Robyn Griggs Lawrence, editor of Natural Home & Garden magazine, answers questions
What’s your job title?
Editor in chief, Natural Home & Garden magazine.
How does it relate to the environment?
Working under the tagline “Living Green, Living Well,” our magazine’s mission is to show mainstream America that living lightly doesn’t mean giving up a thing — that they don’t have to go live out in the hills in a yurt or a home built out of mud — and that in fact there’s a lot to gain by creating an environmentally friendly home. We want everyone to see the benefits — what’s in it for them — of a green lifestyle, so we present information, inspiration, and resources to help them achieve this.
Basically, we’re spreading the word about the beauties of living green, but we’re very careful not to preach or present it in a way that alienates anyone. At the same time, we don’t want to dilute the message that the way we live in our homes has a tremendous impact on the state of the planet’s — and our own — health. So we’re walking the fine line between keeping the environmental “choir” on the cutting edge of what’s happening in green design and healthy living and also providing starting points and baby steps for the uninitiated.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis? What are you working on at the moment?
Right now I’m doing a ton of radio, TV, and print interviews to promote the relaunch of Natural Home as Natural Home & Garden. As the official “voice” of the magazine, I’m stepping out into the world to manifest our mission in a more personal way. It’s fun.
I’m also overseeing the design of the May/June issue, agonizing over when I’ll get a chance to edit the articles that are going into the July/August issue, and planning photo shoots. Because we have a small editorial staff (myself, a managing editor, an assistant editor, and a part-time senior editor), I’m still doing a lot of the editing and art direction for the magazine in addition to promotion and overall visioning. I travel to all the houses we feature to work with local photographers, and I work closely with our freelance designer on page design. I have to admit, I really love that part of the job — it keeps it all real for me — but eventually I’ll need to let some or all of it go.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
It took me a long time to find this ideal combination of passion and proclivities in my career. I lived in quiet desperation for many years as I covered business (computers, then advertising and media) in New York as a young journalist. It felt empty and shallow, but I was convinced that people just did what they did to make a living, then lived out their dreams elsewhere. I think that came from growing up with a dad who was an incredible furniture maker and wood carver but worked unhappily by day in a bank. He was doing what he had to do to feed four kids, but my idea of “career” was based on watching him put on that suit and tie every day.
It was only after I’d moved to Boulder, Colo., and had my son, Stacey, that I realized work and passion didn’t have to be separated. I wanted to continue to write and edit, but I wasn’t willing to spend time away from Stacey if I didn’t feel that what I was doing was making a difference. Having kids also cemented my always-strong environmentalism in a more personal, selfish way: I want them and my grandkids to have a planet to live on.
I worked for several years as the editor of a high-end home magazine in Denver; it was fun, and I learned a ton, but I had to content myself with sneaking in my environmental message. I implemented an “environment” department, featured straw-bale and other alternatively built houses, and generally tried to make readers more aware of the importance of being green. Still, I was often disgusted with the excess of the homes we featured — mega-mansions eating up virgin mountain land, second homes the owners visited maybe twice a year. As much as I loved many parts of that job, ultimately I couldn’t get past that it was, at its core, irresponsible to promote this kind of living.
When I learned that a magazine about green building and lifestyles was being launched up in Loveland, Colo., (of all places!) I knew I’d found my dream job — amazingly enough, just 45 minutes from my home in Boulder. I joined the company just as Natural Home was getting under way, and I came on staff as the architecture editor with the third issue. By the fifth issue, I’d taken on the title of editor in chief — and I’ve never looked back. I’m still blown away that I’ve found my dream job — in every way, the perfect job for me — right here in Colorado, which isn’t exactly a mega-center for magazine publishing. Makes me think I did something right in a past life.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
56. I work from home most days, so email is both my lifeline and the bane of my existence. It’s such an easy diversion when I don’t feel like focusing on writing or editing — I check it way too often.
I’m trying to apply the “touch-it-once” rule to emails as I do to the paper that crosses my desk, but all too often I read emails and think I’ll deal with them later … then find that they’ve sat in the mailbox waiting to be dealt with for far too long. Currently I have 25 folders for sorting emails that I might need later. My goal is to never print out an email — I still believe in the paperless office, even though it’s become a joke.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Now I live in Boulder, Colo. I love it here. My mom says it’s the weirdest town she’s ever been to.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
I worked at the daily newspaper for all four years while I was in college, and when I graduated I thought I was burned out (at the ripe old age of 21!), so I “sold out” and took a job in the public-relations department at MCI in Chicago. I was basically a secretary (despite what the job description said), and one day I had to write memos from my boss to all the department heads about distributing baseball tickets. When I got to my boss’s name, I figured I could just walk into his office and hand him his tickets — but he told me he needed a memo, too (for the files). So I found myself printing out a memo that said “To: Ed Herbert, From: Ed Herbert.” It was a silly yet quintessential moment for me, as I stood looking at that wasted paper and thinking, “Is this really what my life is for?” I quit soon after and took a lesser-paying job on the night desk of a newspaper.
What’s been the best?
Every minute of my job as editor in chief of Natural Home & Garden. It’s my dream job; I couldn’t ask for anything more.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
When the Bush administration announced that we weren’t going to sign the Kyoto treaty, I was stunned. I’m just so blown away by our unwillingness to deal with global warming. What’s it going to take for our society to see that we’re on the verge of catastrophe?
On a (much) smaller scale — but perhaps just as aggravating to me — I get incensed every time I find myself behind an SUV with a “Love Your Mother” bumper sticker on it. There seem to be an inordinate amount of those here in Boulder.
Who is your environmental hero?
I meet and mingle with environmental heroes every day — they’re everywhere. From my son’s fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Mohseni, who’s teaching the kids about composting and recycling (and spearheading a zero-waste project at their school), to my neighbors who ride their bikes everywhere, to the readers of Natural Home & Garden, who hold themselves, each other, and us to such high environmental standards, there’s no shortage of people who are walking the talk out there.
That said, I’m holding out hope that the environmental movement will soon spawn a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King Jr. We really need someone with that ability to move the movement — to enroll the masses in the urgency of taking a stand for the planet.
Who is your environmental nightmare?
George W. When he was reelected this year, I was so tempted to just hang it all up. I wondered how I could go on telling people that not flushing their toilets or changing their light bulbs made a damn bit of difference in the face of the devastation that’s to come in the next four years. It’s not only his policies I abhor but the co-opting of language in initiatives such as “Clear Skies” and “Healthy Forests.” Evil.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
I’m constantly amazed at the generosity and cooperative spirit of the green building community. When I first started as editor in chief of Natural Home, I knew very little about the movement. I just started calling around to the movers and shakers, and everyone I contacted jumped in to help without hesitation. You know, they really could have responded with a “who the hell do you think you are?,” and not one of them did.
Catherine Wanek, an author who founded The Last Straw newsletter about straw-bale building, spent hours with me on the phone, telling me the ins and outs and giving me phone numbers of more people to call. I cold-called the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems in Austin, Texas, and got Pliny Fisk on the phone late one afternoon. He invited me down to Austin, and he and his wife, Gail Vittori, have been personal friends and professional mentors ever since.
The people behind this green-building movement are what make this job so spectacular. I like nothing better than photographing green homes because I get to spend the day really getting to know the people who built them. It’s great to know before I’ve even met someone that we’re going to be like-minded, and I always learn so much (about everything from building to spirituality to politics) from these amazing pioneers.
For the pragmatic environmentalist, what should be the focus — political action designed to change policy, or individual action designed to change lifestyle?
I believe individual action and cultural change will inevitably lead to political change. My motto comes from Buddhist master Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, the founder of Naropa University in Boulder, who once said that “the only way to implement our vision for society is to bring it down to the situation of a single household.”
If we begin our quest for a clean, healthy planet at home — where we have control and will see success — I believe we’ll feel empowered to go out and start lobbying for bigger, community-wide, systemic change.
What’s your environmental vice?
Skiing. I know all the atrocities associated with it, and I still love to do it. And eating meat. I fell off the vegetarian wagon when I was pregnant with my daughter, and I’ve never been able to get back on. And again, I know all the atrocities associated with that. And I still love a good free-range, hormone-free, organically raised steak.
What are you reading these days?
Aside from the huge stack of magazines (from E to Metropolis), I always have three books by my bedside (and in my carry-on bag — I live in fear of being stuck on an airplane without enough reading material!) — one spiritual or growth-related (navel-gazing), one work or passion-related, and one novel. So right now I’m reading The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts; The Restoration Economy: The Greatest New Growth Frontier, by Storm Cunningham; and I’m just finishing Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. Waiting in the wings are The Essential Ken Wilber; Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond; and Old School, a novel by Tobias Wolff.
My favorite book of all time is The Once and Future King, by T.H. White. I try to re-read it once a decade, and it’s always relevant.
What’s your favorite meal?
Depends on the time of year and where I am … I love connecting to the season and to place through food. There’s nothing better to me than biking to the Boulder Farmer’s Market and creating a meal out of what’s available there. One of the highlights of my annual visits to my hometown in Iowa is a summer meal of thick Iowa pork chops, green beans cooked all day with bacon, and just-picked sweet corn and tomatoes. I know eating all that pig isn’t politically correct, but God, is it good — and totally Iowan. (My mother-in-law’s authentic Italian lasagna is a great reason to visit family in Chicago.)
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I drive a Honda Civic Hybrid. I had a bumper sticker on it for a while, right after 9/11, that said, “Real Patriots Drive Hybrids.” I’m a little bit obsessed with my car being a political statement.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
There are so many. The high desert serenity of the foothills just behind my house in Boulder. The lushness of Iowa in August. Both coasts — in particular, the cliffs near Point Reyes, Calif., and the craggy shores south of Boston (Marblehead, Mass., is probably my favorite spot in America).
The coolest — and perhaps hardest — part of my job is that I get to travel to so many amazing places to direct photo shoots. (And yes, I’m bothered by the effects of that travel on the environment … and I still love it!) For a while, I wanted to move to every place I visited — awesome towns like Austin, Texas, Charlottesville, Vir., and Lawrence, Kan.; the West Texas border town of Presidio; San Francisco … My poor husband would just roll his eyes when I came home full of plans for our new life in some cool new place. And then I realized that my home town of Boulder has pieces of what makes all those places great — liberal people, a decent amount of culture and music, and a five-minute walk into incredible mountain trails. It’s such a relief to find myself — finally! — content with where I am.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
I believe we’re just beginning to reach beyond the “core” — the choir — and bring others who could help us into the fold. I’m happy to see organizations like Global Green USA tapping into Hollywood star power to get the message out. I think we’re beginning to see that it’s OK to use whatever muscle we have available to us — that we’re not being shallow or pandering by making our message palatable and desirable to the mainstream.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could it improve?
We need to have more fun. Our message is so often dour and somber and sincere. We all know that global warming and pollution and water shortages are major, important issues — but no one’s going to buy into doom and gloom. Most people really don’t want to take on suffering and sacrifice to be an environmentalist.
I had an epiphany about all of this one day last October. I spent the day at the Sustainable Resources conference here in Boulder. It was a great conference — full of very committed people accomplishing great things. But it was so serious; in the end, I just wanted to escape and enjoy a glorious Indian summer day. That night I went to see Michael Franti and Spearhead perform at Red Rocks, an outdoor amphitheater near Boulder. Michael was right on track with the same message, but I absorbed it into my soul while I was dancing and jumping and singing. I left feeling rejuvenated and inspired and alive — and so did my kids. We need more of that kind of delivery — to make this whole movement fun, alive, and something everyone who’s hip just has to be a part of.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
I would reverse the current system of financial incentives and tax breaks, eliminating subsidies for pollution-producing industries and products and implementing them for sustainable alternatives such as solar and wind power and hybrid and fuel-cell cars. We can talk all we want about the hidden costs of subsidizing the oil industry, but the bottom line is that most people will change their ways when it saves them money.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
I’ve always had really eclectic taste in music — and my favorites rarely make it onto the Top 40 charts. When I was 18, I was listening to Bob Marley, Oingo Boingo, Willy Nelson, and lots of old Joni Mitchell.
These days I’m all over the indie charts. My favorites include Wilco, Michael Franti and Spearhead, Jolie Holland, the Gourds, and the John Butler Trio (I can’t get their new album, Sunrise Over Sea, out of my CD player!). I’ll forever have a soft spot in my heart for Billie Holiday, and whenever I’m feeling blue, I pop in Billy Bragg and Wilco’s Mermaid Avenue, awesome renditions of Woody Guthrie lyrics.
Because I spend so much time in the car with my two kids, we’ve had to come to terms with our music preferences (Britney isn’t welcome there). We agree on Michael Franti, Nellie McKay, Citizen Cope, and Andre Tanker (we’ve been playing his song “Food Fight,” about Spam, lamb, the Bush-man and Saddam over and over and over again these days … ).
What’s your favorite movie?
It is, and always will be, The Graduate.
What are you happy about right now?
My kids. They’re amazing, spiritually clear beings who will change the world. I look at them and their friends, and I know there’s hope for all of us.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Recently I tried to talk the NH&G staff into creating a campaign to have everyone stop flushing their toilets every time they go. They thought I was crazy, but it seemed to me a light-hearted yet impactful “starting point” — something we could have fun with. (Nobody but me thought it would be fun to recite “if it’s yellow, let it mellow … ” in public.)
I think other InterActivist interviewees have said this, but I absolutely do believe that doing something small, simple, and even silly to lessen your impact every day is key. Stop flushing your toilet every time (my family saves more than 1,000 gallons of water a month this way). Change your incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescents and use three-quarters as much electricity (400 fewer pounds of coal, 32 fewer gallons of oil, or 4,300 fewer cubic feet of natural gas). Lower your heat by a couple degrees, and turn down your hot water heater. Buy wind power.
Sometimes the big global picture is so overwhelming that we stop believing that our daily actions make any difference. But if change doesn’t begin incrementally with us, who will it begin with? If we’re not completely in integrity with how we live our lives, why should anyone else be? I want to end every day believing that I did something to decrease my still ridiculously large footprint — even by just a toenail.
Greening You Out of House and Home
I subscribed to Natural Home‘s first issue, and I continue to love the magazine, but I’m disappointed by the new name. First, it sounds too much like Better Homes & Gardens. I grew up with that magazine, and to me the name connotes frivolous suburban busywork. Second — and related — the new name seems to focus the magazine inward instead of outward. Instead of looking at the big picture, or even reaching out to improve your community, it’s just “my little home and garden.” Why change the name at all, and why to this? — Kay Gilbert, Santa Monica, Calif.
First of all, Kay, thank you, thank you, thank you for being a charter subscriber. You were on board before this thing even approached “trendy,” and it’s readers like you who have allowed us to exist.
In answer to your excellent question, I’m going to tell a long-winded story. For the past five years, during public appearances and at festivals and events — and even among my own circle of friends — I kept hearing this refrain: “Looks like a great magazine, but I’m not building a new house anytime soon.” True, we did start out in 1999 with a much stronger focus on building new homes with alternative materials such as straw bales and adobe, and technologies such as solar power. That focus was unique and cutting-edge — and there was no shortage of material to cover. Problem was, there just weren’t enough hip readers (like you!) to make a sustainable magazine. After five years of circulation that’s barely reached six digits, the painful truth is that we now must reach beyond the boundaries of the eco-conscious consumer markets (Boulder, Berkeley, and Burlington), or we simply can’t afford to make the magazine anymore. From the beginning, our overarching mission has been to bring green, healthy homes and lifestyles to a mainstream audience; we have to be more accessible.
And so, we’ve been doing what all survivors do: We’ve evolved. Two years ago we surveyed readers about how they lived. The vast majority said they weren’t planning to build a new home; 92 percent of them live in a traditionally built home powered by conventional energy sources. They liked looking at those funky dream homes, but what they really hungered for was doable, manageable renovation ideas. “Give us ways to slowly change our way of thinking instead of radical change,” one reader wrote. “One step at a time — baby steps.”
Around the same time, we gathered our powerhouse Editorial Advisory Board — some of the most enlightened, forward-thinking leaders of the green-building movement — for a weekend retreat in Austin, Texas. We were admittedly afraid that they’d send us in the opposite direction, toward more hardcore environmental building methods and movements. But they felt exactly the same way our readers did, advising us to give people more information on how to make their current homes more environmentally friendly, including more projects and how-tos.
While we vowed to remain authentic and true to our green roots, we widened the net in terms of what “home” entails. We added a hugely popular department — “Can This Home Be Greened?” — in which we send our eco-experts out to help people make regular old houses healthier and lighter on the land. We also added a column on eco-conscious money management and “Try This,” a section full of fun, easy home projects. Finally, we reconfigured the feature well to include more articles on food, decorating, gardening, and remodeling. From a special-interest magazine with rather limited appeal, we grew into a service magazine devoted to helping everyone — whether they live in an urban loft above a bodega or a tract house in suburbia — live healthy, green lives. We embraced this two years ago with a new tagline, “Living Green, Living Well.”
While we’d slowly been moving in this direction over the past couple of years, this spring we knew the time had come to make a bigger change, one that would announce our presence to the world. On the newsstand, we wanted to make sure our magazine was always grouped with the women’s service and home-and-garden magazines, rather than the bricks-and-mortar homebuilding publications. We wanted to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that our magazine would address all aspects of living in a home — from building to gardening and beyond. We decided to tweak the name.
We haven’t changed all that much under our new banner, Natural Home & Garden. The moniker is simply a signal to everyone that we’re broad-minded in our ideas about what makes a soulful, nurturing, natural home. Sure, we’ll be more conscious of including gardening content than we may have been before — but we’ll also make sure we’re covering food and decorating and include at least one green dream home. Next year’s editorial calendar includes articles on eco-communities — where they are and how to create them. And my personal favorite — the standing feature that I hope addresses your concern about insularity and focusing only on “my home and garden” — is the anchor of the magazine: the “Earth Mover Award.” We implemented the award for people who are making a difference in their neighborhoods — and those of others — on a grassroots level, in response to readers like you, who told us that community is crucial to their quality of life.
Like you, many readers have picked up on the natural association with a couple other mainstream magazines with similar names — and we think that’s OK. They always preface it with “green” or add “with a conscience.” And that’s exactly where we hoped to be. (And, you know, I wouldn’t sneeze at garnering one-tenth of Better Homes & Gardens’ 7 million readers …)
Who is your target market? How do you begin to connect the environment to lifestyle? Do you find yourself “converting” people or catering to people who are already interested? — Bea Misa, Metro Manila, Philippines
Our target market is the “cultural creatives” — the same progressively minded people who are buying organic food, practicing yoga, and care about nurturing themselves and their families in a healthy, nontoxic environment. Truly, this could be anyone on either side of the political spectrum; we all want healthy homes for our kids and clean air to breathe.
We started the magazine with the mission of showing everyone that sustainable, healthy living is just a great way to live — not a fringe movement for hippies and people who are chemically sensitive. For the most part, though, I have to admit that our first five years have been spent speaking to “the choir,” and that’s why we recently changed the name and tweaked the magazine’s design and content somewhat. We love the choir. But if we don’t start pulling in newcomers to the movement — people who are just discovering the benefits of living without toxic chemicals and pesticides — then we’re really not making a difference. We could talk to one another about how important this is all day — and we’d have a great time at it, too. But what we really need to do now is bring in people like my mom in Iowa (who’s becoming enlightened but is not yet totally converted). We need the critical mass to reach that tipping point that will save the planet — and produce healthier, more balanced and harmonious human beings.
I think we’ll “convert” more and more people by hitting them where they live (literally). Getting them to see that the products they’re using to clean their homes are damaging their lungs and that the formaldehyde in the particleboard they’ve chosen for their cupboards is a known carcinogen is one way to do it. But scare tactics haven’t been all that effective — witness the lack of movement on global warming. So we’re focusing more on the benefits of healthy, green lifestyles: the beauty of natural plasters, the money they’ll save when they use less energy, the creative satisfaction that comes from working with salvaged building materials. So it’s not a “you will go to hell” message, but a “you will find heaven” one. It’s answering the eternal question we human beings love to ask: “What’s in it for me?”
In your role of editing and translating the wealth of information on environmental responsibility, what poignant resources (besides your wonderful magazine that I enjoy!) can you offer to eager readers? — Clark Larson, Jacksonville, Fla.
Clark, I’m going to send you to some of the awesome resources that we turn to every day: Environmental Building News; the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Solutions newsletter (and its great website); the EERE’s newsletter (available online); the Healthy Building Network‘s Healthy Building News (available online); The Green Guide to Go, a biweekly e-bulletin from The Green Guide Institute; GreenClips, an e-newsletter summary of news on sustainable building design; and Seventh Generation’s e-newsletter The Non-Toxic Times. And of course, the Daily Grist. If you’re looking to find a green architect in Florida or find out where you can purchase recycled bags, Co-op America’s Green Pages is a fantastic resource. And finally, to learn about green building incentives in your area, check out the U.S. Green Building Council‘s website.
As editor of a magazine focused on our homes and personal spaces, how do you navigate the fuzzy line between overconsumption and aesthetically rewarding surroundings? Do you invest in the new, beautiful thing you love or buy the used thing and keep your footprint small? How do you reconcile this professionally and personally? — Helen Sarakinos, Madison, Wis.
Well, I happen to believe that the practice of uncluttering and minimizing makes for the most aesthetically rewarding environment — I truly do advocate the “less is more” approach to home design. Having fewer things also allows you the freedom to invest in items that you truly love, that are worth every penny you spend and every resource you use up because you’ll treasure them for your lifetime and beyond. It’s a lot like the “not-so-big” philosophy espoused by one of our Editorial Advisory Board members, Sarah Susanka: Spend less on sheer volume and more on enduring quality.
I also advocate buying used whenever possible — that truly is the most sustainable way to go. Personally, I’m something of a flea market addict, so I have to very consciously curb my consumption in that area. In keeping with my minimalist decorating ideas, I’ve implemented a policy in which I have to let something go if I want to bring something else in (every surface in my house has just as much as it can gracefully handle — any more would tip the balance).
What do you do at home to be “green,” and have you done any retrofits? — Lucy Tobias, Ocala, Fla.
We remodeled our 1950s ranch house in Boulder eight years ago, before I was truly enlightened, so if I could do it all over again, I’d do some things differently. (I despise the vinyl windows and the hollow-core doors, for example.) Overall, though, I think our remodel (which took the house from 1,000 square feet to 1,800 square feet — a respectable amount of space for four people) qualifies as pretty sustainable. My husband doesn’t call himself a “green” architect, but he’s always believed that good, solid design works with the climate and makes efficient use of space. So our remodel includes skylights and clerestory windows, passive heating and cooling techniques, and bay windows that make small bedrooms seem larger. Our appliances are all Energy Star certified, and our toilets are low-flow. We’ve never had air conditioning, and we’ve never felt like we needed it.
I’ve used remnants and broken tiles (which tile stores are happy to give away for free) to mosaic nearly every surface that could handle it in my house (sunroom floor, countertops and backsplash, bathrooms …). We painted with low-VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) paint, and we recently covered the walls of our den using Terramed natural plaster — it’s a great way to bring in a textured, earthy feel, and it’s completely nontoxic. My favorite “sustainable” feature is a set of funky old French doors from our local salvaged building materials yard; they’re shorter than current code allows, and they give a great hobbit-like feel to the dining room. Our house is almost completely decorated with antiques and flea market finds; I believe re-use is the way to go, not only for its environmental benefits, but because it brings the house a lot of character and soul.
In our daily lives, we do everything we can to keep our impact low. (My kids have been indoctrinated into this way of life since birth — they really don’t know there’s any other way to live.) We buy wind power, and we recycle religiously. We clean with natural cleaners, including baking soda and vinegar. We don’t flush every time we go (my mom hates that I tell people this). We’ve switched over to compact fluorescents, and we turn off lights and appliances when we leave a room. We buy organic.
What suggestions do you have and what is your position on making the products written about or advertised in your magazine more accessible to your readers and to the public at large, given their impressive and much-needed health and environmental benefits? — Gill Brociner, New York, N.Y.
Boy, Gill, this is the eternal question … I’ve been addressing it (or attempting to) since I came on board with Natural Home all those years ago. Do I have the perfect answer (after all those attempts)? Well … not yet.
I always start by pointing out the “hidden” costs of traditional products: long-term health problems from toxic exposure, greater energy costs, etc. Sustainably produced, handcrafted products are often more beautiful and enduring (a natural linoleum floor’s lifespan is forty-plus years). But we Americans aren’t so big on this long-term gratification stuff; we want our savings now. And honestly, the sad truth is that we who are hip to the benefits and importance of green products are going to have to pay for those slackers who haven’t yet been enlightened. It’s a supply-demand issue. Greater demand allows for greater economies of scale, and the price drops. (OK, so that’s the extent of my economics savvy — I simply avoided those courses in college.) So by supporting the green manufacturers, ostensibly we’re helping to make their products more affordable. We’ve seen that happen in organic produce — and I’m certain that home products are next.
The good news is that I’ve definitely seen a change in the price difference between traditional and sustainable products over the past five years. Whereas we used to see a good 20 percent difference, it’s now dropped to at least half that. A Natural Home & Garden writer recently cited the example of organic cotton sheets; Gaiam sells two queen-size, 250-thread-count sateen sheets for $50 (versus $72 for a conventional set from a respected Italian manufacturer). Most major corporations are jumping into the green game these days as well — consider the advent of environmentally friendly products from Whirlpool and Kohler; not every hardcore sustainability advocate is jumping up and down about this, but it will go a long way toward bringing down prices.
The homes featured in Natural Home & Garden seem to get bigger and bigger as the magazine gets more established. I looked at the home plans that you sponsor, and they are really big. Who needs more than 1,800 sqare feet? — Audrey Watson, Bainbridge Island, Wash.
My family lives happily in 1,800 square feet — but I’m afraid we’re more the exception than the norm these days. (And honestly, sometimes I do long for a meditation room for myself and a separate play room for the kids …). But OK, enough about me. The sad truth is, the average American home size continues to go up and up, and we’ve debated the small-versus-big question ad nauseum in the pages of Natural Home.
We finally asked our Editorial Advisory Board member, Sarah Susanka, who brought us the Not So Big movement, to address this in an essay. Sarah bases her definition of a Not So Big House on each homeowner’s financial situation, family size, and personal preference, but as a rule of thumb says it should be “a third smaller than your original goal but about the same price as your original budget.”
Sarah’s very careful not to condemn people who live in big houses, because she believes we’ll only succeed in turning them completely away from our movement. I love the way she concluded her essay: “Change happens not by attacking what we do not find pleasing, but by living the example of what we ourselves believe. This doesn’t mean the whole world will automatically come around to our way of seeing things, but it does mean that we each contribute the insights of our natural expression into the manifest world, which is the marvelous composite of all our differences and similarities.”
When we’re choosing homes to feature in Natural Home & Garden, we’ve definitely tried to keep them small (and yes, we do recognize the incongruousness of “small” meaning less than 3,000 square feet — and we wonder, too, how that came to pass …). Occasionally a home’s innovation and sheer incredibleness has caused us to make an exception, but we do generally believe that innovation and sheer incredibleness should happen, if at all possible, in less space rather than more.
As for those home plans, that was a business partnership between the publisher and Healthy Home Designs. (I’m not sure that was totally clear to most readers.) Those homes weren’t put through the same filters as the homes we feature on the editorial pages. And that program has since been discontinued.
How could I become a contributor for your magazine? — Dave Sandersfeld, Nampa, Idaho
The simple answer? Write about something so cutting edge, so amazing, and so absolutely pertinent to our magazine that we can’t not buy the article.
As a writer without published clips, I believe your best bet is to actually write a few great articles and submit them to your favorite magazines. Of course, you’ll know they’re relevant and perfect for those magazines because you actually read them. (I can’t tell you how many queries we get from writers who obviously have no clue what NH&G is really about or what it’s covered recently. And that’s just a waste of paper, ink, and time.) These days I’m a little bit gun shy about taking on brand new writers because I’ve been burned so many times by people who just couldn’t quite pull it off — and that’s frustrating for both of us. So having a fully written piece in front of me will reassure me as to your ability.
I can’t stress enough how key it is to study the magazine — go to the library if you don’t have back issues, and really get a feel for what type of articles we run and how your ideas could fit in.
You wrote an article for Natural Home on the wabi-sabi movement. How do you feel that has been reflected in subsequent issues of NH? Do you see it as a viable movement in the future of dominant consumer culture as natural resources continue to be depleted? — Emily Noble, Bisbee, Ariz.
Ah, Emily, you’ve brought up a subject that’s so near and dear to my heart. I love wabi-sabi so much that I recently wrote a book on it (The Wabi-Sabi House: The Japanese Art of Imperfect Beauty, released in November). Thanks for giving me the opportunity to make that plug!
In many ways, wabi-sabi has always been a part of the Natural Home & Garden aesthetic — because it’s simply ingrained in the way I see, and I’m the one who goes and styles for most of the photo shoots! (The first thing I do when I arrive on the scene of a house shoot, generally, is start clearing stuff away.) I also have been the primary chooser of the homes we feature, so many of them have that rustic, simple, humble feel.
Aesthetics aside, though, wabi-sabi encompasses so many lifestyle elements that we try to stress in Natural Home & Garden: Slow down and take the time to find beauty in what seems ordinary. Allow yourself time for solitude, for exploring your own personal truth. Live for the moment, secure in knowing that life is cyclical. Make things yourself instead of buying those spit out by a machine, and smile if your work is flawed. Wash your dishes by hand, and dry your clothes on a clothesline. This type of conscious living — as well as wabi-sabi’s emphasis on simplicity and natural and salvaged materials — are, I believe, inherently green.
In twenty years of professional writing, I’ve never seen such overwhelming response to any subject I’ve written about as I have to wabi-sabi. It hits a nerve — a major one. Readers are always telling me that they’ve been wabi-sabi all their lives and, like me, had been waiting for the words to describe themselves. I believe the wabi-sabi mind-set has been emerging as a reaction to the ostentation and greed that were so prevalent at the end of the 20th century. Americans are clearly ready for this message.
The response to the recent spate of wabi-sabi books (three others were released just about the same time as mine) has been pretty amazing (Time magazine called it “the latest Asian-inspired design craze,” the Boston Herald declared that “what feng shui was to the ’90s, wabi-sabi will be for the new millennium,” and The New York Times “Sunday Styles” section reviewed my book). We’re embracing wabi-sabi largely in reaction to the conspicuous consumption and “mogul style” of the late 1990s and early 21st century. This has happened over and over again throughout our history, although we haven’t always called it wabi-sabi. We’ve reacted to overblown ostentation by turning toward more simple, soulful aesthetics: the Shakers and the Arts and Crafts movement in response to Victorian clutter, and the clean, minimal lines and natural materials of mid-century modernism in response to post-war consumerism.
(By the way, I happen to think that Shady Dell, the vintage Airstream park right there in Bisbee, is one of the best wabi-sabi spots in America!)
I would agree that the world needs some kind of environmental guru to lead us to change for the better. Could you elaborate on any ideas on how to find such a person? How do you think one might try to earn bipartisan respect? — Tracy Zieser, Boston, Mass.
This one stumps me. What causes someone to become a Gandhi or an MLK? Are they just born extraordinary, or can they be trained to become so compelling and powerful that they can move people to act beyond their own selfish needs? I don’t know. I’d sure love to see this conversation continue, though — and perhaps that person will emerge from it.
I’m convinced that we have to frame this as a bipartisan movement that actually has nothing to do with politics, religion, or race. Everyone wants a beautiful, unpolluted planet to live on. Everyone wants their kids or grandkids (or someone else’s kids or grandkids) to know the joys of fishing in a clean stream or playing in an open field. So this really has nothing to do with whether you’re Democratic or Republican or Christian or Buddhist. This is common ground, and our “Gandhi” will be able to cross those boundaries and reach out to all people. (I’m stepping down from the soapbox now …)
Do you think such a leader is on the horizon now? Do you have anybody in mind? — Jerry Tarbell, Hampstead, Md.
I haven’t recognized that leader yet. That doesn’t mean he or she’s not out there, though. We have an amazing generation of kids about to emerge onto the scene (see Rosemary Lapka’s question below on the “Green Graduation Pledge”).
I was reading your first Q&A and didn’t see solar power mentioned. Do you think solar power could be a viable answer to some of our energy problems? — Gale Tichenor, Huntington Station, N.Y.
I absolutely believe that solar power could be a viable answer to our energy problems; it astounds me that the technology isn’t more widespread. I was recently on a panel at the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association’s conference in Boston with Steven J. Strong, who showed us all amazing examples of how solar power is being used in Europe — light years ahead of what we’re doing here. It was really an eye opener about what could be happening in the solar arena; Steven reminded us (powerfully) that this really could save the planet.
We’ve featured several off-the-grid solar-powered houses in Natural Home, and we’ll continue to do so. We’ve also suggested smaller solar fixes for people who aren’t quite ready to make the big financial plunge — because, sadly, “going solar” does require a major upfront investment. In the May/June issue of Natural Home & Garden, for example, we suggest installing a solar hot water heater — a small but important step toward tapping into the sun’s energy.
I am a student at Carnegie Mellon University, and this Friday we are having a forum to discuss the possible implementation of a Green Graduation Pledge. Graduating seniors will sign a pledge saying they will “explore and take into account the social and environmental consequences of any job [they] consider and will try to improve green aspects of any organization for which [they] work.” What are your thoughts on such a pledge? — Rosemary Lapka, Pittsburgh, Penn.
Rock on! (Oh, I’m sure that was a ridiculously forty-something thing to say …) But from the heart, I absolutely believe pledges like this are crucial — and I salute you all. You guys are the generation that’s going to inherit the nasty consequences of my generation’s (and our predecessors’) ignorance and irresponsibility, and you’re the ones who are going to be forced to dig us out of this mess. So thanks for saving the planet for my kids.
Are you supportive of the concept of developing scientifically robust yet user-friendly expanded labels evaluating the environmental impacts of products? Ideally, this “label” would provide us with a “thin slice” of summary information on the product’s lifecycle to make it easy and quick to use. — Deborah Dunning, president, International Design Center for the Environment, Chapel Hill, N.C.
I think this would be fantastic! I love that we’re seeing more green certification — in everything from forest products to fish. Most of our readers say they do want to be better informed about life-cycle issues and manufacturing processes, but they don’t have the time or the resources to investigate every single one. I like to think that the transparency such a label would create could make a big difference in how a lot of products are made — and disposed of. (Campaigns like the recent “Green the iPod” from The Green Guide — calling for the iPod to be fitted for an easily replaced and recyclable, toxic-free battery — are great for making people aware of the full life-cycle consequences of ubiquitous products that they might not think about.)
The challenge, as you know, is to make green labels and certification affordable for smaller companies. I’d love to know your thoughts on how to address that sticky issue.
Where can I find a list of best “green” autos? Hopefully such a list will begin to appear frequently out there in the mainstream, to make it really easy for people to support green with their purchasing power. — Kristi Miller, Minneapolis, Minn.
Natural Home ran a chart on “Green Mobiles” in the September/October 2003 issue, and our invaluable sources included the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy‘s Green Book and the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association’s “Fuel Fact Sheets.” Also check out Jim Motavalli’s great book, Forward Drive: The Race to Build “Clean” Cars for the Future and our sister publication ReadyMade‘s current (March/April) issue, which includes just such a list of hybrid cars. ReadyMade writes: “Celebrity promotions, tax incentives, and long waiting lists — hybrids are hot. The lots are filling up with ever-more-luxurious models, but with all the slick marketing, it’s hard to tell which ones are worthy of the hype. We rate six of this year’s best and tell you what to watch out for.”
How, besides planting daffodils, do I discourage gophers from destroying my garden? — Anita Williams, Boulevard, Calif.
Having been a city dweller most of my adult life, I’ve never had to deal with gophers. So I took this one to my boss, NH&G president Linda Ligon, who lived on several acres on the fringes of a small town for years. She’s worried that her solution might not be politically correct, but she says it was effective.
Linda says: “Our solution (and we had a huge gopher problem when we moved to our old house) was to get a good scruffy dog from the pound and let nature take its course. It took about one season.” Linda was concerned that readers might be offended, but when I suggested it was nature’s cycles at work, she agreed: “Same idea, really, as dumping ants from one hill onto another hill so they fight each other to the death, instead of having to use poison. Except dogs and gophers have cute faces.”
We bought a 20-year-old house in the Southwest desert. The previous owners had a monthly pest service spray outside the house. We have two grapefruit trees in the backyard, and I’m wondering how long the pesticides remain in the soil after we stop spraying? — Angie Perryman, Huntington Beach, Calif.
The thing most people don’t realize is that we editor-in-chief types are generalists — we know a little bit about a lot of things, and what we know how to do best is turn to the experts for information! So, to answer this one, I turned to our longtime Editorial Advisory Board member and invaluable contributor, Debra Lynn Dadd (aka the “Queen of Green”), author of Home Safe Home. (Check out Debra’s great website.)
Debra replies: “How long the pesticide stays in the soil really depends on the pesticide. If Angie can find out what pesticide was used, she can look up the ‘half-life,’ which tells how many years it takes for half of the pesticide to dissipate. If the pesticides were sprayed around the house, there may be little pesticide in the soil near the trees, depending on their distance between the trees and the house. Regardless, they would be no worse than eating standard supermarket grapefruits, and probably not as good as eating organically grown grapefruits.”
Any ideas on how to get rid of box elder bugs without using pesticide? I’ve already tried spraying them daily with detergent. — Linda Limback, St. Paul, Minn.
As the consummate referer and resource gatherer that I am, I’m going to send you elsewhere. Check out a great new book, Bug Busters: Poison-Free Pest Controls for Your House and Garden, or the following websites: Bio-Integral Resource Center, Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, Pesticide Action Network, and Pesticide Action Network North America.
Karen, our incredible editorial assistant, tells me that her mom uses Tide and Tabasco to keep box elders away. Looks like the Tide hasn’t turned for you, but maybe the Tabasco will.
One reason that I feel that the hybrids are not taking off is that the training to service these vehicles is only available to the top dealers and not to the mechanics in the field. Also dealers and dealer sales persons are not being educated on the benefits. What would be the best way for consumers to broach the subject with the manufacturers? — Ivan Velez, Caguas, Puerto Rico
Just keep asking for them! As Body Shop founder Anita Roddick says, “we can never underestimate the power of the vigilante consumer.”
Five years ago, when the Prius first came out, I finally convinced my hesitant husband to go take a test drive. The salesman could not have been less interested in selling us that vehicle. We asked to take it up into the foothills to see how it did on hills, and he said, “Oh, you can’t drive this car in the mountains at all.” Complete nonsense … but enough to send my husband scurrying. (It took another couple years for me to cajole him into buying the Honda Civic hybrid … and he only agreed to it because it was an existing model. And still, I had to promise to be responsible for all oil changes and maintenance, as they can only happen at the Honda dealer.)
Write to the car manufacturers and demand more hybrids. Get all your friends to write to the car manufacturers. Keep asking for hybrid vehicles at your local dealer. Already, they can’t keep up with demand. They’re not stupid … they see this future. But we can help speed this along.
I am wondering why the car manufacturing companies are not flooding the market with hybrids! — Patti Tomasello, Waxhaw, N.C.
I wonder, too. Things are not always as they should be in our world. But I really do believe we can change that. (And I wanted to end on a positive note.)