Category Archives: GoGreen 2011 Austin

GoGreen Austin 2011 Green Vid: Mueller Development as a Model—Concepts to Reality

The Pecan Street Project in the Mueller Neighborhood in Austin, Texas is a living laboratory for sustainable development and thanks to the commitment of several key organizations, community leaders and municipal departments (plus a grant from the Federal Government) it’s measuring progress and experimenting with practices that will help cities in the US and abroad build greener and smarter going forward. Enjoy this exciting session from the inaugural GoGreen Austin!

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GoGreen Austin 2011 In Pictures!

Photos from GoGreen Austin 2011 are in! Many thanks to the incredible crew from Charlotte Bell Photography—you make us all look good + captured the spirit of the day. We hope these snapshots bring back as many great memories for you as they did for us.

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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 Austin Green Line Series: Growing Clean Energy in Austin w/Jose Beceiro

Austin has been at the forefront of the tech industry for a long time, but it’s only within the last decade that the region’s environmental roots have caught up with its strength in computing to support a robust clean energy and clean tech sector. The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce Director for Clean Energy, Jose Beceiro, catches the Green Line Series up on how Austin’s tradition of concern for land and climate is driving the city to a more diverse (and increasingly booming) green economy.

GoGreen Conference: Can you give us a working definition of how clean energy is different than what we consider normal energy?
Jose Beceiro: It’s all about finding new, innovative ways of producing energy. Energy can be in the form of electricity; it can be in the form of hydropower or liquid fuels. Energy comes in many different forms. But if you think about it in terms of electricity for example, clean energy technologies are things like solar, wind energy, geothermal—even biomass production. The two leading electricity producing technologies right now in clean energy are wind and solar.

Two more big differences between traditional and clean energy are when the technologies are applied and how they’re applied. If you think about traditional energy, you’re looking at fossil fuel based resources for the most part—natural gas, coal, petroleum—and most of those traditional energy producers are used to satisfy base level load power demand.

A lot of the new clean energy technologies are being used in conjunction with traditional energy technologies to satisfy peak energy demand. Peak energy that’s demanded at peak times during the year—here in Texas peak energy demand is usually in the summer months when everyone is running their air conditioners. That’s when you really need to find innovative ways to reduce how much power is in demand through energy efficiency programs or satisfy it with new energy technologies like wind and solar.

GG: Is it safe to assume that a future goal would be to flip that dynamic? And have renewables providing the base line and traditional technologies on standby for peak demand?
JB: Yes. In an ideal world or utopian concept we would be relying solely on clean, carbon-free or carbon-neutral resources and technologies. But the challenges to getting there are pretty steep at this point in time. The biggest challenge right now for renewable energy—which you’ve probably heard a hundred times—is the ability to store wind and solar energy and have it be dispatchable at any time. That brings into the conversation the state of energy storage technologies—advanced batteries and other forms of energy storage. And those technologies are advancing, but until we’re able to identify a cost-effective efficient solution to energy storage and scale it to utility scale, plus merge it with utility solar or wind production, it’s going to be very challenging to get to the point where we’re relying 100 percent on renewable energy for base load generation.

The other important thing to keep in mind is that it will depend on where you are located geographically and what you’re local energy resources are. It depends on the climate and the cost of energy and resources and population density. There are a lot of factors. In the Pacific Northwest hydropower is always going to be the cheapest and most cost-effective way to produce energy. Whereas here in Texas, the current most cost-effective way to produce energy is using natural gas. And that’s probably going to be the case for a long time—until we have a significant decrease in the availability of those resources and/or if the cost of those resources continues to escalate as fast as it is right now.

Once the cost basis for those traditional energy sources gets to a point where renewable energy is cost competitive, then you’ll start to see the flip. You’ll start to see renewable energy take on a bigger portion of that energy demand. So on some levels there are a lot of factors that could prevent that from happening in the short-term, but in the long-term it’s very foreseeable as a reality. And we need to be ready to facilitate that.

GG: When did the City of Austin and the neighboring areas begin to prioritize clean technology and energy as a part of your focus?
JB: We’ve been working on building the tech industry sector since the 1960s. The City of Austin has a very important asset in place that most other cities do not have, in that we own our utility, Austin Energy.

Austin Energy has actually been implementing energy efficiency and renewable energy programs since the early 1980s. Since 1982, the utility, through its conservation efforts has saved more electricity than the annual output of a 500 megawatt power plant. That’s huge.

Austin really understands the importance of this industry and has understood the importance of these technologies on the environment for a very long time. If you go back in Austin’s history, you’ll quickly realize that the Austinites have always been very concerned about the environment and have a similar mindset to what you find on the West Coast.

Because of that mindset the city council members and mayors we’ve had over time have supported the type of energy efficient utility we’ve tried to design and the policies have all emulated what Austinites care about—the environment, affordable energy and quality of life. That’s all reflected through it’s policies and how they implement energy efficiency programs for load shifting and peak shaving, and offer rebates for energy efficiency—whether it’s in commercial buildings or residential structures. They also offer rebates for solar panel installation on rooftops of homes and businesses.

So there are a number of very aggressive policies Austin Energy has had in place for a number of years–decades really. Take that foundation and add to it the fact that Austin is a high-tech city as well, and you get this interesting high-tech economy built around advanced technologies that help the environment. That mindset is what propelled Austin to launch itself into the clean tech industry.
Austin, along with several other cities around the country—Portland, Boulder, the Silicon Valley area, Raleigh and Boston—is leading the charge here in the United States on being the top clean technology centers in the world. In Austin, we’re doing everything from recruiting clean tech companies to building new clean tech startups from the ground up to clean technology research at the University of Texas. We’re really just now hitting our stride in terms of building a clean technology economy, but Austin has been focused on this for a long time and it’s something we are aggressively pursuing for the future.

GG: There are many cities around the country without that tradition of environmental concern. Do you see Austin influencing these cities and helping their leadership recognize the benefits?
JB: Definitely. Along with the cities I just mentioned, Austin is at the forefront of the clean tech revolution. We’re working hard to set an example for how other cities, states and even other countries can build a thriving clean tech economy.

The best example of a replicable project we have going right is a smart grid research consortium called the Pecan Street Project. It’s a project funded through a $10.4 million Federal Department of Energy (DOE) stimulus grant. The goal of the Pecan Street Project is to create a set of standards around smart grid technology. We’re looking at everything from solar panels on rooftops to charging stations within the home and also public charging stations for electric vehicles. We want to discover not only how to incorporate electric infrastructure, but also water and natural gas infrastructure for both residential and commercial applications. We’re essentially discovering how to design neighborhoods and cities to be sustainable—and incorporating everything from smart grid to smart water and smart gas.

The neighborhood site, which used to be the site of our old airport, is called the Meuller Development. All the homes are green built and all the commercial businesses are minimum LEED certified building construction. It’s already a very energy efficient neighborhood, but now that we’re doing the demonstration project, we’re starting to incorporate home energy monitoring systems, commercial solar installations, even adding in combined heat and power cogeneration, etc.

The results of this smart grid demonstration project are going to be results that we enthusiastically share publically. We’ve already had a number of cities travel to Austin to do a fact-finding mission, understand how we’ve been able to do this and see the ways we’re pushing envelop in these areas. We’re very open to sharing our challenges too. I think other cities around the country are very interested in seeing the process we’re going through with the Pecan Street Project. And we understand that whatever kind of smart grid system we design with Austin Energy and the particular solutions we find that work for us, may not be the perfect solution for Seattle or Portland or Chicago. What we’re hoping to share is the process.

GG: As an employee of the Chamber of Commerce, you obviously have major interest in growing Austin’s economy and keeping its business industry going strong. Why are clean energy and clean tech so important to Austin’s economy? Do you see them as important pieces of the national economy as well?
JB: The importance of clean tech to Austin is huge. It hasn’t always been a constant rosy picture here. We’ve gone through ups and downs just like other cities. Our tech economy started back in the 1960s and it was founded primarily on software technology, IT infrastructure and computers. We’ve had several different technology consortium efforts over the years that have served to grow each of those industries.

In the 1980s we had a consortium called SemTech, which spurred the growth of the semi-conductor industry. We were able to establish the high-tech footprint here, but as the global economy went through its ups and downs, we saw over the years that even with a strong tech industry, our economy wasn’t diverse enough to prevent us from getting swept up in economic downturns.

The difference adding in the diversity of industries like clean tech has made is evident in looking at the last decade or so. Around the time when the 2000 recession hit, we had already chosen to target the clean tech industry. We had a lot of the pieces in place, with our semi-conductor and software computing background, but we hadn’t started to rollout or translate these technology areas into solar and wind, and so on. And our economy got hit pretty hard. Within a span of eight or nine months we lost around 30,000 jobs just in the tech industries.

So what we started to do in 2002 and 2003, was specifically target emerging tech sectors like clean tech and bio tech, convergent technology areas, and wireless technology. Over that almost 10-year span, we’ve been able to develop a much more diverse technology spectrum in Austin. It’s made a huge difference. During the 2008 recession we came out pretty good. For the most part Austin was immune to what was going on compared with most other cities.  I think a big reason for that is that we’ve put so much focus into diversifying our economy as much as possible and building aggressively in new, high-growth industry sectors like clean energy and clean tech.

At the national level, the importance of clean tech is really found in discussions on national policy going forward. I believe there is huge job creation potential in these industries that the US can benefit from. We’ve already seen that realized in the automotive industry when the Federal Government got involved and essentially took the reigns. They heavily influenced that industry to transition over to new, more efficient automotive technologies. It’s a big reason why we’re starting to see electric vehicles and electric hybrid vehicles come off the assembly line in Detroit.

I also think there is a huge new opportunity to capture new jobs in industries like solar tech. That industry is booming nationwide and benefitting many states—Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado. All of these economies are reaping the benefits. Similarly for other clean energy technologies, the Midwest is benefitting from wind power generation development.

The economic impact and job creation potential of the various clean technologies are something that can benefit most places across the country. They also spur the energy debate, helping us be more energy efficient, conscious and independent. Growing these industries helps us get to a place where we don’t have to be so dependent on foreign oil to power our transportation sector or sustain our economy. And we’re only seeing the beginning of these benefits.

GG: What’s happening at the Chamber of Commerce that has you really excited? Is there a special project or a goal that you’re chasing?
JB: Currently one of the most exciting things we’re working on is related to smart grid technology. Through the Federal Stimulus Program, Austin was chosen as one of nine metropolitan areas in the country to participate in an electric vehicle charging station test program called ChargePoint America. The total amount of funds available was $37 million and Austin will be around 200 charging stations in the next 12 to 18 months.

The exciting thing for me is that the electric vehicle sector is one of the areas within clean technology that we’re targeting for growth. We want to see more electric vehicles on the roads here in Austin, but we also want to track other pieces of the industry like assembly, manufacturing, R+D and design. So we’re working a number of projects right now in order to attract electrical vehicle manufacturers to Austin.

Looking back at how Texas got into wind energy, you can see the potential for this niche of the industry. The wind industry was essentially non-existent 15 years ago in Texas. Then the State proactively began developing it. Everyone knew Texas had a vast resource in wind available, particularly in West Texas. So the State started to proactively construct transmission lines out to where the wind resource had the greatest potential.

Those high wind resource areas were not necessarily the most populated in the state, so there was a lot of debate over whether to spend all that money to build out the infrastructure, but the State went ahead and did it. In less than a decade, the state of Texas went from having essentially zero megawatts of wind capacity to now having over 10 Gigawatts of wind capacity. Think about what that could mean for electric vehicles if we can match that success.

GG: What do you hope people take away from your session on Funding Green: Financing Options for Sustainable Business Initiative at GoGreen Austin?
JB: I’m hoping that attendees will better understand is just how important and big projects like the Pecan Street Project and the potential of smart grid are.
There are few other demonstrations going on around the country, but none have the scale and focus that Pecan Street Project does. It’s bringing together utility stakeholders, university stakeholders, private sector companies as well as environmental groups to create something huge for people.

I hope people see that we have some really powerful, unique things going on here in Austin. Things that are very much worth sharing with the outside world as potential repeatable projects in other communities.

Jose Beceiro is the Director for Clean Energy at the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and featured speaker at GoGreen Austin 2011. Join Jose and the GoGreen team April 6th as he leads a stellar session on Funding Green: Financing Options for Sustainable Business Initiatives. For details or to regisiter, visit: Get all the latest updates via our Facebook Page.

To learn more about the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and their work in sustainable sectors, visit:

GoGreen Austin Green Line Series: Building a Greener Future With Gail Vittori

Gail Vittori has been pushing boundaries at the intersection of building science and sustainability for 35 years. On April 6 she’ll share with GoGreen Austin attendees where green buildings are going and the impact they have on both the bottom line and our communities. But for now, we’ve got a sneak peek at what you’ll hear from Gail. In this edition of the Green Line Series we discuss the impact of LEED, how green buildings can serve everyone (not just the well-to-do) and what we need to do as citizens to ensure these buildings live up to their potential.

GoGreen Conference: What does it say to you that we’re seeing such iconic buildings as the Empire State Buildings, the Pentagon, etc. undergo renovations to be greener and more efficient? Do you think we’ve hit a tipping point in how we define a successful architectural project?
Gail Vittori: Green building is increasingly viewed as an investment strategy to secure long-term and resilient value in our building portfolio—whether public or private sector, residential, commercial or institutional.

GG: LEED has its critics, but what do you think that program has done for the green movement and the building industry?
GV: Every transformational initiative generates a healthy dialogue and debate. LEED has successfully integrated green building methods and materials into the fabric of the 21st century’s built environment at virtually every scale and every building type. By providing a common language and metric to measure performance in the context of a 3rd party certification system, LEED provides a unique literacy about the built environment’s relationship to environmental quality, human health, and social equity. And, because it is an evolving and ‘learning’ system, it continues to raise the bar and refines market signaling based on maturing practice.

GG: Is there a disconnect between the moral argument and the business case for sustainable buildings? Or are they two sides of the same coin?
GV: They are intrinsically connected though people may focus on one more than the other.  The business case is an underpinning to bring this to scale—which is happening—particularly notable in an economically fragile environment.  For green building to sustain its market position in this context is testament to its immediate and longer-term measurable values.

GG: Can businesses afford not to build green? What is at stake here? And what are the consequences of not choosing green?
GV: The market is differentiating green buildings as better buildings for people and the environment and the bottom line. That’s versus non-green buildings that burden owners with high operational costs and have compromised interior environments that undermine people’s health, well-being and productivity.  The green schools movement is an example of how this mindset has shifted from spending money to investing in better buildings and better environments for the future.

GG: What is the missing link? If greener buildings save more energy (and therefore resources/money) and are safer (less toxic; more structurally sound) then why isn’t every city mandating they be the standard going forward?
GV: Innovation is a gradual process that tracks early adopters, early majority, majority etc. through the innovation life cycle. There continue to be misperceptions in the marketplace about the cost and value of green.  The early adopters have a unique opportunity to share their stories buttressed with real data to bust the myths.

GG: How do we bring these safer, more efficient living, working and social environments to people in lower income brackets? So that they truly serve a triple bottom line rather than merely becoming symbols of gentrification?
GV: It’s happening more than is readily apparent. There are multiple initiatives underway today that underscore the viability of green building for all—including the federal commitment to green all public housing units in the US; 40% of LEED for Homes certified projects meet affordability criteria; Enterprise Foundation’s commitment to affordable green and many, many more.

GG: What is the educational component of maximizing the effectiveness of green buildings? Are they just inherently better or do we need to “read the owner’s manual?” Does that just go for building owners/users or for builders/contractors as well?
GV: It’s important to have green building visibility and literacy through the entire supply chain—and integrate multiple stakeholders through the process to inform, guide and teach so that solutions reflect the collective intelligence.

GG: What is your take on the EcoDistricts concept? Is it the next wave of progress for the green building movement?
GV: Moving from a building-centric focus to a neighborhood or block focus makes sense and gains the value of economies of scale while building the communities where people want to live, work, learn, heal and play.

GG: What do you hope attendees of GoGreen take home with them? What is the value of coming together as a business community to discuss sustainability issues?
GV: It’s happening; it’s a compelling business proposition; it provides a competitive edge; it establishes a basis for resilient value; we will do better from listening to and learning from each other.

Gail Vittori is Co-Director of the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, a non-profit design firm dedicated to sustainable planning, design and demonstration. She is also a featured speaker at GoGreen Austin, April 6 at the Austin Convention Center. To see Gail and over 60 more renowned green professionals from the Austin business region speak, visit:

To learn more about Gail and the Center For Maximum Potential Building Systems, visit:

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):

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