Buying Into Sustainability: A Conversation with The Lazy Environmentalist

When Joshua Dorfman coined the phrase “lazy environmentalist,” he wasn’t just being comic or cynical. He was being realistic.

He was American. He realized that, like him, many Americans wanted or had grown accustomed to rather comfortable lifestyles. They identified themselves as consumers. So if American consumers were to become environmentalists, Josh wondered, how might they be convinced? He arrived at an unconventional answer: they wouldn’t be convinced, because they shouldn’t need to be convinced.

“I think that American consumers should have to know next to nothing about the choices they’re making in order to make really good environmental choices,” says Josh. From this central notion—sustainability should be easy—Josh created “The Lazy Environmentalist” in 2005. He launched this media brand with a blog that developed into a daily radio show on SiriusXM and eventually a reality television series on Sundance Channel, hosted and produced by Josh. In 2009, the Environmental Media Association awarded The Lazy Environmentalist “Best Reality Show.” Josh has also authored two related books on innovative green products and services: The Lazy Environmentalist: Your Guide to Easy, Stylish, Green Living, and The Lazy Environmentalist on a Budget.

At this point, Josh has been involved in green retail for more than a decade, from the sustainable furniture retailer Vivavi (which he founded) to his work as Site Director of Vine.com, an e-commerce retailer specializing in natural, organic, and sustainably-made products. “We have to figure out if there’s a way for consumerism to get people to feel more deeply connected to the importance of a healthy planet,” he said while sitting for an interview with the Yale Center for Customer Insights.

Josh holds an MBA from Thunderbird, The Global School of Management, and a BA from the University of Pennsylvania. He has appeared widely on television and radio and, following unconventionality, is the only guest to have ever ridden a bicycle onto the set of the Martha Stewart Show.

The transcript below has been edited for clarity and brevity.

What piqued your interest in this retail side of environmentalism?

About 20 years ago I went to China to teach English, and I ended up having a job for about a year and a half working with Kryptonite bike locks. I was serving as their business manager, traveling a lot around the country to see if and how we might set up a sales network to sell these locks to local residents. Now, as I was doing that, as I traveled around and saw the billion people in China who all rode bicycles, the thought that influenced me the most in my career was this: as I watched all of the economic development underway, I realized that these people actually didn’t want bicycles, but they wanted cars. In fact, they wanted to have a consumer-driven lifestyle very similar to the one I was accustomed to.

Not knowing anything about environmental issues at the time, I still recognized that this would be, to say the least, highly problematic—not just for China, but for all of civilization.

So I came back to the states and did a lot of thinking about what role I might play in the future that I saw coming. What I decided was that if I wanted to express my commitment to sustainability and change I first had to consider that I lived in the U.S., the biggest consumer culture in the world. Perhaps, I thought, my goal could be to smooth that consumer culture in a—call it what you want—less environmentally harmful, or more sustainable, direction. But I chose retail because I really felt that Americans identified as consumers, and so I aimed to reduce the footprint of our consumption.

I think the environmentally smart choices ought to be so well designed, so reasonably priced, so aesthetically pleasing, and so delicious that people are going to want to make that choice whether they know anything about why it’s good for the planet or not.

From your perspective, what is it that consumers should know about green products, and how do you start this conversation?

I have two somewhat disparate points of view about this, and they’re both kind of idealistic.

On the one hand, as the lazy environmentalist, I recognize that Americans care about the environment, but are generally lazy. By lazy, I mean that we are extremely accustomed to convenience, to having things the way we want them. This is how we live much of our lives. From that point of view I think that American consumers should have to know next to nothing about the choices they’re making in order to make really good environmental choices. And what I mean by that is that I think the environmentally smart choices ought to be so well designed, so reasonably priced, so aesthetically pleasing, and so delicious that people are going to want to make that choice whether they know anything about why it’s good for the planet or not.

For instance, the first venture I had was an environmental furniture store that I opened about ten years ago, called Vivavi. The greatest compliment ever paid to me was when people walked into our showroom and said, “Where’s the eco-friendly stuff?” We were competing on things that people necessarily value in furniture—quality, beauty, great design.

That, to me, is one way to drive sustainable choices into the mainstream. Though not a mainstream product, take the Tesla as an example. People lust after that car, people who couldn’t care less about the environment. In my view, that’s a great thing.

But, on the other hand, I’m kind of coming around to the perspective that what I just described to you—while those products should be able to stand on their own for people to like them without knowing a lot about sustainability—may not be enough. I also think that the more you can introduce consumers to a lifestyle brand experience around sustainability, to a superior experience, the more you can actually influence people to evolve in their lifestyle.

We have to figure out if there’s a way for consumerism to get people to feel more deeply connected to the importance of a healthy planet.

Which leads to the hard question: what helps to establish that kind of connection, not just to a product, but to a lifestyle or a change in lifestyle?

Well, take the Nike store as an example. I think that the Nike store is an inspiring store to be in. You step inside and you just want to become an athlete and train, whether you currently do that or not. There’s skill in that experience, an artistry. There is so much that goes into creating that self-experience, and I think that there is an opportunity to go deeper into this kind of experiential retail.

In the realm of sustainability, take Tom’s Shoes. You read their catalog, and you think, “Man, I love what this company does. I love being part of this change.” It’s more than just buying a pair of shoes. They connect you deeper to an important set of values.

But what I’m still trying to articulate to myself is how this might work in green retail. If you could create these kinds of connections, then I actually think the whole experience would be deeper and more transformational, hopefully getting consumers to not just make one green purchase, but to start curating more of their purchases, more of their lifestyle.

On the one hand, the first thing I said is to just make the green choices so impeccably fantastic that no one will ever have to think twice. The work will be done for them. But on the other hand, while I think that gets you far, I also think that we have to figure out if there’s a way for consumerism to get people to feel more deeply connected to the importance of a healthy planet.

I do think it can be done. But it’s not being done in many places, just yet.

And, shifting gears, how do you think customers have changed over time, given you’ve been doing this for over a decade?

Here’s what I think has changed: there’s a small chunk of the population that is increasingly interested in being personally healthy, so they’re looking at natural food, or natural beauty products. More and more people are grasping the connection of chemicals and toxins to health—and, of course, these are connected to a healthier environment, as well. This is a trend that, in my view, is unstoppable, and consumers are really driving it.

At the same time, I still think there are huge numbers of people who are clueless, who don’t care, who don’t believe in a lot of these issues. And, from a consumer perspective, that’s kind of where the story is. You can look at sustainable products and see that, for the most part, it’s still very niche: not a lot of people are going out of their way to choose the products that are more socially responsible. Rather, they will go out of their way to make sure they’re putting natural, organic products into their body.

So, really, that notion of personal self-interest in removing chemicals from their own lives—people get that. They don’t do it to save the planet, they do it to make themselves and their families healthier, and that’s great. But that, I think, is about as far as things have come if you’re talking about most of the people out there.