The Sunday Age | 9 Sep 2007
The environment has made the transition to entertainment, writes Mari Gibson.
ONCE UPON a time environmental publishing was regarded as a fringe pursuit best left to the few crackpots who were interested in that sort of thing.
These days the sector has had a radical makeover and the people behind the new green media are more likely to be smart, hip, apolitical entrepreneurs than hippie types.
And their numbers are growing. The past year has seen the launch of many products, including: G Magazine, on green lifestyle; Green, on sustainable architecture and landscaping; Green Pages, a web-based directory of all things sustainable; and two prime-time television series devoted - who would have thought? - to reducing domestic carbon emissions, Carbon Cops on ABC and Eco House Challenge on SBS. The ABC’s Organic Gardener magazine has broadened its focus to take in green lifestyle issues and recently increased its frequency to bi-monthly.
While yesterday’s greenie publications might have hyperventilated over issues such as saving the Franklin River or stopping uranium mining, today’s green media is taking a cool, pragmatic approach.
The cover of the latest issue of G Magazine, a bi-monthly launched in November, features Missy Higgins as a music “ecowarrior”. Inside are stories ranging from gourmet bush food to fashion and beauty for the “concerned consumer”. The formula seems to have worked; its publisher, Luna Media, announced recently that the magazine will go monthly next year.
Editor Sara Phillips says: “We believe the environment’s gone mainstream enough now that people want to read about how they can be greener, but they don’t want to have to sell their house and go and live in a commune in Nimbin - they want to just slot it into their normal daily lives. We present a magazine that seems like an ordinary lifestyle magazine; it just happens to be about greener issues.”
Over at Green, which was launched in June, the stars are the glamorous and beautifully photographed sustainable houses and the pages of designer products (made with recycled materials). Editor Tamsin O’Neill says there was a gap in the market for a magazine with “good, inspirational stories about environmental design”.
Another new player is Katie Patrick, the executive director of Green Pages Australia, which was launched in October. As well as being a website of more than 6000 environmentally sustainable products and services, Green Pages is a news service and has a printed directory and magazine.
Patrick says: “I just saw there were no good-quality media products out there in sustainability. (There were) a lot of people working in sustainability, but no well-done magazines, websites, good advertising-driven models. I saw a very strong niche for me to develop.”
The possibilities raised by concern about the environment and climate change have also grabbed the attention of some television producers. Hence we have had Carbon Cops, in which the presenters Lish Fejer and Sean Fitzgerald did their best to inform householders about their energy-guzzling habits.
Lesna Thomas, the manager of ABC TV publicity, describes the show’s ratings as above average in a tough slot (Tuesdays, 8pm). However, the biggest surprise for the broadcaster was the response to the controversial screening of The Great Global Warming Swindle, when 1.1 million people tuned in, which was one in four viewers, most of whom stayed around for the debate afterwards.
“That’s huge,” Thomas says.
Carbon Cops followed in the footprint of Eco House Challenge, in which two families competed over six weeks to “save the planet” under the scrutiny of Tanya Ha and Glenn Hall.
Ha believes the reason the media is now focusing on sustainability is “because we need to and people are new to it”. But, she adds: “My hope is that in the long term we will see sustainability incorporated into different shows that are not necessarily green shows; that sustainable living will become the normal way to live.”
She cites Big Brother’s decision to turn greenish as an example. In the latest Channel Ten series, the housemates were treated to a vegan diet and four-minute showers. The BB website announced: “With the ongoing depletion of natural resources and desperate need for change, having influential people like the BB housemates change their environmental consciousness can only be a good thing.” Indeed.
Alan Gray has been at the helm of Earth Garden magazine for the past 20 years and has the experience to see a bigger picture. While he applauds the rise in green media, he warns: “The reality is I’ve seen a lot of them come and go in the last 20 years, and some of them aren’t going to be around in five years because their publishers are more interested in the current trend and the financial attractions of the current trend.”
Whether there is enough advertising to go around also remains to be seen. The executive director of the Advertising Federation of Australia, Lesley Brydon, believes the current trend has become mainstream. “There’s no doubt there’s great interest in communities living in a more environmentally friendly way. People are looking for more information, therefore marketers are looking at ways they can tailor their products to meet that demand.”
Brydon describes media interest in the issue as substantial and the environment as a huge global movement. “Whether you believe the Al Gore view or the anti-Al Gore view, there is a vast number of people who think that we must all tread more lightly.”
Phillips says her experience with advertising was surprising. “When we started up G Magazine, we – which is very rare in media – actually had people approaching us saying, ‘Can I advertise in your magazine?’ and that confirmed for us that we had created something that the market needed.”
Patrick says of Green Pages: “It’s been extremely successful. It’s gone from just myself working out of a bedroom to having 18 full-time staff, and I’ve got over 500 paying advertisers. There’s definitely a need for green companies to get out there to green consumers, and we’re filling that need for them.”
Responsibility for the frenzy of activity surrounding the environment and climate change seems to lie somewhere between Al Gore and the drought, depending on who is talking.
Tanya Ha is also the author of Greeniology: How to live well, be green and make a difference, is affiliated with Planet Ark and serves on the board of Sustainability Victoria.
“The really interesting thing about An Inconvenient Truth,” she says, “is it had Al Gore, someone not known particularly for being an environmentalist, talking and he was respected for other reasons by people who are typically hard to reach from a mad greenie point of view ... Here was someone who was meaningful to people within business circles or political circles - and they were the hardest ones to convince.”
Phillips says the timing of G Magazine was fortuitous. “We came out shortly after An Inconvenient Truth hit the cinemas in Australia, and shortly after the Stern report was delivered.” This was the tipping point, but “environment awareness has been building slowly and the thing that’s really pushed it in the last year or
18 months it that drought has been going on for so long ... It’s something that’s come home to people’s backyards.”
But O’Neill says Green is less about climate change than materials, waste, community and social sustainability. “There is a move towards a more community-focused lifestyle.”
She agrees that the environment and sustainability have staying power as issues of public concern.
“People will become more and more accountable for where their building materials are coming from and the effort they’re making to reduce their energy use.
I can’t see it turning back now.”
THE MORE, THE MERRIER
The environmental magazine with elder status is Earth Garden, which started in 1972. Alan Gray, editor and co-publisher with his wife, Judith, took over in 1986.
“The more magazines, the more TV programs, the more radio shows on green living, the better because for a lot of the past 20 years running Earth Garden we’ve tended to be viewed as the crackpot, greenie, leftie, rent-a-crowders,” he says. “Now all the stuff we’ve been writing for 20 years is mainstream. If environmental thinking is mainstream, well, I couldn’t be happier.
“To now see all these other magazines and media events popping up, it’s like there’s a whole lot of other people putting their shoulder to the wheel.”
And it seems growing interest is not just directed at the new glossies. Gray has noticed that Earth Garden’s circulation has risen only during times of recession - until now. “This time around our circulation has been going through the roof without a recession. (It) has gone up enormously in the past 12 months because of a combination of things. About four factors are screamingly obvious to everyone: Al Gore, the drought, user-pays water bills and blackouts, and the threat of massive increases in the cost of electricity.”
And the secret of publishing longevity? “The most successful magazines are the ones where the editors and publishers are personally passionate about the subject and not just seeing it as a good way to make money,” Gray says.