Toronto Star gains environmental leadership, ad revenue, reader engagement in role as “Earth Hour” sponsor

By Bob Hepburn

How much does an hour weigh?

With that provocative question back in 2008, the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest newspaper, kicked off its first year of sponsorship of “Earth Hour” with World Wildlife Fund-Canada.

The partnership that grown into the news company’s longest-running and most successful sponsorship deals.

The Star is set to sponsor Earth Hour for the seventh time on Saturday, March 29, with the goal of drawing attention to environmental issues.

The mission of Earth Hour, which is now observed in more than 130 countries, is to unite communities around the world for one hour to reduce their ecological footprint by turning off all non-essential lighting.

Ever since the Star began its collaboration with WWF-Canada, the company has been asked why we do it, what we expect out of it, if anything, and how our readers perceive the initiative.

When we began the programme, our stated goal was to persuade one million Torontonians, and thousands of businesses and organisations, to participate by turning off their lights and raising their awareness of our ecological impact and the simple ways we can reduce it. 

We asked our readers – both in print and online – to take part.

Obviously, we realised that darkening a living room or even the city’s skyline for an hour might seem like a merely symbolic act, but our larger goals were intensely practical.

We also understood that climate change is the single greatest environmental threat to the planet and one of the top concerns of Canadians. Participating in Earth Hour was a simple way to show we wanted to be part of the solution.

And we took our responsibility seriously. We committed the company publicly to reducing our own ecological footprint at our main offices in downtown Toronto and at our suburban printing facility, which we have continued to do for the past seven years.

That first year we offered our readers news stories, features, and how-to guides on greening households, neighbourhoods, and workplaces. We also provided first-person testimonials from everyday ecological heroes, and issued challenges to participate to our fellow Toronto businesses.

We launched our sponsorship with a special section in which some of Canada’s best-known writers and artists, including Margaret Atwood and Robert Bateman, shared their thoughts on the environmental threats closest to their homes and hearts.

We also produced an Emmy-nominated video, titled “Airsick,” which was formed from the photos of Star photographer Lucas Oleniuk.

Internally, our objectives and expectations that first year were aggressive:

  • Darken the city.

  • Strive for CAN$1 million in incremental revenue for the Star and

  • Reinforce our brand as an environmental leader in the greater Toronto Area.

  • Encourage readership and generate goodwill through ownership of exclusive material.

  • Identify and appropriately reduce the Star’s direct carbon footprint at all our owned and rented facilities.

  • Increase our Web traffic.

  • Leverage sponsorship rights to create opportunities for various divisions, especially advertising.

We reached most of those objectives, and fell short on some others.

But the reaction from our readers and community leaders was overwhelming. Tens of thousands of readers signed up online to participate. Schools around the province of Ontario ordered extra copies so students could join in classroom activities based on programs that we carried in our printed editions. Advertisers took part in our special sections and joined in our drive to enlist corporations to participate in Earth Hour.

The sponsorship was so successful that we have eagerly agreed to renew our involvement every year since 2008 in what has become the biggest annual environmental event in Canadian history.

Although the public participation in Earth Hour is not as intense as in the first years, the Star still fully supports the programme. It’s one public way we can show our readers we take our environmental responsibility seriously and are committed to maintaining our position as an industry leader in reducing energy consumption and protecting the environment.

Oh, on that question about how much an hour weighs.

The answer: 25,000 tonnes.

At least that’s one of the answers. That was how much carbon dioxide the residents of Sydney, Australia, kept out of the Earth’s atmosphere by turning off their lights for just 60 minutes in the very first Earth Hour in 2007, in a country heavily reliant on coal.

About Bob Hepburn

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