Redefining Earth Day and Sustainability

Goodwill International Sr. Director of Marketing, Ryan Kuhn, shares with us what he believes it truly means to be sustainable, and what that looks like at Goodwill.


Each year, April 22 marks Earth Day, the anniversary of a day in 1970 when 20 million people took to the streets in massive, coast-to-coast rallies. They did this to voice the need for society to change its course so that future generations could have the chance for a healthy and sustainable world.

For several decades now, media of all types is predictably saturated on this day with people and businesses shouting from their rooftops about how “green” they are, spreading aspirational environmental messages or doom-and-gloom messages of the planets demise. But should Earth Day really be just about the environment?

I’m not saying that championing the environment is not a worthy cause, but there is something important missing from all of the clamor. Like it or not, humanity is a fundamental part of the Earth and defines (and impacts) nearly everything that the planet is, and will be, for the foreseeable future. When you dissect the causes and effects, humanity’s many social issues are often tied up in environmental issues. So, it perplexes me when people treat these issues separately, as if one set of issues are more important than another.

Goodwill’s Role as a Sustainable Brand

Last week, I had the privilege to travel to Detroit along with Susanne Fredericks, Goodwill International’s sustainability specialist, to be part of a meeting organized by Sustainable Brands—a community of major brands gathering together to share insights, discuss best practices, and collaborate on solutions to sustainability challenges—of which Goodwill Industries International is a member. I presented Goodwill’s story, sharing how sustainability is built into our DNA as one of the oldest social enterprises and a pioneer of reuse and repurpose. I also shared that our reason for being wasn’t to save the environment.

I also acknowledged our positive environmental impact, helping to keep more than 3 billion pounds of usable goods out of landfills in 2014. I also shared that Goodwill recognizes, like other organizations, that sustainability goes beyond what we do to how we do it. Goodwills across the enterprise are innovating amazing solutions that are proving to be significant environmental improvements as well as great business decisions and helping to reduce our (and others’) impact on the environment. (For more on this, contact Susanne Fredericks.)

While Goodwill has been working hard to more intentionally embrace environmental sustainability, others in the world have been coming to understand and embrace social sustainability as a reality on par with environmental sustainability. In fact, if you look at the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, roughly half of the 17 goals are addressing social issues, including eliminating poverty, decent work and economic growth, and reducing inequalities; things that are near and dear to Goodwill’s mission.

These issues are absolutely interconnected and, as societies, businesses, and individuals, if we only focus on one, we will fail at both. I challenge myself and all of us to see sustainability as not just an environmental issue, or a social issue, or even a business issue, but a unified, interdependent pathway to a better world and, frankly, a better life. It is the triple bottom line and, while that has been around for a while now, it seems people are finally starting to get it.

So, this Earth Day, let’s feel free to share our vision for a better world and let’s help everyone (including ourselves) understand what that really means: being better for the planet AND being better for its people.