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We Can Still Save ‘Keep America Beautiful’s’ Greenwashed Legacy

By Jessica Wilmer

For the past 63 years, April has been celebrated as Keep America Beautiful month. The campaign began in 1953 with a simple goal: To engage individuals to take greater responsibility for improving their community environments.

They have successfully launched and promoted dozens of campaigns including The Great American Clean-Up, America Recycles Day and they were even the inspiration behind Earth Day which launched in 1970.

All of KAB’s programs focus on their three goals: End Littering, Improve Recycling, and Beautify Communities.

Unfortunately, over the years Keep America Beautiful has drawn some strong criticism.


KAB was established in coordination with “a group of corporate and civic leaders… to bring the public and private sectors together to develop and promote national cleanliness ethic.”

This is all well and good, but they left out that many of the corporate leaders were also notorious polluters. Because of this, some argue that KAB was created to deflect blame from the beverage and packaging companies to the wider American public. It’s coincidental that the organization’s message targets individuals without mentioning the corporate offenders.

This, my eco-friends, is greenwashing. The companies involved don’t want anyone looking into their practices, so they spend the big bucks to point the finger elsewhere.

And it is further enforced by the decades’ long relationship between KAB and

the Ad Council. Together, they produced dozens of PSA’s condemning the actions of the public. By coining the term “litterbug,” they made it immediately horrifying to be seen throwing garbage on the ground.

Remember the offensive “Crying Indian” PSA? The voice-over firmly states, “People Start Pollution. People can stop it.”


We can all agree that KAB’s goals are commendable. The problem lies in their message– they take a band-aid approach instead of focusing on preventative maintenance.

Where did they go wrong?

1. Ethical consumerism As consumers, we need to take our responsibility extremely seriously. We are represented in the dollars we spend. So if you spend the majority of your money at big box stores, what message does that send? Now if you spend your money at a company that pays a living wage and works on improving their environmental footprint, is that more of the message you want to send? I’m looking at you, Patagonia.

Ethical consumerism is both our offense and defense. We have the choice to purchase products that don’t have a negative social or environmental impact and to dutifully patron the companies that produce those goods.

2. Product stewardship

Essentially this is the core of corporate responsibility and the missing piece with Keep America Beautiful. Companies should focus on the environmental, health, and safety effects of their products from creation to disposal.

The product stewardship doesn’t end with companies. Consumers must be product stewards as well. After we consciously purchase our goods, we must take it upon ourselves to reduce their environmental, health, and safety impacts as well.

What can we do?

  1. Don’t litter- It pollutes and poisons the waterways.

  2. Recycle all items that can be and speak up when other people don’t.

  3. Plant trees and flowers not only to make your community beautiful, but to return to the earth what we’ve taken away.

Once you’ve done that, figure out how you can take it a step further.

  1. Can you donate, consign or re-purpose your old clothes instead of throwing them out?

  2. Can you purchase glass instead of plastic as glass can be recycled infinitely?

  3. Can you make the switch to eco-conscious beauty products?

  4. Can you make your own natural home cleaners?

I’m guessing is the answer is yes.

Let’s refocus

Consumers and companies share a combined responsibility and accountability for waste, excess, and pollution.

So this Keep America Beautiful Month, let’s focus on being ethical consumers and let’s think before we purchase. Let’s strive to become better product stewards and let’s hold all companies to higher standards.

And if it’s not too much trouble, maybe plant a tree or two.

Jessica Wilmer is an aspiring blogger, vlogger, photographer, and activist. She currently works in finance and lives with her boyfriend on Capitol Hill. You can usually find them at the farmers market in their matching Patagonia sweaters looking for new veggies to include in their repertoire of vegetarian dishes.



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