Earth Day and Beyond: the Future of Environmental CSR

Earth Day should not be a once-a-year activation. If you take this approach, you may miss out on unique opportunities and vital perspectives. Instead, treat Earth Day as an opportunity to perform an “audit” of your environmental corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts. 

One perspective you might miss without this time for reflection is that of the younger generations. As Gen Z enters the workforce, they bring with them the urgency, energy, and creativity needed to address climate change. CSR program administrators have a unique opportunity in the coming years to fuel Gen Z’s desire to make a meaningful impact on the planet–not just on Earth Day, but every day. 

"Earth Day and Beyond" illustrationg with clouds and a globe

A quick note on terminology: It’s important to note that in this article, we’re making the distinction between environmental CSR and ESG (which stands for environmental, social, and corporate governance). Environmental CSR refers to initiatives that further environmental causes as a part of a CSR program. This includes community investment programs, corporate volunteering, and employee giving programs. The E in ESG focuses on aspects such as sustainable supply chain management and the energy efficiency of a manufacturing plant. While there is overlap, it’s important to understand the difference between CSR and ESG before moving on.

Community investment programs for the environment

Environmental community investment is a broad term that encompasses any program where your company makes contributions to ecologically-focused nonprofits (e.g, grants, scholarships, in-kind donations, and more). As with all CSR efforts, your community investment programs need to connect to your corporate purpose and incorporate modern best practices. 

For instance, if your company’s purpose is along the lines of “powering innovation,” you might choose to fund an organization like the Honnold Foundation, which improves access to energy by building solar panels in underserved areas around the world. An example of the type of program you’d help fund by supporting the Honnold Foundation would be Asociación MAIA, which was able to use solar panels to power a secondary school for indigenous girls in Guatemala.

What’s important to remember here is that there is a lot of effort that goes into this chain of giving, some of which is not directly tied to buying solar panel materials and paying labor to get the panels installed. Don’t shy away from providing support that strengthens the capacity of the teams doing this work. Unrestricted funds can help organizations like the Honnold Foundation and Asociación MAIA facilitate more work by covering operating costs like software, rent, and salaries. It’s also important to prioritize accessibility in your applications, taking into account language barriers, physical limitations, visual and auditory disabilities, and more.

We’ve written a lot in the past on how to set up and run effective community investment programs. If you’d like to dive deeper, here are a few places to start:

Make a difference: Invest in youth-led organizations

Youth-led organizations are often at the forefront of environmental causes, yet are too often neglected. Recently, we sat down with Julie Dunleavy, program manager at the Foundation for Environmental Stewardship (FES), to discuss their environmental efforts. Her main message was clear: “The advice I’d have is to have a lot more trust that young people are very capable. Their ideas are what we need to help solve the climate crisis.” 

Kat Cadungog, executive director of the FES also put it bluntly in an article from last fall: “Traditional foundations and giving programs typically do not fund youth-led programs at the same scale as non-youth-led initiatives.” Cadungog follows up by pointing out that, “Youth have a knack for willing social change into the zeitgeist, not resting until their ideas and movements are woven into the ethos of society.”

Cadungog’s advice is to keep in mind that “Whatever granting decisions are made now will have a direct impact on youths’ futures and generations ahead.” She has four specific steps you can take as a funder. We encourage you to read her full piece, but the steps include trust, unrestricted funding, providing youth space to work, and more. Use her advice to invest in youth-led organizations over the long term, and you’ll see real change develop.

Environmentally-focused volunteer events

There are a lot more ways to volunteer for environmental causes than just annual community cleanups on Earth Day (we still love local cleanups, though!). Whether you’re creating your own environmental volunteer event or participating in an existing event, you need to keep your focus local, even if you’re a nationwide organization.

Besides community cleanups, your organization could participate in volunteer events like:

  • Removal of invasive species in public lands.
  • Planting trees.
  • Education and advocacy, like supporting sustainable gardening classes.
  • Doing a zero-carbon day, perhaps encouraging employees to work from home or commute by bike.
  • Skills-based volunteering for an environmental foundation. has an activation kit every year (here’s a link to this year’s) that can serve as a source for ideas as well. 

If you’re a nationwide organization, consider organizing events in each of your hubs. Trulieve is a medical cannabis company with locations all over the US. A few 2023 volunteer initiatives their employees are participating in include: 

  • Keep Tallahassee Beautiful – Tallahassee, FL
  • Keep Pinellas Beautiful – St. Pete, FL
  • Habitat for Humanity Restore – Rockville, MD
  • Earth Day Public Tree Planting – Davis, WV
  • Habitat for Humanity – Timonium, MD
  • Potomac River Clean Up – Silver Springs, MD
  • Tiger Mountain Foundation Earth Day Gardening – Phoenix, AZ
  • Framingham Earth Day Festival – Framingham, MA
  • Earth Day 2023 Employee-Led Clean Up – Bristol, CT

Make a difference: Build relationships with local causes

If you decide to create your own events, partner with local nonprofits with the intention of building an ongoing relationship, rather than a one-off event. An ongoing partnership allows you to learn from local experts and measure impact over time.

Focusing locally is important because the effect of environmental grief has a very real effect on participation rates. The logic goes: “What difference does cleaning up the river bank make when there’s a giant trash island floating around in the Pacific?” It’s easy to freeze up. 

In response to this grief, Haley Winans, co-editor of Beaver Magazine, explained to us in a recent conversation that: “The local concern should be of chief importance. If you get anxious from thinking about trying to change the world, change your cozy little corner of it, like working at food banks or working in community gardens. Because I think that people get so anxious that they get hopeless because they think on a global scale rather than seeing it as a localized effort that they can actually see tangible environmental improvements within their community.”

You should prioritize ongoing relationships with local nonprofits because it also instills a transformational attitude, rather than a transactional one. As Angela Parker, co-founder of Realized Worth put it last fall during our Impact Studio conference: “Transactions are sometimes needed by nonprofit organizations. But most of the time, in order to drive social movements, to change people from the inside out, you have to have experiences over time that are a relationship.” The relationship is what makes a difference. And relationships require an ongoing effort, not just an annual Earth Day cleanup.

Environmentally-focused employee giving and matching programs

Compared to community investment and volunteering, directly donating money can create a sustained impact with relatively little effort. You can run a limited employee giving and matching campaign for Earth Day, or you can create an ongoing program–one that empowers employees to give to environmental causes they care about whenever they want. 

If you’re running a limited campaign, consider choosing one nonprofit to which you’d like to send all funds and with which you’d like to develop a relationship. This consolidated effort offers the opportunity to run a coordinated PR announcement and measure impact in a granular way. Otherwise, we encourage you to create an ongoing giving and matching program that helps your employees make an impact year-round. 

Make a difference: Empower employees to choose

Employee choice improves participation in corporate giving campaigns. And the success of corporate giving programs depends on employee participation.

According to America’s Charities, “30% of employee donors say the reason why they do not give through the workplace is that the causes they care about are not available as choices through their employer’s giving program.” And, according to CECP’s annual Giving in Numbers report, programs that allow employees to select where they donate have 75% higher engagement than programs that don’t. 

A good corporate giving platform will help you give your employees a variety of nonprofits to choose from. Give from Submittable, for instance, has 600 vetted nonprofits that focus on environmentalism as of Earth Day 2023. With this range of choices, employees can choose what causes they care about most.

Your employees want environmental CSR

As more of Gen Z enters the workforce, the more important environmental causes become. When constructing your CSR program, you need to make environmental causes a core pillar of your efforts. 

In 2018, millennials became the largest cohort in the US labor force with 35%, while the World Economic Forum predicts Gen Z will make up 27% of the global labor force by 2025.  

In 2021, Pew Research found that “32% of Gen Zers and 28% of Millennials have taken at least one of four actions (donating money, contacting an elected official, volunteering or attending a rally) to help address climate change in the last year, compared with smaller shares of Gen X (23%) and Baby Boomer and older adults (21%).”

Finally, Deloitte performed a study among adults in the UK and found that Gen Z is more likely than any other generation to adopt sustainable behaviors. Half of Gen Zers have reduced how much they buy due to environmental concerns, and 45% decided to stop purchasing from certain brands due to sustainability concerns. 

All of this data trends towards what may be the most environmentally conscious workforce to exist up to this point in history. If you intend to recruit and retain talent in the coming decade, you need to embrace environmental CSR programs year-round, not just on Earth Day. 

Schedule a demo of Submittable today to see how you can do all of your environmental CSR programs from one suite of CSR software

Madison Silver

Madi is a product marketer at Submittable focused on CSR and helping companies align their goals with their employees and their communities. When not working, Madi is exploring the PNW or hanging with her dog and two cats!