Today’s Guest: Seth Bauer, editor and founder, The Green Guide/National Geographic
The first cool thing you need to know about National Geographic’s The Green Guide newsletter is that you can download an electronic edition of the latest issue for $2.50 right now or spend $3.50, and they’ll mail you one in about two weeks. I like it already.
The Green Guide is truly a magazine of the moment. Whether you believe in global warming, as Al Gore does, or believe it’s nothing more than liberal strategery, as the President does, the environment is a hot topic.
I can’t believe I just said that.
Joining me today is Seth Bauer, editorial director of The Green Guide and thegreenguide.com.
Launched in 1994 and acquired by National Geographic in 2007, The Green Guide is a bimonthly newsletter and comprehensive Web site for consumers interested in a green lifestyle.
Over the past 20 years, Bauer has served as editor-in-chief for publications such as Body & Soul and Walking magazines. He’s also the co-author of the 90 Day Fitness Walking Program and has been published in The New York Times, Outside, and American Health. He is also – and this is very interesting to me – an Olympic medal winner and a world champion in rowing.
Bob Andelman/Mr. Media: Seth, tell me about the downloadable edition of The Green Guide versus the dead trees edition. Which is more widely read?
Bauer: Well, I have to admit the dead trees edition is more widely read, although honestly, the most widely read piece of The Green Guide is a completely free email newsletter that we send out once a week called The Green Guide To Go, and that’s where our biggest audience is, and a lot of people just go straight from there to our Web site. But we do have a traditional print version and its PDF counterpart.
Andelman: Now I have to admit, I’m a bit of a hypocrite here. I love the idea of downloadable books and magazines, but I haven’t read that many of them. It never seems a quite convenient format for where you are at the time, although I will also say that I did find one that seemed to fit perfectly. It was Blogger & Podcaster magazine, of all things. But which edition are you guys pushing? Which are you hoping to see grow the most?
Bauer: Oh, we’d love to see the electronic version grow. It’s a little bit of a trade-off in some areas, because our content is as practical as we can possibly make it, and so we literally like it when people bring The Green Guide with them grocery shopping, and we have the supplemental shopping list often, called Smart Shopper’s Guide, that we offer also for download. But yeah, sure, we’d love to see people save the paper, and over time, we are imagining that there will be easier and easier electronic forms of communication that will probably take care of the need for paper altogether.
Andelman: I guess people would be able to take it on their iPhone.
Bauer: They’re getting there. We have our first phone application available. It’s a fish shopper’s guide, so if you’re in the grocery store and you can’t remember which kind of fish are more sustainable than others, you can dial us up.
Andelman: Well, let’s go ahead and tell people. What would they dial up? Do you know offhand?
Bauer: You know, I will have to get that for you as we talk.
Andelman: Okay. Or we can post that later as a link. That’s not a problem.
Bauer: Yeah, why don’t we do that?
Andelman: Now, do you consider your position as editor of The Green Guide to be as much political as environmental soapbox?
Bauer: No, not any more, and that’s one of the nice things about it. As I see it, there have been sort of three fairly distinct generations of environmental activism, and the first is where it all began, which was really about conservation. At the turn of the century – in the Teddy Roosevelt era – as people realized exactly how much of the planet humans were starting to occupy, they realized they better keep some sections of it as pristine as possible. There was a long, 50-year environmental movement built, really, around the notion of conservation. And then in the ’60s and ’70s – you could call it the Rachel Carson era – people realized the level of industrial pollutants that there were in the environment and what it was doing to nature in every form. There began to be a political movement built around regulation, and testing, a very scientific movement. And then now, it’s what I would consider a third generation, and this is really about simply adopting smarter strategies for living, because people accept now the scientific argument, they accept that they need to do something, they accept that – at some levels of the Administration – the notion that global warming is an issue potentially for all humanity and that their small contributions are important to make a difference. And so they just want to know what to do, what are the simple steps they can take. That’s really where The Green Guide lives.
Andelman: My sense of what you said, then, is that you do not consider yourself as an activist editor, then, or do you?
Bauer: No. I would call it more action than activist.
Andelman: You mentioned the Administration and global warming, and I kind of wondered, are you more amused or annoyed by people who doubt the science of global warming?
Bauer: Well, you know, I think that any scientific inquiry is potentially very healthy. I have no issue with it whatsoever, but the fundamental notion of science is that you look evidence very squarely in the face and you accept the logical conclusion that is drawn from that evidence. And to me, the people who are in the total global warming denier camp are not looking the evidence very squarely in the face.
Andelman: What do you believe? Do you believe that there is global warming as some people have described it?
Bauer: Yeah. I wouldn’t want to call it a matter of belief. I think that there is clear evidence that there is global warming, and I think there is very, very important evidence that a lot of it is human-caused, is caused by the way we are building our society and our culture and our energy use and that many of the decisions that brought us to this point were essentially made without any understanding, knowledge, suspicion of global warming, and if we had had that knowledge, we probably would have made different decisions, and we are still perfectly capable of doing so.
Andelman: So Seth, you believe in global warming. The next thing you are going to tell me is you believe in evolution, too.
Bauer: Oh, I’m not going down that road.
Andelman: Oh, God. Can someone who does not believe in global warming, can they nonetheless be a participant in a magazine like The Green Guide ?
Bauer: Oh, of course, because you know, you can break it down to say, here I am fighting global warming, or you can break it down to say, here I am saving money, taking better care of my family, taking better care of my home and my property. If you want to look at going green at its most sort of fundamental nature, that’s where you get to.
Andelman: I’m an old guy. I’ve got a family, I’ve got a house, and I like to think in terms that we recycle things. But I still have the sense that most people may have that the typical reader for this is a college student or someone wearing the Stevie Nicks flowing gowns or the long hair and the little round sunglasses. National Geographic, I assume, would not have spent the money on a magazine that was going to appeal that narrowly, but how do you make it broad?
Bauer: You know, I don’t think you have to force it any more, and that fits with this notion of environmentalism moving past the political, and it’s part of everybody’s consciousness now. You think about it. It’s a big step for National Geographic, even with the distinction between action and activism, it’s a big step for National Geographic to suggest action, that traditionally for 120 years or so National Geographic has been about inspiration and informing people and educating people, often about the environment, and it has always just kind of come to the brink of suggesting action and left that piece of it to other information sources and organizations. And now, it is universal enough a need and, frankly, apolitical enough that National Geographic is happy to be offering this kind of information.
Andelman: What resources, if any, does the magazine get from the Geographic. Geographic obviously has its own series of geographic magazines. This is a little different. Are there resources that you can draw on there?
Bauer: Yeah, we get resources every which way. From scientific… There are explorers and residents at National Geographic who are working right in this area, but more importantly from my perspective is it allows me as an editor to think absolutely globally. And my take is that different people learn and think and are spurred to action in different ways. Different kinds of information motivate them. Some people are more visual, some people are more aural; some people are more readers. Some people are magazine readers; some people are book readers. There are lots of ways that people like to get their information, and very often, they don’t cross boundaries. People who primarily get their information from TV primarily don’t get their information from reading, and so being part of an absolute multi-media giant like National Geographic lets The Green Guide think about getting its information out every which way. And to me, that’s what allows us to think that this is going to be big now, that there are a lot of people we are going to be able to reach in a lot of forms.
Andelman: Will The Green Guide be promoted in National Geographic publications?
Bauer: Sure will. Yep. That is on the drawing board. There’s a book in the works. We are working with a television group on some things. There are radio pieces in the works. We are really, and you know, we are housed within “digital media,” so we’re housed as a multi-media platform.
Andelman: Now, you came on since the acquisition, as I understand.
Bauer: That’s right. I’m brand new.
Andelman: How has the newsletter changed already, and how will it change in the coming, let’s say, twelve months?
Bauer: I have to answer that that is still in the works. We are looking at the best, broadest way to deliver our information in any platform, including print, and we are looking at a couple of options on the print side, but we haven’t made any decisions, yet.
Andelman: Let me ask you this: what kind of buttons can you push with your readers, and what buttons do you think you have to stay clear of or tread carefully upon?
Bauer: It kind of goes back to what I was saying earlier about staying practical and letting people see and understand all of the benefits that they get from being green, and they are personal benefits, they are financial benefits, they are altruistic rewards, they are being part of a community. The benefits come every which way, and those are the buttons that we push, staying on the practical end. I have a friend, Jeffrey Hollender, who is the founder of Seventh Generation, which makes non-toxic household products, primarily cleaning products, and Jeffrey tells a story of struggling for years to sell his products by saying, buy my household cleaners and save the planet, and the business did moderately well; it grew kind of slowly. And then six, eight years ago, they started saying, buy our household cleaners and save your family, and business took off.
Andelman: It’s the marketing.
Bauer: It’s really where the message is. Let’s think about what your real reward is here. Yes, it’s important to do a little piece of saving the planet, but it’s also important to not have your pets lying outside in, I happen to know you’re a dog owner, not have your pets lying outside in chemical fertilizers, not having your children exposed to chlorine fumes or vinyl off-gassing or formaldehyde off-gassing. You know, if you stop and think about, ask yourself the question, do I really need to do this this way, many times the answer is no, that there’s a healthier way, and that’s really what The Green Guide talks about.
Andelman: Now you’re freaking me out a little bit, Seth, because the yard was just sprayed today, and the kids are out in the backyard in the chlorinated pool. Oh, God, 10 demerits for me from The Green Guide. Before you took this job, how green was your life, and how has your own life changed or will it change since you’ve taken the job?
Bauer: The honest answer is when I was the editor of Body & Soul magazine, I became very interested in these issues, and these were a small piece of what we wrote about there. I took the easy way, and I don’t regret it at all. All those little, small things that you hear about, that every newspaper that runs an article about going green talks about, changing your light bulbs to compact fluorescents, drying some of your laundry out on a rack rather than all in your dryer. All those little things, going organic with your lawn care, those are all of the things that I did My family, I have a wife and an only child, a high-school age son, and we started about four or five years ago, and it all just felt perfectly comfortable. We never felt like we were sacrificing. We never felt like we were making a major investment at the expense of something else. We were just improving the way we do things. We are in the process now of doing some construction on our kitchen, and we didn’t think twice about keeping as much of the existing structure as possible and essentially recycling existing parts of the house or using non-fiberglass-based insulation. All these things at any given time are relatively small decisions, and you add them together, and you have a green lifestyle.
Andelman: This must have been very helpful in the job interview.
Bauer: Yes. No doubt about that. I was well down this road when I went to talk to Wendy Gordon at The Green Guide .
Andelman: You said something else I thought was very interesting. You said that these are all little decisions as you go down the path. It actually sounds a lot like dieting, that you make a good decision every day or at every meal. That’s when you make the decision. As it comes along, you make the decision, well, am I going to eat well at this meal? Well, am I going to buy the right product for the house today? That kind of thing.
Bauer: That’s right. And the trick to being a success at it, like dieting, is not to dwell on what you’re giving up but to really understand and enjoy what you are choosing.
Andelman: What makes a good story for The Green Guide and at the same time, what doesn’t?
Bauer: Practical application makes a good story, things that people can really implement to understand and understand the positive impact of. It can be a huge range of things, from electronics to gardening to what happens at work to family choices to food choices. It’s really a combination of purchases, so your consumer behavior and practices, and any of that range can make for a great Green Guide story.
Andelman: So there’s more to it than rechargeable batteries, paper versus plastic, bottled water?
Bauer: No, that’s not it.
Andelman: Oh, okay, well, that’s what I thought. Those three and just write about them differently every month.
Andelman: Must drive your writers crazy. I guess you probably would tell me that the topic of green is so vast as to be endless.
Bauer: Yeah, and actually, it’s more that like dieting, you think that dieting is a fairly obvious topic, and you discover that there are different things that work for different people and that there are different interests and fads and experiments and all kinds of things that come along. And then in the green world, there’s also a lot of new ideas on the drawing board at any given time and new products and new availability all the time nowadays.
Andelman: There was a couple weeks ahead of when we are doing this interview, there was the Live Earth concerts, and a lot of the talk there was about green and recycling and things, but it seemed like a good day of music. There was a lot of celebrity posing and speechmaking, but a day later, it seemed like it was business as usual. Did any of that have any impact on what you’re doing?
Bauer: Yes — to the extent that a piece of any motivation to change or to try new things requires inspiration. Something like Live Earth is all about inspiration, and it’s not like the comments that the musicians make are going to change people’s lives, but they are going to change people’s awareness, and then the next time they see information on Mr. Media from The Green Guide, they are going to scratch their heads, and it’s going to be another piece of, “Oh yeah, I should be thinking about that. Oh yeah, I could do things a little differently.” So I don’t think that they want to imitate Bono necessarily, but I think that he brings an awareness or any of these musicians brings an awareness to people who, you know, just another little puzzle piece in their overall consciousness.
Andelman: Do celebrities have any place in The Green Guide ?
Bauer: We have had some… Actually, a celebrity was the founder of The Green Guide. The Green Guide was founded under the auspices of the Natural Resources Defense Council, by Wendy Gordon, who is still our General Manager, and Meryl Streep.
Bauer: Yep. And Meryl Streep was involved in the NRDC, and she was interested, and she and Wendy, I think, both became moms around the same and started talking about raising children in a less toxic environment and turned that idea into a newsletter that became The Green Guide .
Andelman: I did not know that. That’s very interesting. And will there be coverage of, will you go to Dave Matthews’ home and write about how he composts or things like that?
Bauer: Only if he does it really practically. I mean, it’s the same, our fundamental method stays the same, which is, we want information that people can employ themselves, and if they think that at Dave Matthews’ house or Oprah’s house or whatever, there are 20 staff people helping to manage the composting and therefore it’s something that he can do but they can’t, there’s no point in our presenting it that way. On the other hand, if we think more people are going to read The Green Guide because it has Dave Matthews’ name in it somewhere, yeah, we may well invite Dave to be a guest editor. And what we do with our guest editors is we ask them a little bit about their own practices, and then we ask them what really their pet issues are, and then we go ahead and do our own independent stories about those pet issues.
Andelman: How will you grow this publication and bring it out of the margins? I mean, the name alone, I hate to go back to this, but it does sound a little like something found on the freebie rack at the neighborhood health food store.
Bauer: Right. Well, thanks to attaching the name National Geographic to it, we have a lot more gravitas than we had a few months ago, and we also have many, many more avenues for marketing and exposure. So we see lots of ways to grow it, from print versions at retail, you may see a newsstand version of The Green Guide in magazine form at some point, to really expanded marketing efforts on the Web. And that is already happening and is really in many ways our primary focus.
Andelman: How important is advertising?
Bauer: Advertising is always important in some form. There is at National Geographic very careful separation of church and state, and so my mandate is to understand that advertising is important and then not to think about it any further than that.
Andelman: Well, the reason I asked is I imagine that that’s one thing that Geographic does not necessarily bring to the table is that it doesn’t have that consumer advertising that like Body & Soul probably had or Walking. It’s a different type of thing, so I wondered if they would be helpful for that or how much you rely on advertising revenues, I guess, versus subscription revenue.
Bauer: Well, The Green Guide as a newsletter has primarily been funded by subscriptions, but as we grow and change in some other avenues, advertising will certainly come into play.
Andelman: And what’s next? I mean, will there be social networking through your Web site? That would seem like a logical progression.
Bauer: You know, our very next steps are to do some blogging. We have some really interesting people lined up to be bloggers for The Green Guide and in three categories. One is sort of big thinkers, and we’ve talked about names you would talk to, people with names you would recognize about blogging on the site. They would talk about really putting what’s happening in the green world into some bigger economic or global perspective. And then we have our own staff which has started blogging, and the staff is really reacting to the news of the day, so when something comes out in the news about new regulations for organic food standards or new products coming out on the market or an energy company making a commitment to using a certain amount of wind power, we’re in a position to put that in perspective for our readers. And then the third group of bloggers are people you could think of as modern diarists, people who are like you. You might have the fertilizer out on the lawn and the kids out in the chlorinated pool, but you’re thinking about taking a couple of steps toward going green. And we have several very good, very funny, very engaging writers lined up to tell us about their experiences and what’s working and what’s not working and what their neighbors are saying and what their mom says and how their kids react and sort of what it’s like as they move in what we would hope to be a positive direction.
Andelman: Finally, Seth, you won an Olympic medal for rowing.
Bauer: It’s true.
Andelman: What year was that, and then what I really want to know is, is there a day that goes by that you don’t think about that experience?
Bauer: The year was 1988. The Olympics were in Seoul, South Korea, that year, and probably there is no day that goes by. It’s partly because I am still so attached to my teammates from the Olympics, I don’t think there’s a day that goes by where I don’t get email from one of them, so it has to be top of mind. But it was a pretty amazing experience and especially for me. I was a coxswain on the rowing team, and coxswains, if you know anything about rowing, are basically the little people who steer the boat and give the commands, and so I’m 5’ 6”, and I raced at 50 kilos, which was 110 pounds, which I could not do any more, and my teammates are all 6’ 5” and above and 220 and pretty much the finest athletes in the world, so it made for a great team experience.