Spend a few minutes with Valerie Davis and you quickly get the impression that this is not a woman who merely idles through life. The Co-Founder and CEO of Enviromedia is a doer, through and through. She’s taken a background working for the State of Texas and transformed it into a hugely successful green advertising agency that is barreling forward into the future by creating informed + entertaining campaigns (such as Don’t Mess With Texas and Water IQ), busting greenwashers through a collaborative Greenwashing Index with the University of Oregon, and serving its industry as a thought-leader. Valerie recently sat down with GoGreen to talk business, greenwashing and why some of our challenges don’t look so very different today as they did in the past. If you want a sneak peak at what awaits you at GoGreen Austin—look no further.
GG: Can you give us a perspective on what drove you to start Enviromedia all the way back in 1997? I was looking at your website and was inspired by the witty statements you have on it. So I’m wondering if it’s because you’re just “exceptionally business-savvy tree huggers” or because you were “capitalist pigs with a social conscious”—and maybe a crystal ball into a future that told you green would be big.
VD: Well I would say we’re probably a bit of both, but it was more that my partner Kevin Tuerff and I had our first jobs out of the University of Texas together. We worked at the UT Alumni Association and shared an office together. This was the late 80s and we had a blast working together. We said even back then that we would love to start our own agency someday, but ended up going our separate ways in our careers.
We both ended up working for then State of Texas—I was with the Texas Department of Transportation and Kevin was Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission where he was leading a high-profile environmental education program that had been established by then Governor Ann Richards. He invited me over to come help him with the marketing and work to educate Texans about things they can do to protect the environment, with a heavy emphasis on recycling.
So with that emphasis on recycling we created this statewide recycling awareness day, which is where we ended up putting most of our efforts and dollars. Over time the state’s recycling rate did increase significantly and after three years we went to the National Recycling Congress in Pittsburgh to share the case study of “Texas Recycles Day” with coordinators from all over the country. Kevin was presenting and said at the end, “If anyone is ever interested in starting an America Recycles Day, let me know.” By the end of the presentation, we had a several inches thick stack of business cards. And we looked at each other and decided maybe it was time to start that advertising agency we had talked about a decade before, but focusing on environment.
We knew that to do environmental education, it not only had to break through the clutter and be creative and not so cliché, but at the same time, having worked for the State of Texas with government and industry we knew that you had to be politically and technically savvy.
So that’s how we started Enviromedia. It was 1997 when we quit our jobs to start America Recycles Day, which long story short, is still around and now under the stewardship of Keep America Beautiful.
GG: You mentioned cliché advertising. Let’s talk about the new evolution of environmentalists. When did we transition out of this idea that to be green you had to be an incense-burning hippie and instead could be urban, stylish and tech savvy? And what has that meant for green marketing over the years?
VD: I was in a focus group last night on water conservation and we had consumers from this Dallas area that had household income over 100K. They were very clinical. They wanted the facts. They say that they want to save enough water for the future, but are just skeptical that they can water less and keep a healthy green lawn.
But at the same time, here it is 2010 and they call back to say they believe in recycling. So I don’t know that we’ve moved too far away, as far as consumers are concerned, from the idea that environment = recycling. That’s what it was all about in the 90s and I think a lot of people equate environment with something that’s so easy to grasp as recycling. But today it’s about carbon offsets, hydrogen fuel cell cars, electric vehicles, hybrid vehicles, CFLs, Organics—all kinds of issues and it’s very confusing. I think consumers want some clarity and at the same time I think they want to be doing the right thing.
So I just don’t know that things are really all that different, but marketing and business have been savvy enough to see that there is something here to tap into consumer-wise. We point to the year 2007 as one where huge change took place in American business and global business. And we think it was due to two things. In February of 2007, the UN Climate Change Commission published the report that stated that climate change is caused by human behavior. And it was that same year that Al Gore and his film, Inconvenient Truth hit it big in popular culture. This was an Academy Award winning movie that people were paying to go see. It was basically a PowerPoint on steroids about climate change. And then he ends up winning the Nobel Peace Prize with the climate change folks.
Concurrent to that we saw this green tidal wave of marketing, which hasn’t subsided much since then. So at the end of 2007, we were marking our company’s tenth anniversary and decided that we’d be darned if this green tidal wave comes crashing over our heads and no one knows who we are when we’ve been at this a decade as a company, and more as environmental professionals.
What we pinpointed at the end of that year was a major issue with greenwashing. I’ll never forget, I was giving a presentation to a group in Austin called Leadership Austin, which is full of entrepreneurs and business leaders. We had talked about a whole bunch of things and at the end of the Q&A session somebody asked what “greenwashing” was. I was so astounded. Here were some of the savviest business leaders in town and they didn’t know what greenwashing was. And if they don’t know about it, imagine what the everyday consumer is thinking.
Kevin and I talked about it and decided that we should really be educating people about greenwashing. That’s how we got the Greenwashing Index started.
GG: Tell us more about what the Greenwashing Index is and how it holds brands accountable for their sustainability claims…
VD: So it’s the end of 2007 and we wanted to do some greenwashing education, but were trying to decide what to do. At the same time we learned that the Federal Trade Commission was determining whether to update its “green guide” for environmental marketing claims, which were established in 1992 and at that point hadn’t been updated in a decade. They started this whole yearlong process justice to figure that part out.
If you think of the 90s—it was recycling and composting. 2007? It’s all of those things we talked about—carbon credits, renewable energy, hybrid vehicles. And all of these far more technical terms had found their way into products and marketing—which is a good thing—but at the same time, the consumer is exposed to this very complex issue of climate change. So we thought about what we could do right then to educate consumers, because we knew it was going to take the FTC a long time to even get in the position to do something.
So we started building a website to educate consumers and just through brainstorming, we came to the conclusion that we really shouldn’t have Enviromedia calling out the greenwashers—as much as we would like to. Instead we landed on establishing the first online forum that allowed consumers to take real, live green ads and post them on a website where the criteria was provided to scrutinize the green marketing claims and then rate the ads.
We also knew we couldn’t just be Enviromedia doing this. We’re basically a marketing firm. So we collaborated with the University of Oregon—Deb Morrison and Kim Sheehan—to take on the task of establishing the Greenwashing Index criteria as advertising academics. If you look on the website you’ll see the five criteria that walk consumers through rating an ad.
GG: Sticking with greenwashing, is it all of it a case of bad brands with sinister intentions trying to work the system? Or have you seen well intentioned, but maybe not as well informed businesses be guilty of greenwashing as well?
VD: I think that’s a great question because I think the answer is that it’s probably more of the latter. Meaning good intentions, but not being well prepared to go out and make these claims without thoroughly vetting everything.
There is greenwashing that is intentional; that would fall under one of our five criteria of “omission” or “masking.” Maybe you play up one tiny green thing when you really have this whole realm behind the curtain of bad things that you’re trying to detract from. But I don’t think this is what happens as much. There are some well-funded industries that might get engaged in this kind of behavior, but most of the ads that you might see end up with a bad score on the Greenwashing Index, they just haven’t been as thoroughly vetted as it should have been.
If it’s unintentional, to me, it’s more a matter of if you do greenwash and get called out, how do you correct it? That’s what really speaks to your authenticity. Lots of people get called out on greenwashing and some just keep charging away—others correct course. Consumers are smart. Even in the world of environmental marketing claims, where things are getting more and more complex, consumers can smell a rat. So if we can give them a loose structure to sniff that out, then we feel like we’re doing a good thing.
GG: So if I’m a business owner and I want to talk about the real sustainable initiatives I’ve integrated into my business, even though I’m not 100 percent there yet—how do I do it and not greenwash?
VD: You have to have your house in order when it comes to green issues before you go out and market what you’re doing for the environment. That stands if you’re talking about a product that’s environmentally friendly or how green your company is.
You have to look inward, not just at why you’re doing this but at your whole inventory of activity. So, this is everything that we are doing, but also asking what else is there that we could be doing? Figure out when you can do each thing and what’s feasible (and what’s not). Then at least you’ll know where you stand and have a plan for communication and getting better. That’s the critical point. Take that inventory before you get to the marketing stage. That’s where I think a lot of the accidental greenwashing happens. Businesses go off half-cocked.
An example I use a lot is a bank that says they’re green because you can do your banking online and that lowers emissions and resource use. Well, if you’ve offered online banking for two years prior and you didn’t do it to be a green bank—my question would be, what else are you doing in your own facilities to substantiate that? Do you have a recycling program? Are you buying green products? How good is your water efficiency? And that kind of half-cocked environmental marketing claim isn’t necessarily evil, it’s just not well thought out.
GG: How do you recommend going about those decisions about what’s feasible and what’s not? What is your process for implementing green initiatives?
VD: Once again it’s about taking that environmental inventory first and moving through what you can do. And another observation we have (which especially applies to medium and large corporations) is that if sustainability is just at the program level and not at the C-Suite level, it won’t be nearly as successful. And the poor program people, who are struggling to implement the sustainability mandate, get very frustrated. If you can get that C-Level buy in you’ll be able to do more, it will be more authentic and your efforts will have a better chance of succeeding. It’s a difference between green being in the DNA of a company versus just going through the motions.
GG: Other than C-Level support, what other issues do you see businesses struggling with in getting their sustainability efforts underway or sustaining them? How can they break through the red tape?
VD: Gosh, there’s so much. If you think about the environmental footprint of a company, it’s everything from what a company does to its products and services to operations and technology—and even where its offices are located. It can be this overwhelming, multi-headed beast.
So it’s a big deal, but it’s not impossible. Plus it’s the right thing to do, so you’ve got to stick with it and not get burnt out. This world is evolving and changing. Looking at laws and politics down the road, things are going to have to change.
I’ll never forget being at our first UN Climate Change Conference in Bali in 2007 and when I asked Björn Stigson, who is the President for the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, what he foresaw for companies not working on sustainability, he said, “Well they may be fine now, but in the future they’ll be left in the dust.”
Businesses need to have the foresight to get rolling on sustainability and take the blinders off, because it won’t be status quo going forward on these issues. And going back to your original question on treehuggers, this isn’t just a feel good thing to do anymore. It’s your business’ future at stake here.
Valerie Davis is the Co-Founder and CEO of Enviromedia, a full-service green advertising, PR and sustainability consulting agency with offices in Austin, TX and Portland, OR. She’s also a featured speaker at the GoGreen Conference Austin, Wednesday April 6 at the Austin Convention Center. Register today to lock in Early Bird Rates (through March 1, 2011): http://austin.gogreenconference.net/registration
To learn more about the awesome work Enviromedia is doing: http://www.enviromedia.com