Joel Makower’s father, a longtime Sierra Club member, used to cringe when Joel and his sister left lights on in an empty room.
So he asked his kids to pretend the light bulb was a Seven-Up bottle. Every time a bulb needlessly burned, the young Makower imagined he was spilling his favorite beverage down the drain.
Decades later, the trick that spurred Makower to turn off the lights has evolved into a powerful tool for environmental change.
Today, Makower is a translator of the arcane language of environmentalism--helping people from purchasing managers to housewives conceptualize such intricacies as energy conservation and waste reduction.
In his language, the savings from installing a water-conserving shower head isn’t just $55 a year in energy bills--it’s a return on investment of up to 275%. Educating workers on how they can reduce office waste is more than good environmental policy, he tells managers, it’s a morale booster.
He asserts that everyday consumers and businesses can benefit, and in fact profit, from ecologically sound practices.
“I am a pragmatist. I write about what people are likely to do in the marketplace, not what they should do,” he said. “It’s a very forgiving approach to environmentalism, understanding that most people are only willing to do so much. But even doing that takes some hand-holding and prodding.”
He should know. Makower has equipped his home with energy-efficient light bulbs, walks 2 1/2 miles to his Washington office and encourages his two-person editorial staff to reuse and recycle paper. But he admits to sometimes buying lunch in plastic packages that may not be readily recyclable.
That he sometimes succumbs to convenience, though, has helped Makower recognize marketplace behavior as a tool for encouraging conservation.
To disseminate his message, Makower has published several books, including a best-seller, “The Green Consumer.” He also edits two lively newsletters and pens a syndicated newspaper column.
When he’s not frequenting the lecture circuit, he can be found typing into his Macintosh at the townhouse office of his Tilden Press publishing firm, clad in jeans, his 5-year-old golden retriever nestled at his feet.
Makower, 41, took time before a recent speech in Manhattan to reflect on the most influential man in his life, who died last summer. Removing his glasses, he rubbed his face and touched his graying mustache. His brown eyes appeared moist and red-rimmed.
“Ultimately, he was very proud of me,” Makower said of his father, his impatient manner briefly softened. “From very early on, my parents started seeing my bylines.”
By furthering his father’s message, Makower has helped to put America’s green conscience to work.
Three years ago, during the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, enthusiasm for the environment reached a frenzied pitch that cut across economic and demographic classes.
But the new environmental era dawned with fits and starts. In the aftermath of celebrity-studded events and symbolic corporate gestures, many Americans felt frustrated by their inability to personally make a difference.
Adding to their disillusionment was a string of anti-fraud actions against some of America’s best-known corporations, accused of exploiting environmental sensitivities to make money.
A few years ago, for example, Mobil Corp. paid $150,000 to settle state accusations of deceptively labeling Hefty plastic bags as degradable. The bags lasted as long as other garbage in landfills.
“It’s not the revolution that the media played it up to be three years ago. Some people consider it less than successful,” Makower said.
The less obvious truth was that there were no simple solutions--that plastic wasn’t likely to degrade anytime soon, but that average Americans could be essential parts of broad-based community programs of recycling, source reduction and composting.
Beneath the disappointment, many corporations and communities were making significant progress.
McDonald’s Corp. phased out hard-to-recycle plastic “clamshell” boxes for its burgers. General Motors Corp. embarked on a program to eliminate packaging waste at many of its factories. Thousands of towns and cities began recycling programs to save on disposal fees.
All the while, Makower was there detailing specific ways that businesses and consumers could reduce waste and pollution, giving notable achievements their due in books and newsletters.
Makower’s “The Green Consumer,” published around the April 1990 anniversary of Earth Day, is a trove of suggestions on what to buy and do--such as saving gasoline by keeping car tires at their ideal air pressure.
The 300-page paperback rose to the top of best-seller lists and inspired Makower to start the Green Consumer Letter, an eight-page monthly, printed on recycled paper and crammed with the latest how-to advice.
Two years ago, he launched the Green Business Letter, which offers economically viable ways businesses can do their part. Both have circulations under 10,000, though Makower describes them as profitable.
His latest book, “The E Factor,” articulates how companies can profit from sound practices. One case study in the book is GM’s goal of zero packaging waste at the manufacturing level.
“I thought it was a terrific bible for the type of people who work on the environmental aspect of business,” said Bob Langert, director of environmental affairs at McDonald’s.
McDonald’s decision to drop the clamshell packages was also mentioned in “The E Factor” as an example of progressive change. The company plans to distribute the book to all its suppliers at their yearly meetings.
That month’s “Ecologue,” a regular back-page essay on current environmental topics, came easy for Makower. He wrote about the Seven-Up bottle method. He told how his journalism career ultimately was shaped by more magic advice from his father.
“You never truly understand something until you can explain it to someone else,” he recalled his father saying.