Target Green

Agency Q&A: Ann Barlow, Peppercom

Ann Barlow is partner and president, West Coast, for Peppercom Strategic Communications. She also heads us the agency’s GreenPepper practice. GreenPepper is officially housed in our San Francisco office, since many companies here - and the individuals that comprise them - are very environmentally conscious. We do, however, involve people in our other offices, because many Peppercommers have worked with clients on green initiatives and have a great interest in environmental sustainability.

What is the easiest thing a client can go today to kickstart a green image?

We look at companies’ environmental impact in terms of: what goes into the company, what happens inside, and what comes out. So a first step for a company might be to evaluate its performance in these areas, and then start with some small things, such as how it might consume less energy or make more environmentally friendly purchasing decisions.

Once you begin to take more meaningful steps in these areas, you can let constituents know. Most will be glad to hear that you’re making a real effort to have a more positive impact on the environment. Just be careful not to overplay your efforts, especially if the company has some serious environmental issues that will take considerably greater resources to address. If it does, see below.

What is the most important thing a client could do tomorrow to maintain serious green cred?

If a company has real issues, the activist organizations are going to be talking about them. We suggest going onto their sites - e.g., - and doing a search on what is being said about the company. Often, organizations will point out several things a company needs to change, whether it’s changing to less toxic substances in manufacturing products, being more aggressive or responsible in addressing product recycling, etc. The company should form a task force and potentially hire an expert to begin addressing a problem, and involve the communications function from the outset. As the company takes meaningful steps to address its problems, it will be important for it to communicate them to stakeholders. This doesn’t mean a free pass from NGOs, but increasingly they recognize that making wholesale changes takes time.

What NGOs are good partners for a solid green initiative?

There are several, but your readers might look at Environmental Defense’s Corporate Innovation group, or perhaps into the World Resources Institute, which is actually a think tank.

What is your agency doing to become greener?

In San Francisco and London, the offices have long been conscious of energy conservation, waste reduction, and recycling. But now our New York office is working to adopt better policies and procedures to ensure we’re walking the walk throughout the agency.

What company (non-client) do you think is doing an exemplary job of promoting its green status?

Certainly Starbucks and Whole Foods come to mind, not only for their efforts in controlling the use of paper and plastic, but for doing so many other things such as using renewable energy or purchasing carbon credits. But even companies such as DuPont have made great strides in adopting the Kyoto environmental standards. Whether it and other multinationals are becoming more environmentally responsible for social or financial reasons, it’s a positive step.

How should companies avoid the label of “greenwashing”?

Basically, don’t talk out of both sides of your mouth. Activists seem to be more appreciative of the fact that most companies won’t be perfect and for many, their efforts will be a work in progress. But if their efforts look like window dressing, they’re going to be called on it.

What regions around the world are doing the most to advance environmental innovation?

Europe is, of course, quite a bit ahead of us, as is Australia, although the latter has never ratified the Kyoto treaty.

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