The Media Gets a Piece of Earth Day

Earth Day is upon us, and that means it’s time for celebration and reflection, as well as a lot of hard work. Activists in the vast, diverse confederacy that is the modern environmental movement are mobilizing campaigns, hosting vegetarian potlucks, planning neighborhood cleanups and meeting the public.

Not surprisingly, not everyone is entirely thrilled by all the green hoopla and hubbub. One environmental reporter told a group of colleagues, “I’m boycotting any mention of Earth Day. It seems to have become nothing more than a tool for shameless environmental huckstering.” Another journalist told her colleagues, “You all have my sympathy this week. Because I am sure that you, too, are getting called by every PR [public relations] person who ever learned how to use the phone. It’s Earth Day time, and they all want to sell a story.” With an increasing array of green groups competing for the attention spans of an increasingly hectic public, it’s understandable that some people could feel overwhelmed. If you are suffering from Earth Day overload, here’s a tip: choose one or two ways to celebrate our amazing planet this year, and pour some heart and soul into those. Apathy is the enemy of change, and you get out of a holiday what you put in.

Another way to look at the deluge of e-mails, TV commercials, festivals and campaigns tied in to Earth Day (what’s next, Happy Meal toys?) is that it signifies an exceedingly diverse, thriving environmental movement. Perhaps nowhere is this more clear than in a casual glance at your local newsstand. The venerable mainstream powerhouses Vanity Fair, Elle and Time (in the case of a special supplement) all boast beautiful eco-themed covers, and insiders say Wired will soon follow with an issue on rising green technology. Vanity Fair‘s special green cover features Robert Kennedy, Jr. and Al Gore—no surprises there—as well as George Clooney and Julia Roberts. The man who was once Batman is well known for his progressive values. But Julia Roberts? And on the Elle cover, Evangeline Lilly? Although both women are talented, likable and beautiful, their presence on green-issue covers caused quite a few smirks and guffaws among some activists and media types I know, who pointed to a dozen others with more green cred who deserved the attention.

However, after cracking the spines on both hefty issues, I was pleased to learn that both women have actually been working to earn their place in the greenlight. Julia Roberts drives a Prius, reduces waste, buys natural products and is building a solar-powered house. Evangeline Lilly is a recycling maven and thriftmeister. The Vanity Fair issue features inspiring, photographic profiles of green leaders, a hard-hitting piece on the fallout from West Virginia coal mining, and a look at the climate change debate by veteran environmental journalist Mark Hertsgaard that should prove sobering to the average reader of the celebrity-drenched magazine.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. addresses the Vanity Fair release party.© Remy Chevalier, Lü Magazine

At Vanity Fair‘s glamorous release party at upscale natural products retailer ABC Carpet and Home, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. stirred the fashionable, drink-swilling New York City crowd to boisterous applause with his moving, passionate calls to close down the nearby embattled Indian Point nuclear power plant, clean up coal plant emissions and protect the health of children assaulted by mercury poisoning and poor air quality. The wild, mad scientist hair of famed Vanity Fair helmer Graydon Carter bobbed through the aisles of evocative wooden sculptures, Indian fabrics and shabby chic décor. As many of New York’s leading green lights had a chance to meet and greet—and promote their planet-saving ideas—to Carter, other members of the Conde Nast empire and various movers and shakers, a natural candle almost caught my jacket on fire.

Elle‘s issue features the guidance and insight of the publication’s first ever guest editor, and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer, or more dedicated, activist: Laurie David (see “Laurie David: Waking Up America about Climate Change.” David’s boundless energy and tireless campaigning with and the Natural Resources Defense Council have helped set the stage for significant national debate. David and Elle work to bring what many veteran E readers already know to the rest of America, packaging green ethics with a discussion of beauty products, sustainable fashions and home design. The Green Guide editor Mindy Pennybacker (who also contributed to E‘s recent book Green Living, also on the sustainable lifestyle) takes Elle readers through a tour of a healthier, less-toxic home.

In her introductory letter in the green issue, Elle editor Roberta Meyers explains that the issue is printed on 10 percent post-consumer recycled paper, “The cost of which has been generously underwritten by Aveda.” The paper looks fantastic, and is not visibly or tactically distinguishable from any of the other Elle issues that litter the floor under my girlfriend’s nightstand. Meyers adds, “You’re right to ask why we don’t print on recycled paper every issue—why all magazines don’t—and the answer is, of course, economics. It’s prohibitively expensive—right now.” However, activists point out that’s becoming less and less of an excuse. For E, as well as numerous other progressive publications from Utne to Mother Jones, recycled paper has been de rigueur. We’ve used it since our first issue in 1990.

Vanity Fair was reportedly going to print on recycled fiber, but eventually nixed the idea. As one insider told, “They were scrambling to do it but it was too short a time frame and they couldn’t make it happen.” The website estimated that the green issue therefore ate up around 2,247 tons of pulp (representing thousands of trees), and produced up to 4,331,757 pounds of greenhouse gases, 13,413,922 gallons of wastewater, and 1,744,060 pounds of solid waste.

Frank Locantore, the Colorado-based director for Co-op America’s Magazine PAPER Project, points out that Shape magazine, which has a circulation of more than 1.6 million copies per month, has committed to using recycled paper in every issue. Locantore also points to a December 2005 poll released by Co-op America, the Green Press Initiative and Publishing Executive magazine, which showed nearly 80 percent of consumers would pay more for books and magazines printed on recycled paper.

Locantore works with publishers to help them make a smooth transition to greener fiber. He says support for the switch typically comes from many different corners, including activist campaigns, concerned readers, conscientious staff members and key advertisers, notably natural body products powerhouse Aveda, which has been exerting considerable pressure on print media to green up its practices. The company’s first-ever award for environmental leadership in magazine production was recently presented to Natural Health, Utne, and Sustainable Industries Journal.

Model/environmental activist Summer Rayne Oakes meets Don Faller of SustainabiliTV.© Remy Chevalier, Lü Magazine

“Smaller circulation magazines have shown the sustainable direction for the rest of the industry,” says Locantore. “The key next step is to have more large publishing houses take note and follow

that lead. Unlike the ‘speedboat’ abilities of smaller publishers, the large publishing houses are more like cruise ships that take a while to change direction, but when they do their wake can be huge.” If Elle began to use recycled paper for every issue, the annual environmental savings would be approximately 12,000 trees, enough energy to power 72 homes, and the amount of water that would fill six Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Elle editor Roberta Meyers concluded, “But concern about the environment across all aspects of our culture is not just having a moment—it’s at an actual tipping point.” Hopefully, her Earth Day prediction will prove as prescient as the magazine’s penchant for forecasting the rise and fall of women’s hem lines and the popularity of wearing all black or polka dots.

Brian C. Howard is Managing Editor of E.


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