The next time you see a celebrity pulling up at an event in a hybrid car, there’s a good chance Debbie Levin is behind it. The CEO of the Environmental Media Association is continuing a novel social marketing strategy, begun in the late 1980s.

By weaving environmental messages into films and using celebrities for positive role modeling, the Environmental Media Association (EMA) has influenced how the public is educated on environmental issues. They assist creative teams, collaborate with environmental groups, encourage the use of hybrid cars and work closely with environmentally responsible corporations. The power of Hollywood is harnessed every year at the annual EMA Awards, which recognizes writers, producers, directors and actors who have included an environmental message in their entertainment work. CEO Debbie Levin has also created the Green Seal Award to recognize environmentally responsible production efforts. She gave us a glimpse of the influential work they do behind the cameras.

How did an organization using celebrities for good come about?

EMA was started 24 years ago by legendary television producer Norman Lear, now 94 years old, along with his wife Lyn, Alan Horn, and Alan’s wife Cindy. Horn also founded Castle Rock Entertainment, after which he went on to run Warner Brothers and then Disney. Before Lear, story lines were very benign and were just funny for the sake of being funny. He took it to a different level. Our mission has always been to use the entertainment industry to get environmental messages into film scripts and use the industry to educate and motivate people.

It seems Norman Lear was ahead of his time, before the topic had even become so popular.

In 1989 people were just starting to take notice of environmental issues and they realized that bringing children into this world meant they needed to think more about the future for the benefit of their kids and grandchildren. Both Lyn and Cindy also happened to be pregnant at the time, and this fact must have added to the couples’ decision to take action. Most other environmental organizations were working quietly, internally, on research or legislation, but nobody was really noticing. Nothing could get the message out on a scale like the entertainment industry could, and that is where the idea originated. What began as an organization that worked with scriptwriters has evolved into using celebrities to communicate through Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. These messages are seen globally, instantly, and can be shared.

Can the EMA Awards be compared to a “Green Oscars?”

What we do is honor television shows, feature films and writers for incorporating environmental issues into their content. We honored Matt Damon a few years ago for his work with Water.org, the organization that he cofounded, and we also honored author and environmentalist Bill McKibben for the work he has done over the last 30 years. Working closely with corporations is also important. We’ve been working with Toyota and Lexus and have a very successful relationship with them. This relationship started during my second year at EMA when we assisted them in launching the Prius. We were the ones who got all the celebrities to buy the Prius, and got them to make it sexy, giving consumers the idea that the car was a cool choice.

From left: EMA supporters Gwyneth Paltrow, Cameron Diaz, Jeff Skoll and Debbie Levin.

From left: EMA supporters Gwyneth Paltrow, Cameron Diaz, Jeff Skoll and Debbie Levin.

It sounds like a type of movie product placement, that instead, happens outside the movie?

It’s product placement in the sense that we’ll make sure that celebrities arrive at all the award shows in hybrids, and we’ll make sure they’re photographed in Beverly Hills, for instance. We really want people to stop using their big limos, the Hummers and big gas-guzzling cars and promote these energy-saving cars. We really work on making the brands of our partners the desirable choice, and because of our success we continue to have an incredible relationship with these companies.

How do you keep EMA sustainable? Where do you get your funding, is it mainly through sponsorship with corporations?

A lot of it is through sponsorship. We have been with Brita and Greenworks for six years and Tiffany & Co. for 16 years. I started a corporate advisory board, to tie them into our work more. I really nurture the corporate relationships. I realized early on that keeping these relationships is vital to our organization, so I’ve made them feel part of the family. Ultimately, it’s not just about companies giving us money once a year; we have structured various revenue streams, including the awards, to ensure we’re sustainable.

How easy is it for you to attract celebrities and actors into the work that EMA is doing. Is it getting easier?

It is actually getting easier, because if you’re an actor, why wouldn’t you want to have a healthy, wonderful, sustainable message out there. Some of our Young Hollywood Board members include Rosario Dawson, Nicole Richie, Emily VanCamp, Malin Akerman, Lance Bass, Adam Levine, Olivia Wilde and Amy Smart. With social media, celebrities are looking for good things that will give them something great to talk to their fans about. It’s not such a hard sell anymore, if you want to rally people around issues such as clean water and better fuel. It’s a way of explaining things to the public in a welcoming and attractive manner. Jeff Skoll has been brilliant in presenting social causes in action, thriller-type films.

Are you finding film writers more willing to change their scripts?

Definitely, as long as you’re specific with writers. If you simply say you’d like them to talk about climate change, they’ll look at you and glaze over, it’s too big a concept. If you tell them they can write a story about a character who is trying to get GMO labelled in their state, or a playground situated on toxic soil, then their eyes light up. You need to give specific examples. At our awards two years ago, four of the seven category winners had fracking story lines, which has never happened before.

Have you ever confronted any big movie production companies over their values?

We actually have some networks, like Fox News Channel, that are constantly challenging our message. Despite being very conservative, one of our board members, actress Daryl Hannah (pictured at top), is on air with them regularly. They like her for some reason and love to argue with her, but she has fun doing it. We have free speech and if they want to put forward an opinion, I think it’s also ok for us to criticize.

Most executives in Hollywood are leaning more towards environmental issues at the moment. They can’t push their personal opinions too much because they’re representatives of corporations, and it is not up to them to do that, but they are becoming more supportive.

I guess the tipping point for change will come about when people see there is money to be made in this?

There’s a lot of money to be made in this, and Toyota is proof of it. Brita and Greenworks are also creating great sustainable products, and the more we support those products the more they’ll keep manufacturing the right kind of products for a better future. Celebrities are highly visible and can make their voices heard to motivate fans. Lance Bass promotes things constantly to his million-plus followers. I consider him our secret weapon.