even if Disney did put some reasonable thought into what is probably an OK environmental activity and plans to carry it out responsibly, what about the next publicity stunt by another company that doesn't attract the sort of scrutiny that this corporation does, and the one after that?

If companies try to save the planet as one-off marketing schemes rather than a workaday expression of their mission and corporate values, how well thought out, responsible and enduring is the activity going to be? These events could turn out to be well-intentioned but actually somewhat irresponsible. At the very least they undermine the importance of ongoing, sustainable environmental responsibility by suggesting that occasional one-off, feel good endeavors do the job just as well.

In the end, it's a real Mickey Mouse way to try to help the environment.

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