The TH Interview: Josh Dorfman, Author of The Lazy Environmentalist
Josh Dorfman is not your typical environmental activist. He believes in creating stylish, innovative, and market-based approaches to environmental challenges that make it easy for everyone to be part of the solution. An environmental entrepreneur, author, speaker, and radio personality, Josh founded Vivavi in 2003 to merge modern style with environmental awareness to provide consumers with outstanding options for furnishing their homes. Josh is also the founder of Vivavi's companion resource, Modern Green Living, which helps consumers locate green homes and green home professionals throughout North America. More recently, Josh is the creator, producer, and host of "The Lazy Environmentalist" radio show, airing live daily throughout North America on Lime Radio on Sirius Satellite (Channel 114). He's also the author of the book of the same name, available now for order through Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com, Powells.com and publisher Stewart, Tabori & Chang, and will be available in bookstores everywhere on Monday, May 21. We recently caught up with Josh to chat about the book and what it means to be a "lazy environmentalist."
TreeHugger: How do people react when you tell them about the book and the concept of being a "lazy" environmentalist?Josh Dorfman: Most people kind of laugh -- they hear "lazy environmentalist", and don't know exactly what it means, but they like it because whatever it is, they feel like there's something coming that's about the environment that they don't have to be as defensive about. It's disarming, which is intentional, and the more we have a chance to talk about what it means to be a "lazy environmentalist", then people's eyes start to light up. What I'm really trying to communicate with the book and the content is the fact that, recognizing that we do want to be more environmentally conscious, if we take an honest look at our lives, the reality is that if it's inconvenient or doesn't really fit the criteria for how we're making our purchasing decisions right now, the odds are, we just aren't going to do it, if we're being really open and honest with ourselves. And when I say "we", I'm talking about the vast majority of Americans, the 300-odd million of us for whom being an active environmentalist isn't really registering, who may not be thinking about integrating this kind of thing into our lives. I'm trying to find a way to reach them, so when I talk about "lazy" that sort of disarms them, and when I get to the content, I usually say, very explicitly, that this is a story about innovation; whether you care about the environment or not, you're going to think this is cool, because this is the coolest stuff happening across the economy today and just happens to be green. And that's something that people can really relate to and sink their teeth into.
TH: The mainstream is definitely in the crosshairs for a lot of people, green and otherwise, as new green products and ideas come out. Who are you hoping to reach with The Lazy Environmentalist?
JD: Okay, first let me give you an idea about informs my approach. I grew up in Westchester County, Pennsylvania, outside of New York City, raised in a great upper middle class community, went to an Ivy League school, and certainly come from a world that, to some degree, is pretty privileged, you know, we all had a lot of opportunities. So when I see a lot of my friends, whether its people I grew up with, family friends, people I went to college with, people I went to business school with, people that are really a part of my life, they have no idea what I'm talking about when I talk about green. These are educated, very knowledgeable, warm, loving people, but green is not on their radar in any meaningful way, to the point that they're acting on the choices available to them in the market. They aren't even necessarily my customers at Vivavi; these are people who support me in many ways -- emotionally, as friends, etc. -- but they haven't done it yet. They haven't made the switch and aren't able to say, "Okay, I want to do this, I understand the importance of this and I really like what Josh is putting out there. I'm not going to do it just to help him; I also really like it." That hasn't happened yet.
I'm not talking about a fringe element: this is a very mainstream, very influential, very broad group of people. More and more, they're hearing about it in the news, but it's just that -- a news topic -- but it isn't something that's become a part of their daily consciousness or daily actions. So, that's the market and those are the people I'm speaking to, and I'm trying to do it in a way to communicate with those people in mind. So it'll be a story like, "Oh, I didn't know there was an automatic composter from a company called Naturemill that just sits on my floor and does all the work for me -- that's cool!" I want to expand the conversation to people who would be open to it, if they felt like the way it was presented was speaking to them in a way that they wanted to be spoken to.
TH: Once people learn that there are more eco-friendly choices available for just about everything they buy, and nearly any activity they engage in, how can you convince folks that they should pay a premium for these goods, for things like organic cotton, and make sacrifices in their lifestyle in favor of more eco-friendly behavior, like taking public transportation or riding a scooter instead of driving in a car?
JD: There's a number of ways to answer that question. One of the ways, referring to the first part of the question, when you say "How do make it something that people are going to connect to more, and be willing to gravitate toward?" If there are instances -- and in many instances, there aren't anymore, but if there are — one of the examples that I'm looking at right now is Nau, the clothing company (see TreeHugger's coverage of Nau here, here, here, here, here and here). Their clothing is pretty much on par, in terms of price, with something like Patagonia. So it's not cheap, but what I really like about what they're doing is they're coming into the outdoor industry and are basically saying, "We're going to create the most stylish, fashionable, performance-driven product that's going to have a total sustainability mission." But they focused on the aesthetic in an industry where aesthetic hasn't been stressed. And that's important because if you're out camping or rock climbing or whatever, and you've got stuff that stands out, and people are saying, "Wow, what are you wearing?" and you can say "Oh, it's Nau, and not only is it really cool, but it's totally sustainable," then it stands out even more and people can gravitate to those kinds choices even more.
So what I'm saying is that I'm skeptical about the idea that people are willing to sacrifice for their aesthetics, and I'm skeptical that you have to pay a premium. I mean, you can into almost any Levi's store -- maybe you can go into any Levi's store -- but you can certainly go into the Levi's store here in Union Square in New York City and pick up a really cool pair of jeans that are 100% organic cotton for $68 (TreeHugger mentioned Levi's organic denim here). If you're talking about the price of jeans right now, that's a pretty normal, mainstream price. Alternately, you can go down to GomiNYC (which we mentioned here), Anne Bernstein's boutique on the lower east side, and pick up a pair of Del Forte jeans for like $180. Some people would say, "That's way too expensive," but the people who are wearing them love them because they're competing in a premium jeans market, and for those who want that kind of product, Del Forte has some of the best jeans available. Then you can point to the example of The Gap, or H&M; offering organic cotton, and the price comes way down. So, the assumption that it's going to cost more to go green, that may still exist in some places, but I would be hesitant to say that we've got to connect people to it so they're going to sacrifice just yet.
The other example that comes to mind when we're talking about getting people to think more about making green choices every day is with public transportation. The only way we're going to get that to happen, I think, is if we can get it so it's on time, it's clean, I feel safe on it, and if it's reliable. Even for me -- I'm in Brooklyn -- if I'm going into the city, I have to take the G train and I have to transfer to get into New York City. If I'm running slightly late, I'm really hesitant to jump on the train because I don't know that it's going to get me there on time, so I take a taxi. I just feel like, if you want people to make better choices, you'd better make those choices really great and make them really work if you want people to change their behavior. When I look at the Vespa example -- or the motorscooter example or even the Vectrix example, which is hopefully coming soon -- it's like the coolest scooter ever designed. I really like the Vespa because it's a design-driven product, so if you're going to say to someone, "Hey, give up your car, think about a Vespa," at least it looks really cool, and it's a design solution. You're trying to entice someone out of their car, but you're doing it in a way that's not about sacrifice, it's like, "Hey, this is a really cool choice, too." So, I'm hesitant to say it's time to get people to really change their behavior, because we're totally the culture of convenience. I just feel like there are a lot of ways to get people to start plugging in to this in meaningful ways that also happen to be convenient.
TH: Over the past four years or so, you've been busy as founder of both Vivavi and Modern Green Living, and host of The Lazy Environmentalist radio show. What does the book add to the idea of "sexy sustainability" that your work has propagated? What do you see on the horizon for the movement?
JD: Again, to me, when you talk about "sexy sustainability" I think the idea that's really sexy around sustainability is the idea of innovation. So you can be talking about a business model, or a company like RecycleBank. It's the whole idea that you can make money from recycling, and municipalities are going to save money, so taxpayers are going to save money, and the recyclables are actually going to get recycled. That's sexy to me. Sexy sustainability, to me, is all about the ideas; it's like reading a good issue of Wired magazine -- it just blows your mind. The innovation which is happening across industries on a green front, that's sexy, too. Vivavi does it in a very explicit kind of way, because it's all about design, so it's very visual, you can see that it's just gorgeous, contemporary, modern design.
Modern Green Living is more of an idea that, to me, is a sexy idea, which is, "Hey, you want to go green? We've got hundreds of apartments and condos in the coolest buildings listed that are already green; all you have to do is move in and enjoy the view, and you're green, because the building is green and is doing the heavy lifting for you." That's a sexy idea to me, and that is what the book is propagating: the idea that this is something that we're going to want to know about, want to talk about and want to do because it's just pure innovation. Innovation and the whole drive for innovation and where that comes from, in terms of entrepreneurship, etc., is really about the American mythology -- how we like to think about ourselves, talk about what we stand for -- this just comes right from that story, and I find that to be a very sexy, compelling idea.
TH: The Lazy Environmentalist is all about making more environmentally-friendly choices in your daily life. How do you think people can connect their purchasing decisions with more environmental awareness, and ultimately begin to make changes that involve less "lazy"-oriented behavior?
JD: The first way that people connect to it -- and this is starting to happen in a big way -- is in their pocketbook. If you're talking about homes, for example, and programs like Energy Star, and Energy Star appliances -- and there are about 4,000 home builders across the country who are already participating in the Energy Star programs for building homes -- now you're talking about saving energy, but from a consumer point of view, you're talking about saving money. So, the connection is very clear: I save money, I create fewer emissions, that means I'm doing something better for the planet. Efficiency will get us pretty far down the road. In some ways, it comes back to aesthetic. On one hand, if you're creating a product that's green and looks like everything else and competes on price and you say to a customer, "Hey, well it's just like everything else, why don't you make that choice?", a lot of people will go for it.
On the other hand, if you can give people something that's distinctive, like the Toyota Prius, not only are you getting something that you can quantify as being green, by having to buy gas less often and getting great gas mileage, but that aesthetic means that when you're driving down the road, you know, and you know that everyone else knows, that you're a great person because you're in an eco-friendly car that stands out. It's the same thing that's happening with the furniture: it's not that it's just nice furniture that's green; it's like some of the best, most unique furniture that's green, which is why it's in Architectural Digest and Dwell and all the magazines. It's not because it's just green -- that story's been around for 20 years. Big deal; there's always been green furniture -- but what's attractive about it is that the aesthetic is so great that people want to write about it. Often times, people are writing about it and don't even know that it's green, or it's integrated in to other stories, but it's still standing out. To me, there's something there in design that's so important and integral, and I think we're moving to a place where there will emerge a green aesthetic, and that will be better than the conventional aesthetic, so that will connect people even further.
TH: How do you respond to folks who say that we can't shop our way to sustainability?
JD: The whole point of The Lazy Environmentalist is to say, "Let's just be honest here, and talk about reality." Well, the reality is that the only reason we're facing things like global warming or any environmental challenge, is the way that we produce and consume products. If we're producing coal and using it as an energy source, and that's polluting, then we have to solve the problem of using a dirty energy source, by moving to 21st century energy sources. If we're clearcutting forests and trees for timber or paper or whatever that would otherwise be useful for absorbing and storing carbon dioxide and helping to mitigate global warming, maybe we have to look at how we're producing things like furniture, and how we're consuming furniture, and how to make that more responsible. So, point out something to me that doesn't have anything to do with the way that products are produced and consumed, because I'd love to know what they are, because I don't think there is anything out there that doesn't.
Someone might say, "Well it's not enough to buy a hybrid car, because you're still using gasoline." I'd say that's absolutely right; let's figure out a way to move toward a less gas-fueled future. Well, Toyota is working on their plug-in hybrids, which may get close to 100 mpg. There's also the automotive X-prize, which will also be aiming at 100 mpg. If we do that, then we're getting close. If you look at what's happening in London right now, with the NICE electric cars that people are actually driving around because they don't have to pay the toll, and have their own parking spaces around town; they've partnered with Ecotricity (check out TreeHugger's interview with Ecotricity's Dale Vince for more) so that when you plug them in, they're using wind energy to power them up. I mean, if you're doing that, and are reducing your environmental footprint, what else is there? You could say to someone, "Well, you should unplug everything at night, because that's trickling energy." What if you sign up with the utility right now to get wind energy in your home, like with ConEdison here in New York? So, when you sign up, yes, you pay $5 or $6 more per month, or at least that's what I pay, in my apartment, but it's 100% wind energy, and it's one-to-one: if I use 300 kWh per month, they buy the same amount of certified wind energy and put it on the grid, which means they're getting less energy from dirtier sources. So, if I happen to be a little bit lazy, and leave my gadgets plugged in at night, they're still sucking a little extra energy, but it's all wind energy instead of fossil fuel energy. It's a little bit twisted, but then you might say, well, if they're using wind energy, then I'm creating more of a market for wind energy because it's sending a market signal that people want wind energy, because we're using a lot of it, so they'll have to get more of it.
It seems to me that we can talk about the environment and talk about behavioral shifts, and we can say, "Yeah, we should get out of our cars and should be taking public transportation," and I would say "Great! Let's do it," but let's talk about it, from a realistic point of view, to figure out what's going to make it happen. We can talk all we want to about what we should be doing, but I just feel like should is a very unattractive marketing campaign because people don't respond to should, and it's not grounded in the way we're living today, so let's talk about that, too.
Ultimately, though, what I really do believe is that until we have political leadership at the very, very top, that is saying, "You know what, guys, these environmental challenges are real," and I think we are coming to a consensus, but until we have the leadership that creates the political will that says, "You know what, all Americans, or all countries, we're going to have to change our behavior and change the rules, because this for real and a major threat." Until that happens, and everyone feels like they can sacrifice for the common good, until that happens, the way our culture is set up, I don't see how we can make major inroads unless we make it zero friction: really convenient; fits your life; makes your life better; it's what you want; you get it where you want it; it's how you shop now anyway; these are choices that are going to work for you. So we're using all the sophisticated tools of marketing and branding that Madison Avenue is using: celebrities talking it up; great design; saving you money; the latest technology that's geeking you out, those, to me, are the levers that get Americans excited, so let's use those and start to really make some things happen.
TH: So you're really working from the idea that taking baby steps and making small but important changes can really add up to positive change. Do you think people can make the connection between engaging in these behaviors and leveraging political change?
JD: I think that's exactly what's happening, and is happening in a number of different ways, but it's not just about baby steps. Really, as the message comes across, we're saying that some of the coolest stuff that's happening is green, so we're encouraging people to really dive in and start to make some big, new choices because they're going to love doing it. But to specifically answer your question, I think it happens in two ways. On the one hand, from the consumer point of view, you're starting to make these choices and buy green products. The thing about taking on this behavior is that it's pretty unique to have products that have their own positive reinforcement mechanisms. If you buy an FSC-certified wood table or use method cleaning products, it just feels good, because they're good products and you know you're doing something good for the planet and want to do it again. It has that reinforcing mechanism that marketers dream about and try to create ways to do that; well, this is implicit in what green products represent. So, it encourages people to do it more and more. As people are doing it more, they're talking about it more, and if you have that FSC-certified dining table and you have a dinner party and you can say to your friends, "This is my FSC-certified dining table, and it's made from responsibly-harvested wood and isn't it great," then that feels good and you want to talk about it more. The more people are talking about green, the less they're talking about Paris Hilton, and that, to me, is a big shift, because now you're capturing the market share on one hand, and mind share on the other, and that creates the space where you can have a dialogue about the environment and you're reaching in a much broader audience who's going to engage you in that conversation. So that's one way toward creating the kind of political climate we'll need. It's sort of ironic, but it's like we're creating the kind of political climate where our leaders can actually lead us, by having these conversations.
On the other hand, where this can manifest, is in the stories that political leaders can begin to tell to their constituencies, and this is really important when you think about what's happening in Pennsylvania right now, when Governor Rendell says, "We're going to create some incentives here for wind energy manufacturing companies to come to Pennsylvania to set up manufacturing. We're going to try to bring this industry here." So they set up incentives, Gamesa shows up from Spain, they open a factory to start producing turbines, and, suddenly, you have steelworkers who were unemployed, working in, some ways, a very 20th century industry, now having 21st century jobs that have good benefits, pay well, making wind turbines (check out TreeHugger's cover of this here). So the leaders in Pennsylvania can go back to their constituents and say, "Hey, guess what green means: green means stable jobs; green means national security benefits; green means less dependence on foreign oil. Green is about everything that you as an American care about: you want a prosperous, safe, future, and green can take us there." I absolutely believe that what's happening, in terms of enabling these industries to grow, are the kinds of stories that are leaders need to be able to tell us so we can want more of it.
TH: What's the one thing you want everyone who reads the book to get out of it?
JD: Optimism. I hope that this book is part of the conversation that really needs to happen that says, "Yes, let's acknowledge that these environmental challenges are real, and let's get excited that we really have solutions that can solve these problems." I'm very optimistic, and the book is written in such a way that I hope people come away with the feeling that there really are solutions here, and we can explore this more and talk about it because the solutions really are at hand.