Tag Archives: greenwashing

Green Line Series | W+K Tomorrow’s Nick Barham Flips ‘Green’ Marketing On Its Head

We sat down with Wieden + Kennedy Tomorrow’s Global Director, Nick Barham, ahead of GoGreen to get the scoop on his presentation and his opinions on current trends in green marketing. Check out this Green Line Series Interview for a primer on this Thursday’s talk — “We Hate Sustainability”: Moving Beyond The ‘S’ Word.

GoGreen Conference: Before we get too far, can you give us a primer on what you do at Wieden + Kennedy Tomorrow?

NB: W+K  Tomorrow is an initiative of Wieden + Kennedy, and most simply, my job is to think about how we do things that we’re not currently doing. So what aren’t we doing today that we could be, and perhaps should be? I work on our sustainability initiatives because it’s something that is a changing landscape for brands. I also work with our incubator space called the Portland Incubator Experiment (PIE), which works in emerging technology and I help run a publishing venture. So W+K Tomorrow is looking at how communication in the brand landscape is changing and what we should, as a communications agency, be doing to respond to that.

GG: We’ve been in the business for the past five years of teaching businesses how to improve sustainability, and we’ve noticed a definite shift in language in the market. We’ve gone from “natural” to “green” to “sustainable” now. It seems like the green marketing world tends converge on certain language and visual representations — and if you don’t use the right language, you’re not seen as credible. But your presentation flies in the face of that by saying, ‘Ditch it’. If that’s the case, what do we do instead?

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GoGreen ’11 Phoenix Green Vid: Kevin Tuerff Brings Straight Talk On The Evolution of Greenwashing in America

It might be a wee bit dramatic to say that greenwashing has reached epidemic proportions in America. But the truth is some companies and organizations are trying to cash in on the brand equity true sustainability can bring without walking the talk themselves. Also true—there are far more businesses doing the work to be green, but going overboard on their message unintentionally. The folks at EnviroMedia, and co-founders Valerie Davis and Kevin Tuerff in particular, are experts when it comes to spotting the phonies, the unwitting offenders and advising companies on how to communicate their sustainability values in an honest, transparent way. In this special video edition of the Green Line Series, Kevin shares with us his views on the politicization of sustainability, strategy to stay ahead of the regulatory curve and the evolution of greenwashing in America.

To learn more about greenwashing and how to avoid its pitfalls, come see Kevin live at GoGreen ’11 Phoenix, Tuesday, November 15! Kevin will give a special lunch presentation on the topic for attendees. Learn more about Kevin and Enviromedia at their website and the Greenwashing Index (created in partnership with the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication)

GoGreen Austin 2011: Recap + Resources

Our crew has a great love for the Pacific Northwest, but we have to say that Austin blew us away. We are so inspired by the ideas, the passion and incredible commitment to sustainability and the triple bottom line we witnessed in your fine city. We hope that everyone who attended left as excited as we were and armed with actionable practices to take back to your businesses and organizations.

We want to kick this post off by saying a humble and heartfelt thank you to everyone who attended the conference, and all the speakers, sponsors, exhibitors and community partners that made GoGreen Austin 2011 a smashing success. We absolutely could not have done it without your participation and support! Our special thanks to the City of Austin and all involved departments for the warm welcome and commitment to the mission of GoGreen. We are also incredibly appreciative of support from Lucia Athens, Jessica King, the Austin Convention Center, Texas Gas Service and the Austin Business Journal.

In case you missed out on GoGreen Austin 2011 or just want to relive the fun, we’ve put together a recap with session highlights from three of our favorite talks and resources to explore. We also hope you’ll add your insights, takeaways, links we missed and links to your own recap blog posts in the comment section. Sustainability is a conversation and we want to hear your take on it!

Keynote (Lucia Athens, City of Austin)
Austin’s Chief of Sustainability, Lucia Athens, certainly came armed with inspiration and new resources from the City. Her talk on changing operations to create viable solutions was both practical and visionary—taking into account human behavioral psychology to form the foundation of creating sustainable change. Her approach centered on 4 New Operating Principles to use:

1. Try a new operating system
2. Keep up with the Jonses
3. Backyard Pride
4. Pay it forward

Lucia also announced several new initiatives the City of Austin is starting to enhance green business and provide additional resources for those committed to sustainable practices.

Greenwashing (Valerie Davis, Enviromedia)
Enviromedia CEO and co-founder Valerie Davis (fellow co-founder Kevin Tuerff spoke on the Green Branding and Marketing panel) gave us a lot to think about with her session on what constitutes greenwashing and how to avoid it. We watched several commercials that showed what a wide spectrum there is between intentionally misleading people outright and inadvertently playing up your sustainable efforts a little too much.

The key, said Valerie, is to be transparent, authentic and prepared to prove your claims. How you deal with challenge says as much about your brand’s commitment to sustainability as the initiative you are promoting. An example of a company getting it right is Patagonia, which breaks down their products and reveals all of their sustainable and not-so-sustainable components in a compelling way through the Footprint Chronicles.

If you want to learn more on greenwashing (and how NOT to do it), visit the Greenwashing Index, which is an interactive website designed by Enviromedia and the University of Oregon to give the public tools to vet advertisements and render judgment on the level of greenwashing each employs. It’s a great resource.

Equity + The Triple Bottom Line (Sheryl Cole, Austin City Council; Armando Rayo, Cultural Strategies; Brandi Clark, EcoNetwork; and Susan Roothaan, A Nurtured World)
An increasingly important issue on the sustainability front is the “people” aspect of the triple bottom line (i.e. taking care of people and planet, in addition to profits). The GoGreen Austin panel on equity brought a robust conversation on fair access to information, resources and jobs in the green economy to the forefront of the conference agenda.

Bringing to light that sustainable living is a something to be enjoyed by all people, our panel made a convincing argument for realigning our goals and priorities to be more inclusive of groups historically left out of the sustainability movement—including people of color and low-income populations. One of our favorite takeaways was that we, as a culture and a civilization, have to get beyond the idea that a sustainable citizen is a middle-class, white, hybrid-driving, yoga-practicing American—because most of the world and an increasing portion of America does not fit that stereotype. We need to broaden the definition by bringing more people to the table, recognizing the vast array of cultural contributions to the green movement, creating solutions that fit a wider set of needs, and fostering participation in sustainable living by all.

Cultural Strategies’ Armando Rayo wrote a great follow-up post on this topic as regards bringing the Latino community further into the “sustainability” fold and recognizing their cultural approach to being stewards of the earth. Read that here.

Another group that is actively broadening the reach of green practices is the Sustainable Food Center (this is pulling in a resource from the Austin Business Journal Going Green Award Winner Session, but their work is extremely relevant on this front). SFC is finding ways to provide sustainable, farm-sourced produce to a wider spectrum of Austintonians. Visit their site here.

So what was your favorite session? What did you take away from GoGreen Austin that’s stuck with you over the past 10 days? Our comment section is ready and waiting for your insights!

P.S. Pictures from the day are on their way—so check back for those. We’ll also be releasing select video of the main stage sessions throughout the spring.
And remember, you can get the latest green news and information on GoGreen Austin hot off the press year-round at @GoGreenConf and #GoGreenAUS. We’ll see you on Twitter!

GoGreen Seattle Green Line Series: How To Keep It Real With Parsons PR President Joanie Parsons

One of the hardest lessons learned in taking on sustainability at your business is how NOT to greenwash. As we heard from GoGreen Austin Speaker Valerie Davis a few months back, sometimes it’s not a conscious action—many times offenses occur due to lack of knowledge. Today we take the conversation on talking responsibly about sustainability even deeper with Parsons PR Founder/President and GoGreen Seattle speaker, Joanie Parsons. She gives us key insights on how to keep it real with our communications while actively working towards the triple bottom line.

GoGreen: What makes green communications different than regular communications? Why is it harder to get right?
Joanie Parsons
: The story is constantly changing – green is a fast evolving arena with new technologies, methodologies and certifications every day, as well as an ever-expanding conversation about what green is and can be. You also always have to ask yourself, “How do I communicate the green story in a way that is relevant and that resonates with people’s own lives?” It’s about benefits, not features.

GG: What called you to make this your living? And to integrate sustainable practices so deeply into your own business?
JP
: Communications has always been my passion. For nearly 20 years, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed bringing great companies and stories to light.  That said, about eight years ago, I decided to change the focus of the company. I had a strong roster of clients and a solid reputation. It was no longer satisfying to simply make money doing work I was good at, I wanted to do work with extraordinary clients who were making a difference in the world.,

From a very young age I have felt a deep connection and affinity for the earth and found myself wanting nothing more than to have my company be a change agent for the environment. Green building was an emerging trend that resonated with me, and I decided that I would put all my energies toward working with clients with a sustainable focus, whether in green building, green products, green retail, clean tech smart grid, etc..

A natural progression from there was to transform my own operations to be as green as possible, and into triple bottom line and beyond. You absolutely have to live green in order to understand and communicate green to the world.

GG: What were the first initiatives you took on?
JP
: We invested a huge amount of time to learn everything possible about the technologies, practices and products to make us leaders in the field of sustainability.

We offered our services pro bono to green events and organizations to gain credibility and build relationships. Since then we have enjoyed a client roster of some of the West’s most cutting edge clients.

GG: Where is Parsons now?
JP: We are continuing to evolve as a triple-bottom-line company. We were one of the first BCorporations in the country and continue to challenge ourselves daily to look at our business from the inside out. That’s everything from our purchasing practices to actively seeking out clients that are the most forward-thinking, risk-taking, and committed to a better future so we can support the boldest visions out there.

GG: What’s the key to avoiding greenwashing, while still leveraging the sustainable success a company may have had?
JP
: How to avoid greenwashing? You have to ask a lot of questions, do a lot of research and due diligence on companies before we both sign on the dotted line. Our reputation is everything. If we compromise, or represent a company that is indeed greenwashing, it could cause irreparable damage to our brand. We have worked very hard to earn our reputation for representing the best of the best. We help our clients navigate the complexities that a company must face when it goes down the path of being a sustainable company, and help them understand the vital importance of transparency and integrity.

GG: When can a company legitimately start talking about their green initiatives? Do you have to be deeply green before it’s OK to promote the fact that you’re working on these things?
JP
: Today, you have to have some kind of green initiatives in place – it’s simply expected that most companies will have taken some measures to be more environmentally responsible. We believe it’s okay to say that a company is starting and looking to evolve its commitment. It’s all about transparency.

GG: What is one of the most troubling trends you see in how companies talk about sustainability today?
JP
: Companies jumping on the green bandwagon and not substantiating their claims. You have to walk the talk. You also have to be prepared to be called out for anything you’re not already doing and have a response.

GG: What are some things to keep in mind—best practices—when actively talking about your business’ sustainable initiatives?
JP
: It’s important to stay on top of what forward-thinking, sustainably minded companies are doing for their sustainability initiatives. There are always new ideas out there, and ones that will become tomorrow’s expected elements. You cannot become complacent and say, “Well, we already have sustainability initiatives in place.”

GG: What kinds of things should companies be prepared to defend in speaking out about their sustainable efforts? How should they approach this if called out about something?
JP
: They should be prepared to provide proof – a carbon footprint, formal sustainability goals and measurable successes, a CSR report, etc. Something that shows that they’re not all talk but that they set benchmarks and then measure against them regularly. Again, companies need to stay on top of this rapidly evolving conversation so that their efforts do not become calcified into some outmoded idea of green practices but instead they are continually raising the bar for themselves.

GG: Who do you think has done a great job in talking about their sustainable initiatives without greenwashing or hype? Why?
JP
: Patagonia – they did it before it was hip to be green. They did it because it was the right thing to do. Their president, Yvon Chouinard, said in a recent interview, “This company is an experiment.” What he means is that it’s business conducted in a new, radical way, on purpose, to prove Chouinard’s intention that “business can make a profit without losing its soul.” Imagine that! It’s so inspiring to see them do business on their terms – uncompromising with regard to environmental impact and with regard to their values around balance. Focus on creating high quality stuff in a responsible way, and preserve each employee’s quality of life along the way – and the money will follow.

GG: If you could offer just a single piece of advice to our readers about successfully navigating green communications, what would it be? The most important thing to always keep in mind, in your opinion?
JP
: Yesterday’s green is not tomorrow’s green. Be a part of the evolving conversation. Keep your eyes on the horizon, keep your ears to the ground (well not at the same exact timeJ) and stay informed.

Joanie Parsons is founder and President of Parsons Public Relations and a featured speaker at GoGreen Seattle 2011, April 20th at the Convention Center. For more information and to register to see Joanie at GoGreen Seattle, visit: http://seattle.gogreenconference.net/registration.

To learn more about Joanie and Parsons PR, visit: http://www.parsonspr.com

Be a part of the conversation! Join GoGreen on Facebook + Twitter!

GoGreen Austin Green Line Series: Enviromedia’s Valerie Davis Talks Greenwashing + How to Plan For a More Sustainable Future

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