“Use less stuff.” With Penny Bauder & Valerie Salinas-Davis

Young people are hungry for environmental information, but realistically, don’t want to go to too much trouble or expense. They’re not Tesla drivers, but they’re worried about climate change, and in fact are losing sleep over it (“climate anxiety”). They give a damn, but, let’s face it, they won’t venture far to collect information on […]

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Young people are hungry for environmental information, but realistically, don’t want to go to too much trouble or expense. They’re not Tesla drivers, but they’re worried about climate change, and in fact are losing sleep over it (“climate anxiety”). They give a damn, but, let’s face it, they won’t venture far to collect information on how to protect the environment.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Valerie Salinas-Davis

Valerie is a no-nonsense environmentalist who leverages the power of communication to nudge anyone of any political stripe to take action. Her latest endeavor is WasteLessWednesday.org (#WLW), a website that deploys colorful gifs encouraging people to try new ways to use less stuff once a week. #WLW is a follow-up to America Recycles Day (November 15), an annual awareness day administered by Keep America Beautiful and cofounded by Valerie in 1997. She is President-Elect of the League of Women Voters of Austin, Chair-Elect of the board of the Austin LGBT Chamber of Commerce, and a board member of Austin Habitat for Humanity. Valerie is currently finishing her first book, Green-ish: How To Protect the Environment Without Hugging A Tree. Written entirely outdoors, Green-ish is a Gen-Z- and Millennial-oriented book that encapsulates lessons and tips from her three decades of environmental public service campaign experiences. This fall, she will begin teaching in the Stan Richards School of Advertising at her alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, where she received a Bachelor of Journalism in 1985. Valerie works as a sustainability consultant and social impact strategist from her home, an “enviro-hacienda” built by her wife Millie. They live south of Austin in Hays County with Sancha, their blue-eyed yellow Lab-Husky mix who inspires them to try to get moving outdoors every day.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

My favorite memories growing up as an Air Force brat in the ’60s and ’70s include mail-ordering an Ellie Mae doll (from “The Beverly Hillbillies”) from overseas when I was 4 years old living in Okinawa, Japan; my parents bringing my adopted sisters home from South Korea when we lived on Misawa Air Base, Japan, in 1968; eating puffy tacos and drinking Big Red at a Tex-Mex restaurant not far from Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio in the early ’70s; falling in love with the Bee Gees and other disco music going to high school in Montgomery, Alabama, in the late ’70s; raising hell with the other on-base kids my senior year at Clark Air Base, Philippines; and my older brother Clint indoctrinating me to college life the summer of 1981 at the University of Texas with motorcycle trips around Austin to Barton Springs Pool, concerts and the lake. My parents (who would have cringed knowing we were riding all over Central Texas on a motorcycle) never raised us as treehuggers. We just knew it made sense not to waste anything, and we wouldn’t dare throw trash on the ground. The seeds to my career creating public service campaigns may have been planted when I won $5 in a fire-prevention poster contest in elemenary school. I used Crayons to draw a house with a raging fire with the headline: “Someone Played With Matches.” I had to split that $5 with my three siblings.

You are currently leading a social impact organization that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

One day before COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, The New York Times posted a March 10 story, “Where to Celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day.” The article highlighted “three big-ticket events perhaps worth traveling for” — the Food Is Life Festival in Napa, California, the Earth Optimism Summit in Washington, D.C., and EarthX in Dallas (attended by 170,000 people in 2019). Then the world got cancelled. So I wrote an op-ed in my hometown paper, the Austin American-Statesman, saying, “Let the unfortunate cancellations of Earth Day festivals remind us we don’t need big expos to learn how to protect the environment on the daily.” That’s when I knew it was time to promote WasteLessWednesday.org as a way to show anyone anywhere–in quarantine and beyond–how to cut down on waste. For instance, did you know the CDC says it’s safe to shop with reusable grocery bags during COVID-19, but that it’s a good idea to toss them in the washer after every trip to the store? Also, demand for tissue and corrugated cardboard is up. We can do our part by recycling, and opting for washable rags over paper towels whenever possible.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

In 1992, I applied for a public information job at the Texas Department of Transportation. It wasn’t until the interview I found out the job was administering the famous “Don’t Mess with Texas” litter prevention campaign featuring beloved Texas stars like Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughan. I think I’ve since worked on hundreds of environmental campaigns to promote recycling and waste reduction, conserve water, and preserve air and water quality. The common denominators with all of the campaigns, including WasteLessWednesday.org: don’t be cliché, minimize the politics and have fun with it.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

In 1994, I took a job coordinating public service campaigns for the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality. When George W. Bush beat Ann Richards out of a second term as governor, 90 percent our legislatively mandated environmental campaign budget was slashed. So we pushed all our money into a new program, Texas Recycles Day, which took off for the next couple of years. As interest for an America Recycles Day grew, a colleague and I quit our jobs in early 1997 and started EnviroMedia, which became the nation’s first advertising and public relations agency to focus exclusively on the environment and public health. Our first big project? Launch America Recycles Day, with Vice President Al Gore as Honorary Chair. In 1998, my phone starting ringing with colleagues encouraging EnviroMedia to compete for the Don’t Mess with Texas campaign business. We were just a four-person shop with a one-year track-record, and the thought of competing for Don’t Mess with Texas terrified me. But we set a goal: get short-listed as a finalist so we could experience our first big ad agency pitch. We put every ounce of our creativity and practicality into our written proposal, got invited to pitch–and won the business, beating long-established, much larger shops, including the global J. Walter Thompson agency.

Many people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

When America Recycles Day was celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2018, my EnviroMedia colleagues and I wanted to create an awareness campaign that inspires people to do more on a weekly basis rather than once a year so we launched WasteLessWednesday.org. Now that the world is forced to be less event-oriented, I believe #WLW is more relevant and useful than ever. Whether it’s starting something like #WLW, America Recycles Day or an agency like EnviroMedia I think what’s fundamental is to do your homework, but don’t blink. Have. No. Fear. When we started EnviroMedia, I was in my early 30s, and had been working non-stop for 12 years. I figured if EnviroMedia tanked, I’d go to one of my favorite places–Taos, NM, wait tables and write. My wife Millie (we’re celebrating our 25th anniversary this year) had a good job, thank goodness, and she fully supported this risky career change. Money’s also important to starting a business, and my wonderful parents loaned me $15,000 to invest in EnviroMedia, which went on to gross more than $20 million a year at one point. In 1997, there was no WeWork, but we figured having a real office was important, so we rented a cool space in East Austin (now tremendously popular for emerging businesses and restaurants), paid a graphic designer to create a logo, letterhead and business cards, and bought one desktop and one laptop computer (both Macs of course). On Day One, we even had 9–6 office hours, and even now, as I work from home, keeping a serious regimen for work versus personal time is so important.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

The most interesting and exciting thing that’s happened since promoting #WLW as a way to protect the environment while sheltering in place is when my Congressman Lloyd Doggett Tweeted my Earth Day opinion-editorial and encouraged his 35,000 followers to visit WasteLessWednesday.org. In the past few weeks, I’ve received requests for more #WLW information from people in the UK and Australia.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

Remember when Matthew McConaughey got busted for naked bongo playing in 1999? We had just produced a Don’t Mess with Texas PSA featuring Matthew and it was about to be distributed. My company’s mistake? Giving a sneak peek of the spot to the Texas Film Commission, which is a part of the Office of the Governor, who at the time was George W. Bush, who happened to be about to run for president. Matthew’s PSA was shelved for a year, and to this day I think the spot would’ve garnered even more attention if we’d been allowed to release it in the middle of that crazy news cycle. The spot even features some jungle sound effects, complete with bongo. My lesson: never share work before a debut with people who have power over you unless you’re prepared for it to be canned or dumbed down. This reminds me of one of my favorite T-shirts I bought at the Newseum (which sadly was recently shuttered) — “The best way to kill an idea is to take it to a meeting.”

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

My favorite cheerleaders are from the University of Texas at Austin–but not the kind who carry pom-poms. When she was Sports Information Director for Women’s Athletics at the University of Texas in the ’80s and I was a young data processor across the street at the Texas Exes alumni association, now Texas Atletics VP Chris Plonskly let me build my portfolio by writing media guides for the volleyball and swim teams. When something opened up on the alumni magazine staff, Texas Exes director Susan Kessler made sure I got a spot as editorial assistant. Fast forward way too many years, and my advertising professor from 1981, John Murphy (now a dear friend), has advocated the past year for a lectureship for me in UT’s Moody College of Communications. I’ll be teaching in the Stan Richards School of Advertising this fall, with a focus on communicating sustainability messages transparently and authentically. I’ll once again be colleagues (way loosely associated) with Matthew McConaughey. He’s “Professor of Practice” in the Moody College for a Radio-TV-Film class called “Script to Screen.” Hook ’em Horns!

Are there three things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Don’t politicize protecting the environment, and as our nation is experiencing so many challenges, it’s just plain wrong to reverse long-held protections when no one’s looking.
  2. Realize that no matter who you are or where you live and work, you can take simple steps to reduce pollution.
  3. Remember, every thing has an environmental footprint. Use less stuff.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

See number 3 above. Costs of excess disposables–including packaging, straws, plastic utensils, paper napkins, and condiments–add up. Companies can save money by having customers request rather than refuse these choices, and by streamlining their packaging. Workplaces can also preset duplex as a default setting on printers, invest in energy-saving lighting and equipment, install water-conserving devices, and integrate hybrid and electric vehicles into their fleets. My mantra “You don’t have to be a treehugger to protect the environment” applies as much to companies as it does to individuals. It just makes sense.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

I’d rather do a five-point “If I Could Turn Back Time” exercise a la Cher, but here goes:

  1. “Squeaky wheel gets the grease.” If you want something, you have to speak up. Decision-makers are not mind-readers. When I wanted that position on the Texas Exes magazine, I called my mother, and she said go down the hall and tell the editor you want that job. I never would have just been plucked out of the data processing department. Later, when I had employees of my own, I always admired the ones who stopped by my office to tell me their ambitions, and I can’t think of a time I refused the opportunity.
  2. “Stand your ground” against the bullies, because some people will always try to get what they want, despite the cost to you or your relationship with them. I got great advice from my assistant editor in the ’80s. If someone’s bullying you on the phone or in person, be silent. Let them flounder, until they sputter out. It works.
  3. “Choose your battles.” Before you stand your ground, be sure it’s worth it. Usually the people who want everything have big egos, and small victories for them go a long way and mean nothing for you in the long run.
  4. “Save your money,” because life always brings unexpected challenges. For me, when I closed my company in September 2018, my wife Millie and I were able to help my parents for three months when my mom had a bone marrow transplant. After she got through that successfully, I got back to work with things like freelancing, and WasteLessWednesday.org, and writing my book Green-ish. I started contributing to my 401(k) when I was 21, so with the pandemic and ensuing economic challenges, I’m doubly glad to know it’s there.
  5. Another boss once told me, “Life’s too short to dance with ugly people.” It’s nice to have the strength to walk away, no matter the cost.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Young people are hungry for environmental information, but realistically, don’t want to go to too much trouble or expense. They’re not Tesla drivers, but they’re worried about climate change, and in fact are losing sleep over it (“climate anxiety”). They give a damn, but, let’s face it, they won’t venture far to collect information on how to protect the environment.

The inspiration for my book Green-ish is a college student who in November 2018 asked me this question at the tail-end of a guest lecture at the UT College of Communication:

“Living and shopping sustainably seems like a complex and tedious task. How would you educate people to take small steps to cut down on the amount of waste they produce?”–Bailey Vaughan

I was almost out of time, so I gave the class a succinct answer: “Buy products with less packaging.” Anyone can do that anywhere, anytime. So I’m writing my book, Green-ish: How To Protect the Environment Without Hugging A Tree, to provide hundreds of simple tips to Gen Z and Millennial consumers to implement where they live, shop, eat, drink and play.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Do it now and apologize later. That’s me murdering the ubiquitous quote, “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than to beg for permission.” The person I first heard it from was my boss, the late great J. Don Clark, who launched the Don’t Mess with Texas campaign at the Cotton Bowl in 1986 with a PSA featuring blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan without getting internal permission at the Texas Department of Transportation. The conservative engineers at TxDOT were seriously upset with Don after they saw the edgy PSA (these days it seems so benign, just cool), but once the campaign caught on, they embraced it–and TxDOT still funds it nearly 35 years later. If there were no J. Don Clark, there would never be no Don’t Mess with Texas–and a whole lot more litter on TxDOT rights of way.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of TerraCycle. I’m a huge fan of his new service called Loop, which delivers name brand products like Haagen-Dazs, Crest, Tide, and, thankfully these days, even Clorox to consumers in reusable packaging. I love the way it borrows from the good old “milk man” model, with Loop picking up your empties. Tom and the Loop team are doing just what I think is needed to reduce our environmental footprints — change the way we make things, starting with the packaging.

If Tom can’t make it to lunch, will you please ping Rachel Maddow for me?

How can our readers follow you online?


@ValSalinasDavis on Twitter

ValSalinasDavis on Instagram


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