TreeHugger Founder Graham Hill on our 10th Anniversary
Graham Hill launched TreeHugger.com in the summer of 2004, with the goal of “driving sustainability mainstream.” He sold the site to Discovery in 2007, and in 2012 TreeHugger became part of Mother Nature Network. The site has published over 69,000 posts on design, transportation, nature, lifestyle and environmental news. Although he Hill is no longer involved with the day-to-day operations of the site, he is still a regular reader.
In honor of our 10th birthday, we sat down with Hill to talk about why he started the site and how it’s changed. The video here features some of the highlights of our conversation and you can find the full Q&A below.
Tell us about your goals when you started TreeHugger?
Graham Hill: I was largely just frustrated by the state of environmental media at that point. I felt environmentalism—environmental media—was mostly about “No” and was mostly owned by the hippies. We love the hippies, but they’re mostly a very small category and it was basically inspired by fear. In my mind I put it together and I could see this really exciting, cool, green future that would appeal with people way beyond the hippies. It would appeal to people that would wear a collared shirt in the city.
Your tag line was “Driving sustainability mainstream.” Do you think it still applies?
GH: I would say that driving sustainability mainstream would still apply, but probably in a different manner. We’ve been helpful in making this happen, we’ve inspired and educated. Sustainability as a concept is way more mainstream. And now really, it’s moving so we have awareness, and now really it’s how do we move to action. Now it’s about getting people to understand the solutions that are out there and actually do them, and getting people to make more solutions. It’s all about creating ways for people to really easily integrate and change their lives in a greener manner.
What did you think were the biggest issues at the time?
GH: Probably the largest general issue really was awareness, just getting people to think about this stuff. Back then, Climate Change—do we have anything to do with it? That was still a question for many, many people. That was a big one, that’s definitely different now.
Do you feel those issues have changed?
GH: Climate change is much more accepted as it's happening, and for the most part accepted that we have something to do with it. Now, it’s really about so, what are we going to do? A lot of stuff was sort of questionable—like electric cars, is that a crazy idea or is that actually becoming more and more mainstream? Tesla is a great example of making environmentalism sexy and therefore, helping drive it into the mainstream. Pardon the pun.
There have been suggestions that TreeHugger is a difficult name, a tough sell, particularly by advertisers. Do you think the name has stood up over time? Would you still name the site TreeHugger if you creating it today?
GH: It’s a funny name for sure. One big pro is that it’s extremely memorable. If you talk to someone at a party, it’s something that you’re going to remember. And that in itself is worth a lot, and the non-profit and do-gooder area I think has suffered for a very long time with boring, acronym-oriented names, and it’s just not memorable. TreeHugger has some flavor to it, and it’s fun. TreeHugger was never really “tree-hugger,” and that was the whole point. If you had actually been to TreeHugger you got it. So it was a way of taking back the name in a way. So, I love the name. I think it helped our success.
Does it have cons? Certain people and certain advertisers will just not be interested just because of that without giving it a chance, and that’s sad and unfortunate. Would I change it? Listen, names are the hardest thing in the whole world. It's hard to get the name and the right url. It’s just really, really tough. I certainly don’t have an idea off the top of my head for what I would have called TreeHugger now. But yeah, I love the name.
Today, it feels that TreeHugger is positioned between being a news outlet and playing more of an advocacy role. Was that part of your intention in the beginning?
GH: When we started TreeHugger, it was very design-oriented and consumer-focused—just trying to show people cool stuff in green. So, I can’t really remember when it came in, but it really transitioned at a certain point, and we started to do more environmental news. We were advocacy in a certain manner, like the whole concept was 'there’s this cool green, get involved.' I’m not even sure how it happened, but it did, and we ran with it and I’m glad we did. There’s probably someone who should be thanked for that and I can’t even remember who it is. But it’s worked well, and the advocacy is great and I think we still have some of the sexiness in there, and that’s the beautiful thing about it.
What do you think are the challenges TreeHugger still faces?
GH: I think media is tricky. It’s a very different landscape from 2004, when we started. It’s very different. I think the big difference now is that everyone and their brother makes content. So, the content creation, whether it’s Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr or blogs or Instagram, the amount of content has skyrocketed. So that’s really supply, but demand is an attention economy. We only have so many hours in a day, we only have so many things that we can look at, there are only so many people online.
Are there any issues that you think the media needs to do a better job covering or bring more attention to?
GH: I would say one of the things that has always bothered me and I think is important is just to help people get an understanding of scale. So your different environmental actions have vastly different effects. And so, a great example is this idea of vampire power or just unplugging your cellphone. And you want to understand that something like that action versus skipping an airplane flight – those two are not even in the same universe of impact.
Do you have any suggestions or things you’d like to see in TreeHugger’s future?
GH: I’d love to see working with TreeHugger and with Life Edited together. I only really realized this after the fact, but really Life Edited is a bit of a physical TreeHugger. Something that people can really experience. I think it’s really powerful. I’d love to see closer ties with TreeHugger and help in sort of making that happen.
I’ve built and sold companies before and my first one was also cutting edge, a web firm in Seattle and we had a very cool group of people. They got bought and didn’t fit the larger corporation and things went sideways in the market for sure, but it closed down and that’s sad to me. Having longevity is important and I’m very happy that 10 years later, TreeHugger is still going strong.