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March 26, 2009

A Most Unlikely Activist: Jorie Butler Kent

Click the image for Earth Hour's Google map of locations to go dark around the world Saturday.

by Dorinda Elliott

From the looks of her, you would never imagine Jorie Butler Kent as a firebrand. In her button-down pastel cardigan, the white-haired, blue-eyed Vice Chair of high-end outfitter Abercrombie & Kent looks like she might even be ready for a ladies' tea. But sitting in my office not long ago, Butler Kent was speaking with passion about her company's efforts to get emergency relief to Burma after the cyclone hit in 2008. With people on the ground, A&K was one of the few organizations able to get aid out--A&K raised $540,000--to ravaged villages, reaching 17,500 people in the first three weeks.

With Earth Hour coming up this Saturday, March 28, the unlikely, polite-spoken activist is out organizing again--hoping to get us all to turn off our lights. The World Wildlife Fund launched Earth Hour in Sydney in 2007, aiming to draw attention to climate change issues by having people around the world go dark for an hour. This year, hundreds of cities--54 national capitals, including Washington, D.C.--have agreed to turn the lights off from 8:30-9:30 p.m. local time.

Butler Kent has not only signed up her own company--62 offices around the world and 13 camps in Africa, as well as cruise ships in Egypt and the Galapagos--to turn off the lights on Saturday night. Through A&K bookings, she has also helped persuade hundreds of other companies, including Four Seasons, Hilton Hotels, Fairmont Hotels, Intercontinental Group, Radisson Group and Sheraton Hotels, to join the cause. "If we don't save what we have left," Butler Kent told me, "there won't even be an A&K any more. We just won't be around."

Butler Kent has been doing philanthropy work for almost 30 years. She heads Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy, a foundation that funds 31 programs, from a biogas plant and schools in East Africa to wells in Cambodia and a girls school in Jordan. "Travelers are more and more engaged these days. This is what our travelers want," Butler Kent said. "Our guests like to know that we are doing what we can in a very hands-on way in conservation, and philanthropic endeavors."

That said, budgets are tight this year. "We have held back this year. I'd rather do 31 projects beautifully than launch 36 that we can't support," she said. "But we simply can't afford not to do this."

Further reading:
* More on Earth Hour 2009 from Responsible Traveler's Brook Wilkinson
* Dorinda sits down with Anwar Ibrahim
* Make a Difference: Resources for caring travelers


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