Unlike many comms pros who find their niche through the job itself, Erin Allweiss and Melody Serafino chose PR as the vehicle for effecting change through their dedication to social impact work. The pair co-founded No. 29 Communications before the buzzwords hit the masses, and today their agency not only supports brands doing the work, but also helps founders build their businesses with the world in mind. Read on to learn about the team's many game-changing initiatives, their advice to consumers navigating brands’ authenticity and predictions that both brand- and agency-side pros can take a cue from.
Tell us a little about your careers before founding No. 29 Communications.
Erin: Prior to founding No. 29, Melody and I met while working together at another PR agency. Before that, I worked in environmental politics, serving as communications director for Congressman Earl Blumenauer, who at the time chaired the Global Warming Committee, and also at NRDC and Oxfam.
Melody: I wouldn’t say PR was my calling as much as it was a way to help amplify important stories. I didn’t have some big dream to work in PR, but I knew three things when I graduated from college: I wanted to live in New York City, I wanted to work in media, and I wanted that work to somehow intersect with impact. Back then, that perfect confluence of things didn’t really exist. So while I’ve always worked in PR, very early on I was looking for greater meaning in my work. I often did that by finding ways outside of my day job to feel fulfilled, through volunteer work with local nonprofits in New York City. When Erin and I met and discovered our shared values and ethos, it finally felt like the moment to create the job and agency we were always searching for but couldn’t find.
How did you come together and decide to launch your agency? Did you always seek to support clients focused on having a positive impact on the world?
Melody: We decided to launch No. 29 because we wanted to work with clients who reflected our values, challenged the status quo, and were working to create positive change in the world — that’s been our modus operandi from the very beginning. At first, a lot of people thought this was a nice idea, but not necessarily a sustainable one (no pun intended). 2013 was a different time and people weren't really talking about sustainability in the same way that they are today. Now times have changed and everybody's talking about sustainability — we like to think we were invested ‘before it was cool.’
In a climate where some brands and organizations are still using words like “sustainability” and “green” somewhat liberally, how do you confirm a potential client’s authenticity?
Erin: It’s important to remember that when it comes to sustainability, words mean very little — it’s all about action.
Before we agree to work with a client, we ask questions like: What certifications or accreditations do you have? Can you walk us through your supply chain? Can we come and see how your business operates or how you make your product? Can we invite journalists to come and see, too? The truth is, nothing is 100%, perfectly “sustainable.” I honestly abhor this word, and think we should be more specific. What’s most important is that traceability, transparency, and a commitment to doing right by people and the planet is core to the DNA of a brand. We want to see that a client is truly invested in pushing those values further as they grow, and that they are honest in both their achievements as well as their shortcomings. That’s what’s really important when vetting for authenticity.
We have our own internal advisory board of experts across a range of industries who help us get into the finer details with potential clients, and better vet them on their sustainability efforts and practices. We’re not scientists, so if we need someone to help explain the nitty gritty details, we call them in.
Do you have any advice for consumers trying to sift through empty marketing narratives, and how they can identify those truly doing good work?
Melody: Unfortunately, much of the work is still on the consumer when it comes to sifting through marketing speak and trying to sort out who is greenwashing versus who is authentically doing the work. Here’s what I recommend looking for to make this daunting task a little bit easier:
1. Transparency - beyond using buzzwords, does a company’s website or social media share details about where, how, and by whom their products are made? How do they talk about the materials they use and how those materials are sourced, and how the people who are tasked with processing those materials and making the finished product are treated? We also recommend looking for companies that are actively attempting to measure and track the environmental impact that their product has throughout its journey through the supply chain.
2. Third party certifications - Brands and companies that are going out of their way to have third party organizations vet their processes are doing the work to both get credit for the effort they're currently putting in, and to maintain or exceed high sustainability standards set up by these uncompromising third parties. Look for Certified B Corps, organizations that have been Fair Trade certified, Green Seal, Rainforest Alliance, etc.
In addition to representing clients in this space, you help them strengthen their sustainability practices. How do you do this in a meaningful way? Are there any nuances to staying true to such practices when there’s pressure on brands/orgs to increase revenue?
Erin: Because we’re discerning about our client roster, we have the privilege of working with brands that are already thinking differently and progressively about their practices. That said, we do have an advisory board of sustainability experts that helps us make recommendations for clients to strengthen their sustainability practices. We won’t take on a new client if we think there’s still a lot of work to be done before they're ready to tell their story. While we don’t shame anyone for where they are with the sustainability work they’re doing, we do offer suggestions for how to strengthen it. Sometimes that means encouraging them to pause on PR efforts.
Melody: For VC-backed brands, there’s always a lot of pressure to scale quickly. And with the current state of the economy, we’re finding it’s becoming harder and harder for startups to raise funds if there’s not a surefire path to profit. This can often seem counterintuitive to operating sustainably. Part of our job is to amplify stories of how brands can grow thoughtfully while not losing their ethos. Fortunately, there are increasingly more climate and impact investors, who understand the value in the brands who are making long-term commitments to sustainability.
You recently wrapped the third season of your podcast, Enough (congrats!). Tell us a little about the show, what listeners can expect and how the show might have evolved since you initially launched it.
Melody: We launched Enough. in January of 2021 as a way to cut through the noise of the doom and gloom news and bring something a little different: a chance to hear from the people across industries who are actually creating solutions or thinking in new ways. The podcast is our opportunity to spotlight some of the people we really admire who are on the frontlines of change. All of season three is now available on iTunes and Spotify and you’ll hear from some really incredible guests, including actress Zazie Beetz; activist and model Cameron Russell; Tim McCollum, founder of Beyond Good; and more. We hope it inspires others to take action and reminds people that there are lots of people doing the work to overcome some of our biggest challenges.
Tell us about joining the Diversity Marketing Consortium and how you’ve been able to support underrepresented founders so far.
Melody: We joined the Diversity Marketing Consortium last year because we were excited by the mission, which felt very aligned with our work. Each project is three months and is meant to help underrepresented founders get set up with the tools they need to be successful when it comes to marketing, PR, communications, etc. We worked with the founder of Congo Clothing Company, a global fashion brand on a mission to support women survivors of sexual violence (one of the primary weapons of war in the DRC). The work can entail anything from messaging to creating a PR plan to identifying key influencers.
What are some exciting new client wins or campaigns you’ve been working on of late?
Erin: We’ve had a busy first six months. In March, Happiest Baby received FDA approval for SNOO, a smart/responsive bassinet that has become the go-to for this generation of parents. It keeps babies sleeping on their back and soothes them by mimicking the sensations of the womb with responsive rocking and white noise. This marked the first time the FDA has approved a product designed to keep babies safely on their backs, and the announcement was covered in The New Yorker, Politico, Good Housekeeping, Verywell Family, and more. TIME just named them one of the world’s most innovative companies.
And this spring, we helped Rothy’s raise awareness for New York’s Bottle Bill to keep 773 million plastic bottles out of landfills while also increasing the wage of bottle collectors from 5 cents per bottle recycled to 10 cents (their wages haven’t changed since 1982 when the bottle bill was first enacted, yet they’re responsible for 70% of NYC recycling, which is wild!). With the help of Justin Long, Kate Bosworth, and key sustainability leaders, Rothy’s galvanized New Yorkers to call their local reps and encourage them to pass the bill. Alongside nonprofits NYPIRG and Sure We Can, we hosted an event at the Rothy’s store in Nolita and got the interest of publications from VOGUE and People to Adweek, Fast Company and BoF.
Meanwhile, we oversaw press for the annual TED Conference while bringing journalists to Mexico for Chava Studio, as well as Brazil to see VEJA’s regenerative cotton operations. And we opened a 24 hour store in the LES for Swedish brand ASKET, with press and customers stopping by for the experience.
Next up: we’re really interested in working with a sustainable travel or hospitality brand.
Do you have any predictions for the future of sustainability comms and/or brands in this space?
Erin: We’re seeing more brands being held accountable for greenwashing. There are consequences for words that have no action to back them. The EU in particular is cracking down on this, but the US isn’t far behind. We’re at a critical moment for the planet, and it’s wrong that brands can falsely lead customers into believing they’re making conscientious choices when they’re not.
Melody: Transparency. With ESG regulations and increased attention on how companies operate (think the latest Shein influencer trip debacle), transparency is becoming table stakes. Consumers are asking more questions and expecting greater transparency. It’s not about getting it 100% right; it’s about taking people along for the journey in an honest and authentic way.
Photo credit: Sunny Shokrae
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