He Likes It Green, But Don’t Call Him a Hippie!

Graham Hill has a compost pile in his apartment, a modest one-bedroom on the sixth floor of a sleek new high-rise across the street from Katz’s Deli that has a nice view and gets lots of sun. His NatureMill indoor composter lives in his closet and is about as large as a medium-size dog. Its innards churn every few minutes, mixing and heating about 70 percent of his organic banana peels, coffee grinds and whatnot into water vapor. Clunk, clunk, clunk, it goes. Mr. Hill wheeled it out for The Observer and opened the lid, unleashing a sour, rotting smell into his small kitchen. “Think of this: Anytime you throw something out, it has to cross the river,” he said. He opened the composter’s bottom drawer, which contained the potent fertilizer produced by the machine that could be used for his plants—except that most of them are dead, dying or nonexistent. Clay pots filled with soil line his window sills, but there’s no green. “Despite the green stuff, I’m not that good with plants,” he said. 

Mr. Hill, 38, has a slim frame, auburn hair and freckled skin that has been browned by the sun; his is an urban lumberjack look honed by days out kitesurfing (his board is mounted on the living room wall), skateboarding (his ride sits on a side table) or cruising around Manhattan on one of this two Strida folding bikes (which hang in his closet).

Mr. Hill is the founder of TreeHugger.com, one of the first and most influential “green” blogs on the Web. The site became a model for chronicling environmental news and design long before Al Gore flashed pictures of melting ice caps in his 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, and a new crop of niche environmental blogs sprung up on the Web.

As he describes it, Mr. Hill is trying to live the life of a “sustainable American.” He buys green power from Con Edison. He unplugs his microwave unless he’s using it. (“You know that stupid little clock uses up more power than when you actually use the thing?”) He’s a “weekday vegetarian” and buys organic fruits and vegetables from farmers’ markets and organic shops. His kitchen table is made of wood from “sustainably harvested forests,” and he lays out his socks and underwear on it to dry instead of using his machine. He sleeps on a natural, latex foam mattress that sits on his floor, and has a hemp shower curtain and organic cotton towels in his bathroom. He has digitized all of his music and downloads books onto his Amazon Kindle and wants to scan all of his paper documents. He lugs around two Voltaic bags, which are attached with solar panels that gather enough juice from the sun to charge up a laptop, iPod or iPhone.

It’s as green as it gets.

Though Mr. Hill isn’t perfect. He has one vice, flying, which he does often during his frequent traveling jaunts. He knows that flying leaves a hefty carbon footprint, so he’s tinkering with a solution. Lately, he’s been reading about blimps.

Mr. Hill launched TreeHugger in 2004, after many years ruminating on the idea of a blog that could make the concept of “green” go mainstream, and some nudging from his friend, Gawker chief Nick Denton. “This shouldn’t be owned by the hippies,” Mr. Hill told The Observer while lounging in his living room on a used ’80s-style chair. Mr. Hill was wearing an organic cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up and sneakers with recycled tire tread for soles. His shoelaces were untied.

TreeHugger features green buying guides (“The Ultimate Green Wedding Guide”) and the latest green news [“Celebrities Fight Heathrow Expansion with Organic Veggies” (Video)] along with interactive games and online forums. For years Mr. Hill ran the site virtually, with bloggers all over the world communicating through instant message and video conferencing via Skype. They got paid through PayPal. “I’ve hired tons of people who I’ve never met,” Mr. Hill said.

In 2007, TreeHugger was acquired by Discovery Communications (you know, the TV channel with the spinning globe as a logo?) for $10 million. Mr. Hill became vice president of interactive media for Planet Green, Discovery’s 24-hour eco-living sister channel and Web site that launched last year. “Graham is a canny businessman,” wrote Mr. Denton about his friend, via instant messaging. “Underneath that grinning organic cotton-wearing exterior. He was very attuned to the economic and hype cycle—much more so than I’ve ever been. And he picked the perfect time to sell. It was pretty much the cleanest exit from a startup: a healthy price; no investors to pay off; and Discovery is the perfect long-term owner.”

Between working on his blogs and speaking at green conferences, Mr. Hill is taking on the task he started with TreeHugger to the next level.

“We need to get beyond, ‘Oh, I’m green because I recycle!” Mr. Hill said. He compares our current state of “green” duties to those “10 Small Steps to Dropping a Dress Size”–type features in women’s and fitness magazines. Sure, you can start using fat-free milk for your coffee and take the stairs to work to burn a few calories here and there. Or you can get a personal trainer and go vegan to drop a dress size. Mr. Hill wants us to start thinking about our carbon emissions the same way we might shed a few pounds: by making not just small choices, but lifestyle changes that will have a big impact. Eat vegetarian on weekdays (save your bacon for Sunday brunch). Buy green power (you can buy electricity powered by wind farms in upstate New York). Fly less often (and take nonstop flights on planes that use less oil while you’re at it).

“This is just a natural evolution, civil rights, women’s rights, animal rights; it just made sense that we’d get there,” for environmental reform, he said.

 

MR. HILL RODE into America by motorcycle. He grew up in rural Sutton, Ontario, in a cabin built with recycled logs. His parents were “back-to-the-land hippies.” Dad was an airline pilot. Mom was a professor, real estate agent and therapist. They didn’t believe in working for “the man,” according to Mr. Hill. He went to a community school run by the neighborhood’s parents.

He Likes It Green, But Don’t Call Him a Hippie!