Hard to believe that this week marks the 43rd annual Earth Day, an American creation that Wikipedia reports is now the "largest secular holiday in the world, celebrated by more than one billion people each year in 192 countries." Here's my perspective on why it matters.
I'm going to be in White Plains, N.Y., this week as the town kicks off a major shoe drive to celebrate Earth Week. The city's goal is to collect 20,000 pairs of new or gently used shoes for my company. The project leader is a high school friend (Jill Iannetta), and I couldn't be prouder to be a part of her event.
What's really important is that there will be hundreds and hundreds of such activities around the country. Engaging so many people on any social good has to matter because of the difference it makes in our collective consciousness about these issues.
It does raise the question, though, of what we're doing the rest of the year. We know that Americans throw away, annually, more than one billion pounds of clothes and shoes. One billion! If each pound were a minute that would take us back to the middle of the Roman Empire.
And the amount of clothing that's tossed doesn't include what goes to my company and others like Goodwill, the Salvation Army and thousands of other groups that give these items a second life here and around the world. And it doesn't include what gets chucked by the rest of the developed world.
It's a lot, no matter how you add it up.
At the same time, the demand for used products like these, especially in the developing world, is practically unlimited. It makes me wonder if the problem is not so much a "stuff" problem as it is an information problem. Anytime there is that much of a mismatch in the market, you can be sure that a lack of information is the cause of most of the distortion.
Sure there are logistical issues, big ones, but I believe that most Americans, whether they're celebrating Earth Day or not, would like to do better than just throw things away. Knowing the scale of problem, where to take things, what impact your used shoes and clothes can make—all are part of the everyday solution. If Earth Day is a chance to create and expand that awareness, then Earth Day matters.
Last year, Soles4Souls kept more than three million pounds of shoes and clothes out of landfills. Though that's only one-third of one percent of what might be put to good use, it could support micro-enterprise merchants in Haiti or Honduras, people living on two dollars a day; or help distribute footwear in Africa to keep people there from contracting "jiggers"—a disease preventable by wearing shoes; or clothe hundreds of thousands of disaster victims, refugees and severely impoverished villagers around the world.
We want to do our part to keep things out of the landfills—that's a great cause in and of itself. But if you want something to celebrate on this Earth Day, then take the things you can't or don't want to wear and give them to people who do. You'll be making the world a better place in a million ways you probably have never thought of.
Buddy Teaster is the president and CEO of Soles4Souls, Inc., a not-for-profit based in Nashville, Tenn., that collects new and used shoes and clothes from individuals, schools, faith-based institutions, civic organizations and corporate partners, and distributes them via direct donations to people in need and by provisioning qualified micro-enterprise programs designed to create jobs in poor and disadvantaged communities.
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