Role Modeling Green Change with the Environmental Media Association’s Debbie Levin
March 13, 2015
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and today we’ve got my good friend and long-time friend, Debbie Levin. She’s the President of the Environmental Media Association. Welcome back to Green is Good, Debbie. DEBBIE LEVIN: Thank you, John. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Debbie, you are not only my long-time friend, but even better than that, you’re my very good friend. When we started this little show on one station in Fresno, California, and no one wanted to come on, I called you one day and before I even got the whole pitch out, you said, “Done. Put me on whenever you want.” You came on, and you helped launch the whole show. Here we are now years later, and you’re back on the show, but we even have a little bit of a fun announcement towards the end of the show today, how we’re going to be teaming up together and co-hosting a special Hollywood EMA version of Green is Good at the end of March. We’re going to talk about that later, but thank you for helping me launch the show, and thank you for always being such a great friend and being such a great partner with EMA. You’re just the best. DEBBIE LEVIN: You are the best as well. It’s been so amazing to be able to be on this journey with you and your incredible company. You are a corporate board member, so we can’t forget about that, that John sits on our EMA corporate board. Just being part of the growth and the awareness of the green movement together has been so exciting to do this with you. JOHN SHEGERIAN: It’s been a journey. I’ll tell you that. It’s been the fastest 10 years of my life, our friendship and what we’ve seen together and what we’ve done together. I want to talk about some of the more important things, but before we even get into EMA and the journey on EMA together with my company, with what you’re doing with EMA, and just the brilliant work you’ve done and how you’ve evolved that organization, talk a little bit about Debbie Levin and the Debbie Levin story and how you even got involved. It’s such a great story, how you got involved with EMA and you being brought in and how you’ve grown it since your beginnings at EMA. DEBBIE LEVIN: It’s a weird story, because this is not how people normally come in and run a company. It’s a good time, too, because I’ve been running the organization for 15 years now. I’m a mom. I’m a grandmother now, which is crazy, but I was a mom and I had done some work in the entertainment industry and TV development, which is nothing like non-profit development. TV development means you read scripts. Non-profit development means you raise money, really a different business. I was like a TV person, kind of, but mostly I was a mom to two children. I was invited to a luncheon, which was the 9th annual Environmental Media Awards. To put it into perspective, we’re going to be celebrating our 25th annual Environmental Media Awards this year. It was the 9th annual Environmental Media Awards, and it was a little luncheon at the Beverly Hilton hotel during the day. It was OK, a couple hundred people there. I was a guest. I knew nothing about the organization, and to be really honest, I knew nothing about the environment. I sat there and I started listening to the mission, and then I found out that Norman Lear, who was a pioneer of television and incredible shows like All in the Family and Maud and Good Times and all these amazing shows that I watched as a kid, where he brought social messaging into comedy for the first time – I found out that Norman had founded the organization, and I thought this is like the most important person in the entertainment industry. Why aren’t there 9 million people here? Why isn’t this a huge organization? This is the most important message I’ve ever heard in my life. Somehow if it was a cartoon, a lightning bolt would have struck me or something. I started asking literally a million questions to the person sitting next to me, who I had no idea was the board chair. Why aren’t you guys doing this, and why aren’t you guys doing that? This guy looked at me and he said, “Hey, can you go to lunch with me tomorrow?” I’m like, “OK.” Literally, he asked me to come and run the organization. I had no idea what I was doing. I walked into an office and, honestly, no one was there. There was no assistant, and what he neglected to tell me was that they had this amazing organization with an incredible board, and there comes a time sometimes when no one’s really running something and they don’t know what to do. That was the time. They didn’t care. Here’s this curious person. Let her run it. What happened was I kind of had a few months or so to have the 10th Annual Environmental Media Awards, and it was either going to work or not. I honestly have no idea, but I figured it out. We had our 10th Annual Awards at the end of the year, and we honored Pierce Brosnan, who was 007 at that time. Honestly, I have no idea how I did it. It kind of worked and I kind of figured it out, and it was kind of amazing. I think the main thing was that I recognized that if this movement was going to work, we needed to reach the young demographic, and it needed to be young and cool and resonate with the business community and reach pop culture. Our message was always our mission, was always to be the role model for environmental and sustainable lifestyle, and that’s what we had to do. It was really life changing for me because I was able to be a great role model for my kids, first and foremost, and do something that I loved and that I still love. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Sometimes when you overthink something, it just never turns out, but when you act on your gut and you act on your heart, look at how this thing has turned out. Talk a little bit about how you’ve grown EMA in all these years, from those humble beginnings and that immediate “yes” at the next day lunch to where it is today. Share a little bit about that journey, Debbie, because I’ve seen the last 10 years of it, and I’m blown away about who you’re involved with and how you’ve become a force yourself in Hollywood, in terms of sustainability and thought leadership. Share a little bit of how you’ve grown it since those humble beginnings. DEBBIE LEVIN: What we did have with the organization was amazing founding families, and I ran with that. Our founders were Cindy and Alan Horn. Alan runs Disney, and he ran Warner Brothers for 13 years and now he runs Disney. Norman Lear is amazing and so his wife. We built the board so that we have the head of every studio, network, so I’m a phone call away from everybody. I then thought, what we really need is we really need the young actors. So I created a Young Hollywood board because I felt that was really important. We started to build boards with all of the young talent, so that they would feel engaged and started working with them on PSAs and different programs. They get really excited about that. We also started a parent board more recently because everybody keeps having babies. We thought, OK, we’ll move them over to a parent board and start having salons and their other missions. The other thing that we did that I think was really important is our corporate relationships are really, really important. I was fortunate enough to meet Toyota early on, and I met Toyota at the very, very beginning of 2001, when they were ready to launch the Prius. We formed a relationship, and we actually are celebrating our 15th anniversary together. We launched the Prius with Toyota. We got all the celebrities to buy Priuses. We worked with the paparazzi to take pictures of them in their cars. We got the talent to arrive at award shows in them, and we really tried to make the car sexy and the go-to vehicle to be in and really shifted the way people thought about hybrids and alternative fuel vehicles. Because of that relationship, we were written up in tons of business magazines. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I want to pause you right there because I’m going to speak from two places, A) a personal experience for our listeners to hear. A) You were the one that convinced me to also get involved with Toyota, so we bought all Camry hybrids back in 2007 on your suggestion for all of our salespeople. We said, “Go drive up and down California’s roads, and go land business.” Those hybrids are still on the road in 2015, all with over 250,000 miles. That’s thanks to you. I also remember, and I have the quote here in front of me, when Fortune magazine called EMA “a secret weapon for Toyota Lexus,” and they gave credit to EMA and to you as singlehandedly responsible for getting the droves of celebrities into Toyota hybrids. That’s a quote about you and EMA. DEBBIE LEVIN: It’s been pretty great. I have to say, I have such a huge respect for what the business world and what corporations like yourself and like Electronic Recyclers can do, and Toyota and all the different companies. I believe that the power is with consumers in changing the way the environment looks. People make choices every day. People buy stuff every day, and that’s the power that we have. Legislation is amazing, but it takes a long time. People make these decisions with their choices in what they purchase. We’ve been really strong advocates for supporting corporations that have sustainability in their corporate structure, in not only their corporate culture, but in their products as well and what they do. By aligning ourselves with them, I think that we can literally change the world. That’s with the way social media is at this point. We use our celebrities to tweet and to use all their different ways of communication to support those corporations. We actually started a corporate advisory board, which you sit on, to keep all of our corporate relationships on a cohesive board and engaged with EMA and part of our community. That’s another thing that I started about seven years ago because what we want to do is we want to keep all of our relationships as something that we really, really respect and cherish at EMA. Whether it is our young celebrities or our corporate executives, everybody is part of that same incredibly passionate EMA community. Everybody has a really, really strong voice in what we do and who we are, and everybody works together. I think the combination of all of that makes us so unique. Again, it was not something that I think that I had a business plan for; it all came very naturally because this is what we were doing. It all made so much sense, and it all shifted people’s lifestyle. It’s just kind of like when we get our celebrities, they get really excited, they become more engaged, and then they bring their friends in. So many of our celebrity board members are friends of friends of friends. They change their entire lifestyle. They start eating organically, they start buying different kinds of food, their whole way of life has been informed by their involvement with our organization. Because of that, they bring in their relationships and they tend to only buy from our sponsors’ products. It’s amazing. We have an incredible organic mattress company, Naturepedic, who’s one of our sponsors. Everyone has a Naturepedic bed, and they’re amazing. It’s incredible. Or earth-friendly cleaning products, everybody is using earth-friendly cleaning products because we just talk about it and they want to try these things because we have vetted it. They trust us. It’s kind of like this amazing club to belong to. Another thing that we’ve done, and this happened in 2003, is that we started the EMA green seal. We’re founded by messaging and the idea was to put environmental messaging into content, but what we weren’t doing was paying attention to the actual physical production. That’s something that you and I have been working on for a long time, in terms of e-waste. What happened was I actually went to the set of one of Hollywood’s greenest celebrities to visit and to actually bring them stuff for on-camera, like recycling bins and canvas bags and stuff for an on-camera set. I’m looking around, and I’m realizing that nothing is even being recycled on their set backstage. I’m thinking, these people would die in their own homes if this is what was going on. I’m looking at a trash can with a script and a banana peel and water bottles, and no one’s even noticing this. So I go home and I called Ed Begley and I called Daryl Hannah and I called all my friends and our board members, and I’m like, “OK, guys, this is the most embarrassing thing ever, and we need to do something about this. We have to create something that’s going to take care of the sets.” So we all got together. We had, I think, a network head and some producers and a whole little committee. This was in 2003, and we came up with 10 easy things that the studio wouldn’t yell at us about, that wouldn’t cost them money, that would make a set greener. It’s now turned into the EMA green seal, and there are sustainability departments at every studio and criteria that they’re given before they go into production. There’s 150 points that people have to make in order to get it, and we’ve given away over 500 EMA green seals to this day. We’ve also greened the Grammys and the Emmys and the SAG Awards, and all that happened because of an embarrassing set. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners out there, we’ve got Debbie Levin on with us. She’s the President of the Environmental Media Association. You can learn more about all the great things they’re doing at the Environmental Media Association at www.ema-online.org. Debbie, we have a lot of things to talk about. We have a few minutes left here. Talk about a few of your most exciting initiatives for 2015 coming up, and then let’s talk about Hollywood taping coming up at the end of this March and what we’re going to be doing there. EMA and Green is Good get together to do a little Hollywood sit-down together, you and me both co-hosting Green is Good. DEBBIE LEVIN: That is the most exciting thing that’s happening. I’m really excited about it, because my friends are going to sit and we’re all going to hang out, and we’re going to talk about what we do. This is our 25th anniversary of the EMA awards, so that’s going to happen in October-November of this year. That’s going to be really big. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I also want to mention, you’ve talked about transformative brands and how you brought Toyota in. I also wanted to mention the great brand that you brought in as another transformative brand, Tiffany is one of your supporters. DEBBIE LEVIN: Yes. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Do you want to share a little bit about them? DEBBIE LEVIN: They’ve been with us for over 15 years as well. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And they’ve been really helpful to you, right? DEBBIE LEVIN: They’ve been really helpful. First of all, they do all of our gorgeous, gorgeous awards that we have for the EMA awards. They’re Tiffany awards, which is kind of amazing. All of their diamonds are no conflict, and they have an incredible sustainability mandate on a corporate level that I think that people don’t really realize. We were able to give them a corporate responsibility award five years ago, and that was great for us because people don’t know this about them. They just think they’re Tiffany; it’s like the little blue box. It’s amazing. But they also do incredible environmental work. It’s really been wonderful for us to be able to share that with everybody. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So what are we doing together? Talk a little bit about Green is Good and EMA have partnered up to go Hollywood together. You and I are co-hosting a show. We’re going to have four shows we’re going to be taping with 12 guests. Talk a little bit about that before we sign off today. DEBBIE LEVIN: I think we’re going to bring in some of my celebrity friends who have so much to talk about. All of our celebrity board members are so authentic and so passionate and so smart. They’re really excited about coming on and sharing what they really care about with you and with us. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s going to be great. I’m so honored we’re going to be co-hosting together. You and I are going to be co-hosting Green is Good goes EMA, goes Hollywood together at the end of March. Those shows will air and also be heard on Clear Channel and also online. We’re going to be videoing those shows, so you and I will be here together some time in April with all those four shows. It’s going to be so exciting, Debbie. Again, Debbie Levin, she’s the President of the Environmental Media Association. She’s coming on to co-host Green is Good with me. Check out more of the Environmental Media Association’s great work at www.ema-online.org. Thank you, Debbie Levin, for being an inspirational thought leader in Hollywood in sustainability. You are truly living proof that green is good.