Mags Go Gaga for Green, With Just a Nod to Own Hypocrisy

Titles Struggle to Make Economic Sense Out of Sustainability Concerns

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NEW YORK ( -- The run-up to Earth Day got a big kickoff last week when scientists revealed that 160 square miles of Antarctic ice shelf had unexpectedly disintegrated. Green concerns are sure to stay top of mind as April 22 approaches, and we can look forward to many events, ad campaigns, TV specials and, of course, "green" magazine issues.
Complex: Rocking a size-14 carbon footprint.
Complex: Rocking a size-14 carbon footprint.

But many of those green glossies seem determined to test their readers' capacity for cognitive dissonance by editorializing for eco-friendly action on virgin paper that lugs big carbon emissions behind.

Some magazines admit tensions exist. "Let's be honest," reads one editor's letter in a green issue of Complex, which goes on to say that not only is Complex a print magazine, it's dedicated to the great American pastime of buying things. "As businesses go, we're rocking a size-14 carbon footprint."

A few others use recycled paper and other green strategies year-round. "What's working here is our editorial values and our business values are very aligned," said Jan Bruce, publisher of Body & Soul. "That is resonating with readers and advertisers."

Just words
But many more, from Domino and Vanity Fair to PC Magazine and Delta Sky, are simply publishing green issues on virgin stock.

"When the brand begins to make green, sustainability, climate-change supply-chain transformation topics in their pages, it does beg the question, 'So what are you doing about your own?'" said Don Carli, senior research fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Communication, a nonprofit group that does consulting work for magazines such as The Economist.

Not every environmentalist demand makes economic sense, Mr. Carli said, and publishers aren't the only ones responsible for magazines' impact. Paper quality and cost, too, have to remain integral considerations for the magazine industry. But if readers come to expect green bona fides -- not just opportunities for magazines and their advertisers to seem green -- they could resent those that fall short.

"When you look at all the potential costs and risks of not taking action, it may in fact be the most prudent course to take action proactively rather than waiting for some groundswell of discontent to manifest itself among the consumers," he said.
Domino: Kept the glossy paper for its green issue.
Domino: Kept the glossy paper for its green issue.

Conditions for discontent are already pretty ripe. Those titles that already consider themselves greener, for example, make sure the world knows. "Shape is proud to be the No. 1 user of recycled paper by a major North American women's lifestyle magazine," it brags in every issue.

Emerging need
Zinio, the digital-media publisher, has just come out with a study by Harrison Group reporting that "environmental awareness and proactive action" has emerged for the first time as a top motivation for its customers.

And then there's that ice shelf that was once seven times the size of Manhattan. "We are undoubtedly seeing major changes already start to happen related to climate change," said David Refkin, director-sustainable development at Time Inc. "We've got to be focusing as much as possible on this issue."

Not that recycled paper is the only way to help. Time Inc. certifies its paper to ensure its suppliers are practicing sustainable forestry, Mr. Refkin said. The company also wants to increase magazine recycling to keep them out of landfills. "Landfills emit methane," Mr. Refkin said. "Methane is 23 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide."

Mr. Carli envisioned a bigger role for advertisers. "Let's not put all the burden on the publisher," he said. "Let's ask publishers, both print and digital, to do the analysis credibly, using standards-based methods, and determine the carbon footprint of the media space that the advertiser want to place its ad on. Then, as advertisers, we can buy carbon offsets to make our ad page carbon-neutral."
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