- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2008

AUSTIN, Texas — With the word “green” representing not only a color, but also what many would describe as a global lifestyle shift, Kevin Tuerff and Valerie Davis have become national experts in helping companies and consumers remain true blue to protecting the Earth.

As marketers who have represented everyone from Wal-Mart to Dell, the Austin-based duo have become leaders in setting the standard for policing environmental claims and urging companies who make them to do the right thing.

With their online “greenwashing” Web site (www.greenwashingindex. com), they are receiving increasing national attention as the advertising world’s green detectives, partnering with academics at the University of Oregon, who help maintain the site, in shining sunlight on marketers and companies who abuse the integrity of consumers with green advertising claims that make them sound hip but amount to fraud.

“It’s a global problem,” says Mr. Tuerff as he describes their whistle-blowing effort. “We want to be known as pushing for authentic environmental change. The way to do that is to educate people to better spot greenwashing and to call companies out on it.”

He and Miss Davis describe their work from the firm’s eco-friendly office, where the flooring is made from cork and the carpet from recycled soda bottles. There, on the top floor of a colorful suite overlooking the city’s hip Sixth Street, the ad principals lead more than 50 graphic artists, account executives, writers and creative types, focusing not only on being good stewards themselves, but directing clients to be thoughtful and honest in the way they introduce environmentalism into their corporate strategy and “tell their green story.”

The business partners pooled their life savings and opened their firm 11 years ago, “before green was cool,” as one press account describes. They were preaching and practicing the mantra of green before Al Gore, Leonardo DiCaprio and Bette Midler, all prominent celebrity activists, fronted glossy climate, energy and conservation efforts and made them red-carpet moments.

Not that Mr. Tuerff and Miss Davis saw themselves as visionary when they opened their niche agency far from Madison Avenue in the Lone Star State, in a city home to actors Matthew McConaughey and Sandra Bullock and a host of musical talents and whose mantra suggests: “Keep Austin weird.” Mr. McConaughey, in fact, has shot public service announcements produced by the company.

“I don’t think we could have imagined the type of social movement that is happening right now,” Mr. Tuerff says of watching their business expand as the world was seemingly forced to take protecting its resources seriously.

Adds Miss Davis of their early beginnings, long before global warming became arguably our most focused and hyped threat: “We just wanted to be a voice that is authentic in green marketing” and to not only hold advertisers accountable, but to “stimulate corporations to implement real sustainable practices that they can tell the world about.”

Now their company, EnviroMedia Social Marketing and a side project, Green Canary Sustainability Consulting, is inundated with business, picking and choosing clients who want to do the right thing but often are ill-equipped to navigate not only solid green practices, but to communicate in language that allows them to appear authentic.

“They have become thought leaders in this area” of marketing, says Deborah Morrison, a professor of advertising at the University of Oregon, who helps direct the greenwashing index site. “They are able to talk to brands and clients and help them better the world.”

Miss Davis and Mr. Tuerff also are rubbing elbows with some of the world’s environmental experts, traveling earlier this year as invited participants at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Bali, Indonesia.

They appeared on NBC’s “Today” program to launch their greenwashing index, which is garnering broad attention from not only marketers and corporations, but also those who are studying advertising as an effective way to see how companies get environmental campaigns right or when they go totally off-track.

The site features more than 100 video and print ads from around the world and allows online viewers to weigh in on the effectiveness and truthfulness of the advertiser’s green claims, says Miss Morrison, the University of Oregon advertising professor who calls it a “delicious teaching tool,” not only for her students, but for ad professionals. They can show their clients good and bad ads and direct them in ways to improve their green approach. Visitors to the site can also engage in a cyber-dialogue around best practices and approaches.

Green marketing is important to consumers, research shows. A 2007 Cone Consumer Environmental Survey found that consumers expect companies to show environmental responsibility, with 91 percent of respondents saying they have a more positive image of a company when it is environmentally responsible and 85 percent saying they would switch companies if they found out about a company’s negative corporate-responsibility practices.

The Federal Trade Commission also takes green claims seriously, opening discussion on its Green Guides - which urge companies to follow the law in environmental claims and packaging - a year early because of the burgeoning green advertising marketplace.

“So often, clients come in, and they want it to be a green claim, but they need to be shown the right way to approach your authentic message,” Miss Morrison said.

“Some of these ads are just laughable, just filled with false claims that go consistently overboard,” she added. “If you are dealing with false claims, then not only do you get into that hazy kind of icky place, but you also get to the fact that consumers say, ‘I don’t buy that.’”

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