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Hill is the founder of TreeHugger, an online hub for news and information related to environmental sustainability.Hailed as a "green CNN," TreeHugger hosts a constantly updated blog, newsletters, video and[…]

Rebranding environmentalism for business.

Question: Beyond a simple title, how would you describe what you do for a living? 

Graham Hill:  I think I made a transition in the last five years or so. Before I would have just called myself a serial entrepreneur. Now I think I’m a serial entrepreneur that’s going to forever do “do gooder” things.

I’m very excited by change and by building something from nothing. And at this point, on top of that, I’m really want to do good. I think there’s a lot of suffering in the world, and I’d like to see what I can do to reduce it.

Question: How did you get into your line of work? 

Graham Hill: My cousin and I built this great company of around 60 people. We started in ’95 – pre-Netscape – so very early on. And we just did great work programming; project management sort of stuff.

There were a lot of acquisitions going on at that point, and we got a lot of interest. And so we ended up selling to a New York company. And I finagled my way here via running an office for them for a little bit in Boston, and with the promise I’d be able to come out of the New York office--because I was very attracted to New York. So that’s sort of how I got here.

And after a while, it wasn’t the right fit for me, with the company. And I think I was really ready for something new. And so I tried a couple of things and really got my first D. It just didn’t go so well. Which I think was really great because it sort of let off a lot of pressure. And I think it also focused me because that first thing wasn’t particularly positive. It was more of a benign project – an Internet based thing.

It actually got me focused on; I really wanted to do something that matters to me and was in sync with my values. And I think I was really affected by reading. And I think books are; their power is underestimated. I think something about, you pick it up, you have to remember where you’re at, what the whole overall concept is, you get into it. You provide energy to it. It’s not just fed to you. And then you put it down, and you pick it up, and you put it down. It’s hundreds of pages, often, and it goes over the same stuff in various ways. And so it syncs in in a way that I think a lot of things don’t. So books are really powerful. I think that really helps. A lot of my reading on evolution and on green and just on social entrepreneurship.

This sort of stuff just got me very turned on. I was just very excited about the whole prospect.

Question: What needs to change in American business?

Graham Hill: Well certainly from an environmental level, the thing that we’ve been ignoring is we haven’t made the true costs of things part of their price. So externalities are sort of left out. And I think that’s a really, really important one. We’ve expanded to the point where we understand the limits of the resources that we have. 100 years ago this was different. It just went on and on.

But really we understand those, and now we realize we actually have to be careful. And we realize what an incredible impact we can have in a positive or negative manner on the earth that we live in, and the species that we share it with. So I think that’s a big one.

In the world of business, I think that business should be able to have less of an effect on government. I’d like to see campaign finance reform and less impact in that respect. I think transparency is really important. And so I think the Internet has been very helpful, and I’d like to see more and more of that. I think transparency is a great thing. We’ve got some ways to go with business for sure.

Question: How can established companies go green?

Graham Hill: The beauty of this stuff is that there are thousands and thousands of solutions. So it’s really about companies educating themselves and just approaching it; understanding that from a moral perspective; we have to do it; but also from a business perspective.

This is what people are going to demand more and more, and we have to look at things in a different way. So really it would depend on the company. But whichever business you’re in, there are more and more opportunities in terms of greening your own operations and your own products.

Question: What inspired you to found

Graham Hill: TreeHugger. Let me give you a little context. I grew up as basically a hippie. I had a very hippie, hippie childhood.  I’m very much from this background of conservation and nature, and that was part of me.

Then I went on to study both architecture and then product design. And then I ended up doing a bunch of entrepreneurial things. I did a fashion company. I built a Web development firm. And then I did a product firm in the past three of four years. So I’ve done a bunch of things that, at the end of the day end; I’m a design focused entrepreneur with leanings toward the environment.

So a few years ago, I guess four or so now, I was looking for my next project. I knew I wanted to do something in the “do gooder” realm. And I just was passionate about green, and so it all sort of coalesced.

Topic: A Busy Guy.

Graham Hill: The second problem I saw was that I’m a busy guy. And I live in New York and I work very hard. And so I’m running from thing to thing, and on the weekends that, if I’m able to get any time off, I want to relax, and see my friends, and do this sort of stuff. So the real challenge at that point was that it really wasn’t convenient. So convenience is the real killer, and I think you really need to make it easy.

So if I needed to find that pair of cotton organic pants, or low VOC paints [volatile organic compound paints], or figure out, if I was to buy a hybrid car or something; these are activities that would take hours and hours. And so ultimately they just wouldn’t end up happening, or wouldn’t end up happening enough.

So the second problem that I saw was just one of convenience. We really needed to make it convenient.

Topic: The Importance of Yes.

Graham Hill: The third was, a lot of environmentalism, to that point, had been about “no”; had been about “the sky is falling”; had been about, inspire by fear. And I actually think; we need a whole bunch of approaches to this problem and that approach was actually really important. It’s important for people to understand the gravity of the situation, and that there are major issues. And all that’s very important.

But I think there are also people who are looking for, “Great. So what’s next? How do we move forward?” And they’re looking for “Yes”. They’re looking for, "Inspire by hope." And I think I’m one of those people. And so what I figured was if one could create a site that would aggregate all this modern green, the different aesthetic that was starting to appear on a global basis, in one place; make it convenient for people such that they could not spend a ton of time and still move their life in a green direction; and just make it really positive and solutions-oriented; that it would appeal to a market and it would really help green go mainstream. So that was sort of the basic thinking. And so in 2004, we really got together and launched TreeHugger.

Question: Does a re-branded environmentalism have staying power?

Graham Hill: I think this is the issue of our times, whether we like it or not. Unfortunately we’ve made, mostly unknowingly, a lot of bad decisions over the past 100 years, and it’s affecting things. So this will be the issue of our times.

My hope is that it becomes part of everything. So it’s not a separate thing. So like civil rights or the women’s movement, it has to become a part of everything; not that either of those is fixed at this point in time. But really it needs to stop from being a separate thing and be part of everything. So I think it will absolutely continue in the media--because it has to. But my hope is it just becomes part of everything, so it’s less a separate thing. It’s just a part of the way we look at the world.

Question: What makes a product eco-friendly?

Graham Hill: Well it probably really depends on which one. And the challenging part of this area is that there is a lot of gray. So it’s hard to determine what’s what, because different things enter into the picture. 

Is it better to get organic strawberries from California or non-organic local strawberries, right? So it becomes sort of a complicated issue. So a lot of it’s about doing a full life cycle analysis, which really looks at all the components that go into the manufacture, and the distribution, and the cycle. How is it cycled? Does it end up in a landfill? Or is it recycled back as a technical nutrient, or does it not biodegrade? So really it’s like looking at the life cycle and understanding the full impact of it in the first place.

And then, probably more importantly, do you need this thing in the first place? The best product is the one that you can avoid.

Question: What is the biggest misconception of environmentalism?

Graham Hill: I think the biggest misconception is probably that the movement is anti-capitalistic or anti-business. I think really most of the people don’t view it that way and understand that business is not going to go away anytime soon, and we really need to work with it.

And business can be a great thing. We just have to have incentives in the right place. I’d say one of the biggest misconceptions is probably that – that the environmental movement is anti-business.

Question: How is technology changing the way we work?

Graham Hill:  I think it’s changing it in major, major ways, particularly recently with the advent of commuting and the fact that people can really contribute. It’s become much more of the interactivity that everyone talked about so much in the mid to late Nineties is actually really happening. People really can voice themselves; via comments or their own blogs, etc.

I think that’s creating a scenario where the good guys win. And what I mean by that is that it used to be that corporations can have a command and control. They could really spin things. They could really control the message that got out there. And really it’s different now.

If you’re telling things that aren’t truthful, that is going to be picked up. There are just too many people. The Internet, self-healing. And it will really help surface that sort of stuff. So the beauty of this is people--it’s forced transparency in a way. And so the companies that are doing the right thing will end up doing better. And those that don’t will get found out by a lot of pressure we put on them. So I really think that the Internet is helping the good guys win by forcing this transparency.

I think in terms of other changes that Internet’s brought, I think that there’s a democratization of technology that’s happening, and that has a lot of effects. So whether it’s the fact that you can set up a blog and say your piece very inexpensively--as long as you can get access. Or that the editing software, cameras, voice recording, like all media is becoming cheaper and cheaper, and easier and easier for people to use. So I think this also really helps get a lot more voices added to the conversation. And it kind of makes it much more difficult for corporations to control it. I think that’s also very positive.

And also, people can help people. It used to be it was only media that could really invest in this stuff. But now people, whether it’s on message boards, or via comments, people can actually help people in a very efficient manner. Like you can share something. People do share their experiences.

So in terms of going green as an example, just they can share what they’ve learned and their own tips and tricks. And that particular piece of information can get out to lots of people. So it’s very, very effective.

So I think if you look at the big picture, we’re evolving. The good news is we’re evolving. So everything is sort of headed in a better and better direction, whether it’s civil rights, or women’s rights, or the environmental movement, or just violence being reduced in general.

Things are moving in the right direction.

Question: Are bloggers journalists?

Graham Hill: Yeah. I guess it’s just a broader concept of what “journalist” is. I think traditional journalists that are well paid and have the time to really fact-check, and spend a lot of time looking into a story, I think they’re still very, very important. And hopefully more and more bloggers can do that. So I don’t know. It’s just different types of writing.

Question: What defines good design?

Graham Hill: Design, I think you have to look at from a whole bunch of different fronts. But I think, ultimately, design is something that is looked at in a holistic manner, and that solves a problem, and ideally does it in a very efficient manner with the resources used. So it’s something that people enjoy using, and that’s really functional, and does a good job, and lasts a long time. Maybe it’s easily repaired, or certainly at the end of its life can be reused, or recycled. 

So I think design is holistic. And a lot of people think of design as aesthetics. And I do think that’s an important part of things, and it shows care and the craft of something.

But I think it’s overall, it’s what problem is this solving and how does it solve it in a really smart and efficient way?


Recorded on: Oct 16, 2007

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