Is Oprah Winfreyâ€”as founder and editorial director of her wildly successful magazine, O The Oprah Magazineâ€”destroying valuable forests to print the magazine? Her publisher Hearst wonâ€™t say. Nor will Oprah. And thatâ€™s a problem.
Even the intervention of an advertiser, Aveda, with strong environmental values, has not yet persuaded Hearst or Oprah to go public with their paper-buying policy or practices.
Hereâ€™s what Todd Paglia, the executive director of Forest Ethics, a forest protection group, says about Oprah and Hearst:
Like every publisher, Oprah has a duty to address the environmental impact of her magazine â€“ and I am sure there is vast room for improvement â€“ but her status as a cultural icon gives her the opportunity to do much more.
She’s already gotten millions of people to read more. Can you imagine what she could do if she helped reframe the debate around environmental issues to emphasize concrete, positive steps that individuals, companies and governments can and must take right now?
But first she has to clean up her own act. Some background: A month or so ago, I wrote a column for the CNNMoney website headlined Not-So-Green Magazines that generated reaction from readers, activists and even a publisher or two. Magazines can contribute to sustainability in three waysâ€”by using recycled content in their paper, by sourcing paper from forests that are well-managed and by aggressively promoting recycling. Some magazines do these things well. Most donâ€™t. Most wonâ€™t talk about their environmental impact. They cover the environment, but cover up their own practices.
That brings us to the story of Oprah and Hearst. It takes time to tell because the topic isnâ€™t simple and Hearst has tried to make it more confusing, as youâ€™ll see. I approached Hearst and Oprah not because their practices are substandard â€“ my sources tell me that Conde Nast is much worseâ€”but because I think Oprah would want to do the right thing. (In the mid-1980s, as a TV reporter in Detroit, I went to Chicago to interview her just before her talk show went national. I was very impressed. Still am.) Last week, I contacted her company, Harpo Productions, to ask whether Oprah has looked at her magazineâ€™s environmental impact and got only this, by email, from a publicist:
“Harpo, Inc. supports the environmentally-friendly practices that our publishing partner Hearst Magazines has led on behalf of the industry and integrated into its businesses.”
That sent me back to Hearst.
Hearst spokesman Paul Luthringer sent me a corporate policy by email that was long (558 words) but almost worthless. I did learn a couple of useful thingsâ€”Hearst is reducing waste in its distribution system (nice, but not what I was asking) and it does not include CDs and DVDs in its magazines (good, because they muck up recycling efforts.) I also learned that Hearst favors recycling (now thatâ€™s bold) and opposes global warming (ditto) and promotes the protection of â€œHigh Value Concentration Forest.â€ That last phrase is revealing. I think what Hearst meant to say was High Conservation Value Forests. The fact that they couldnâ€™t even get the language right suggests that their â€œpolicyâ€ was cobbled together in a hurry, most likely in response to my email.
Probing further, I asked Luthringer whether the company buys paper that is certified. The Forest Stewardship Council sets standards for forests are well-managed. (A competing industry-backed standard called the Sustainable Forestry Initiative isn’t as stringent.) Many companies buy paper that comes from FSC-certified forests. As for Hearst, you be the judge. Here’s what they said:
Hearst (19 magazines including Oprah magazine) only purchases paper from suppliers that utilized independent third party certification programs and also have certified chain of custody to verify certified fiber levels.
Maybe weâ€™re getting somewhere, I thought. That sounds like Hearst buys certified paper. How much, I wondered? The reply:
Hearst only buys paper from suppliers who use certification.
Hmm. Reread that statement. When I did, I turned suspicious. I only buy groceries from suppliers (Giant, Safeway, Whole Foods) who sell organic. That doesnâ€™t meant I eat organic food. In fact, it says nothing about what I buy or eat. Once again, I sought clarification, and got:
The specific levels of certified fiber that Hearst purchases is proprietary. Is that clear?
Yes. Perfectly clear, despite the grammatical error. Clear that Hearst was giving me a runaround. As for proprietaryâ€”well, I grant you that the cover line being prepared for the next issue of Oprah (WILL THE REAL YOU PLEASE STAND UP!) or Cosmo (NAUGHTY SEX TRICKSâ€”Let Out Your Inner Bad Girl) might be valuable, inside information, not to be shared with the public. But certified fiber purchases? Is there any reason why the company wonâ€™t talk about them other than fear of embarrassment or protest? I think not.
By the way, if any PR folk are reading, this is a useful lesson in how not to deal with the press.
As I said, Hearst wonâ€™t talk about its paper buying practices even when an advertiser takes an interest. The eco-friendly cosmetics company Aveda, to its credit, arranged for a meeting between Hearst executives and Frank Locantore, who is the magazine paper project director for Co-op America. Locantore has worked with publishers for years, and his group gives awards to industry leaders. He tells me that he had a good meeting at Hearst, but came away with no more meaningful data than I did. â€œWe were getting to know one another in this first meeting, and they did not yet feel it was appropriate to share with me their plans,” he says, diplomatically.
Locantore has good advice for Hearst: â€œThey should begin using paper that has post-consumer recycled content. And they should have a stewardship policy that would set goals over time.â€
Others do so. Conrad McKerron of As You Sow, which does shareholder advocacy around sustainability issues, tells me:
Many magazines already use recycled content–Shape, Mother Jones and Natural Health use 30% post consumer recycled paper; Plenty uses 10% post consumer recycled content; and Fast Company uses 100% recycled with 80% post consumer content.
Unfortunately, as privately-held companies, neither Hearst nor Conde Nast (publisher of The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, which has a green issue coming up), are vulnerable to shareholder pressures from McKerron and As You Sow.
I feel strongly about this issue (as you may have noticed!) because I make my living in the magazine industry. (Time Inc., my employer, is better than most.) And I understand that paper procurement is complicated: It involves competing forest certification systems, debate over the availability of recycled content, issues surrounding the use of chlorine in the bleaching process, etc. But none of these issues are new. The Sierra Clubâ€™s magazine published an article in 1991 about magazine publishing and an excellent followup piece (with the headline â€œMea Pulpa) in 1994. That same year, Greenpeace protested Time Inc.â€™s forestry practices by climbing up the Time & Life Bldg. Hearst has had plenty of time to work through the complexity.
By the way, nowhere in Oprahâ€™s March issue is there even the suggestion that readers recycle the 278-page magazine once they are through with itâ€”a minimal step. By using more recycled paper and promoting recycling, the magazine industry would reduce the demand for virgin fiber, water, energy and chemicals, and help slow down climate change.
Last week, the Magazine Publishers of America announced â€œan industry wide public education campaign to let readers know that magazines can and should be recycled.â€ The MPA did not take the more significant step of urging its members to use recycled content or even asking them to stop including CDs, DVDs, scent ads and even tiny batteries in magazinesâ€”all of which get in the way of recycling.
Comments welcome, as always. Oprah? Or should I say, “WILL THE REAL YOU PLEASE STAND UP!â€