Just three years old this April, Vanity Fair's Green Issue already feels like an annual rite of Spring. More significant than its Earth Day timing, however, is its demographic real estate - the synthesis of haute couture and hard-boiled reporting provides a forum previously unknown to environmental issues. In many ways the Green Issue stands as a catalyst, and barometer, of how far we've come.
But three years on from the first Green Issue in 2006, as Vanity Fair's own warnings of environmental catastrophe grow ever more urgent, the magazine also stands as a discouraging symbol of how far we have to go.
Vanity Fair is printed on paper from clear-cut forests. None of its 12 issues per year are "green."
In his editor's letter, Graydon Carter laments the lack of stage time some of our largest looming challenges -- global warming, the true costs of the US's energy-ineptitude -- have received in our current presidential race. While he goes on to say that those topics get their due in the subsequent pages, he conveniently neglects to mention another problem: the fact that every year, the magazine industry destroys an area the size of Rocky Mountain National Park--at an average of one tree per second--to print its 12 billion magazines.
And those forests, even replanted as sterile tree farms, aren't coming back. Not even the still-alluring image of Madonna is worth this destruction. And there are lots of options for the publication that wants to do better, from using a high percentage of recycled paper to printing on FSC-certified sustainable paper (like the USDA Organic label but for sustainable forest products).
Deforestation accounts for 20% of all global carbon emissions -- more than all the planes, trains, and automobiles on the planet. Not only that, the earth's living, breathing, and breathtakingly complex forests serve as the perfect weapon against global warming, by consuming the very carbon we emit. To emit more carbon by cutting down the very instrument that helps us contain carbon emissions is a global warming double whammy.
So forgive me for being less than thrilled about a "green" magazine made from clearcut forests. Despite the encouraging uptick in environmental news coverage, few of the largest magazines, green issues or no, have done much to limit their contribution to the very problems they report on.
Some of the industry's bizarre statements call into question whether or not they're even reading their own articles. A December 2007 blog post by Wired's own editor-in-chief Chris Anderson about the magazine industry's carbon impact came off less like the work of a cutting edge tech mag and more like a rehashing of the moribund timber industry's lamest propaganda.
For instance, Anderson claimed that clear-cutting forests and replacing them with new trees is a carbon-neutral act. Special interests have long tried to pass this sleight-of-hand off by asserting that young and growing trees consume carbon at a faster rate than older trees. This is technically true but it has little to do with how much carbon is lost when mature forests are cut. Cutting down a mature forest is the equivalent of blowing a multi-million dollar carbon fortune, and the planting of new trees like starting over deeply in debt and hoping to some day reclaim the wealth that has been lost. A forest converted into a tree plantation is far from neutral. It's tragic.
We all know to cast a skeptical eye when oil companies make spurious claims about the effects of their product on our climate. Fossil fuels don't create climate change, tobacco doesn't cause cancer, and clear-cutting forests for magazines is good for the environment. The magazine industry needs to take a look at the company it's keeping and recognize that, in ecology as much as economics, there is no free lunch. It is time for the magazine industry to acknowledge this obvious fact - and do something about it.
Perhaps we should simply be happy that Vanity Fair is doing a green issue at all, when the articles are exemplary and the alternative to such reporting - denial - still pervades so much of our media. My own organization, ForestEthics, certainly depends on media both old and new to report on our campaigns.
But when so much of Vanity Fair's Green Issue bears the implicit message of "wake up! do something! embrace the possibilities!" I can't help but wonder why Vanity Fair hasn't been bold enough to take on its own contributions to deforestation and climate change. Shape Magazine, as well as some smaller, greener magazines (like Mother Jones, Ode and Plenty), have seen fit to make their values and the paper they use consistent.
Green Issues are about selling magazines. There's nothing wrong with that per se, but if they are furthering the idea that talk without action is sufficient, they may have outlasted their usefulness. Madonna looks great on the cover - but green needs to be more than skin, or in the case of Vanity Fair, ink deep.
Todd Paglia is the Executive Director of ForestEthics, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco and Vancouver credited with saving more than 12 million acres of Endangered Forest. ForestEthics has recently launched a campaign to establish a national Do Not Mail Registry to offer citizens a choice to stop receiving unsolicited junk mail, as well as a campaign to halt the development of tar sands in Canada for oil exploration.