Inspiring Green Action with One Green Planet’s Nil Zacharias

OneGreenPlanet.org aims to empower consumers to make informed, environmentally positive decisions.

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so excited to have with us today Nil Zacharias. He’s the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of One Green Planet, and you can check out all his great work at OneGreenPlanet.org. Welcome to Green is Good, Nil. NIL ZACHARIAS: Thanks so much. Thanks for having me on the show. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Oh, it’s an honor. We are huge fans of OneGreenPlanet.org, so we’re so glad you’re on today. Before we get talking about all the great things you’re doing there, though, talk a little bit about Nil and your background leading up to the co-founding of One Green Planet please. NIL ZACHARIAS: Sure. Happy to. You know actually, in fact, if you had told me a few years ago that I’d be running a site like One Green Planet today, I’d probably think you were joking and the reason for that is I’m not food, environmental, or animal activism space. In fact, far from it. I started my career as an intellectual property lawyer in India and so I worked for a law firm for a couple of years and moved to New York to do my masters in law and ended up getting into the online media space so I worked for a company called Double Click, which was acquired by Google. I went on to work for a big consulting firm and then ended up at Yahoo where I spent a few years and made my way up to the leadership team of Yahoo’s online advertising technology business so as you can imagine, I was on my way to a potentially long lasting relatively cushy corporate career when I decided to change course and the reason for that decision, what really triggered that, was a bit of an aha moment that I had a few years ago so the back story on that is when I moved to New York from India, I found myself very quickly trapped in the American culture of consumption and it started. The biggest change I noticed was I was starting to eat a lot more meat. Now, I did grow up eating meat but it paled in comparison to what I was starting to do here. It reached a point where I was literally eating meat with every meal and feeling really uneasy about the whole thing so one day I told myself I have to make a change and I decided I was going to cut down on my meat consumption and that one simple decision, little did I know that it would actually have a profound impact on my life so it set in motion a chain of events. I started to read about food production, about animal agriculture and the more I read about the ways that the food I was eating made its way to my plate, the less of an appetite I really had for it and eventually, I made the connection between these industries and their impact on the environment, about health and importantly, the connections between animals I grew up loving and the ones I was eating so that was the moment for me and my wife and I decided to do something about it so we looked at our lifestyle choices and we said how can we minimize our impact and when we looked around, we really couldn’t find one resource that was giving us everything we need, whether it’s vegan recipes and cooking tips, expert insights, or even news and updates about what’s happening in the animal environmental space. There were some conversations happening in pockets. You could look at many of the blogs run by nonprofits and to a certain extent, even sites like The Huffington Post started to talk about these issues a few years back but we felt that a lot of the important ideas were getting lost in this online media noise and what was really needed was one platform that brought all these issues together, made the right connections, and gave us the tips, advice, and the answers that we were looking for so in many ways, One Green Planet started because of our desire to find answers and we’ve just been very lucky that there’s so many people out there who are actually looking for the same things today. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Like I said, I’m a huge fan. I’m a vegan. I’m a huge fan of your website and all the great information and tips that I learn from it so for our listeners out there that want to always stay hooked into One Green Planet, it’s www.onegreenplanet.org so I just have to ask you this at the top of the show. I’m on the website now. It’s just a beautiful website. Why did you choose the headers? And also, for your titles such as your title, Monster-in-Chief, why do you use the word monster? How did that come to be? Where was the epiphany for the use of monster? NIL ZACHARIAS: Right. That’s a great question. If you visit the site, as I said, we have a lot of general lifestyle categories. We talk about food, health, DIY living, animal issues, and environmental issues but in fact, underlying all of it is this focus on activism and every piece of content that we create is crafted to inspire some sort of action and change so obviously, we attract a very passionate and action oriented community and we wanted to come up with a way to describe them and we lovingly call them green monsters and you’re probably wondering what that means so what we think about it is a green monster is someone who is concerned about the impact of meat on the environment, on their health, wants to choose more meatless vegan recipes. A green monster is someone who wants to buy products that are fair trade. A green monster is someone who cares about the environment, about animals, that wants to do something about the issues. I think green monster is essentially someone who wants to bring about change because we inherently believe that given the right tools, information, and resources, anyone would choose to be a green monster and actually make more conscious choices. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s awesome. That makes so much sense to me. Again, for our listeners out there, it’s OneGreenPlanet.org so you’re connecting all the dots between lifestyles, environment, animal issues. Why do you think you have such a large audience base now? Do you feel that veganism and that this subject matter is just a mega trend that’s going to continue to grow or the media is pushing this or share your thoughts on why this convergence of activity around this subject matter now? NIL ZACHARIAS: That’s a good question too. I think when we started out, we just happened to start at the right time and talking about the right issues. I think people are generally starting to get more concerned about the issues surrounding health and animal welfare and impact on the environment and they just are looking for more trusted resources where they can learn how to make better choices and I think it’s just reached a bit of a tipping point right now and we just happened to be, I think, at the right place at the right time so I have to acknowledge that but we also have approached it in a very different way, which has helped us. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s awesome. You know, we had the founder of The Sanctuary on last week and I have people come up to me and ask me how you become a vegan and I start sharing some of the tips and then before you know it, people start feeling better when they stop eating meat and they just start cutting dairy out of their life and stuff like that so I’m sure the feedback that you’re getting from your audience has been very, very positive. NIL ZACHARIAS: I think one of the things that’s helped us too in terms of how we’ve grown so fast, and we’ve only been around for two years and so we’re in many ways just getting started, but what’s really helped us is, as I said before, we started the site to be a discovery platform where this emerging conscious generation like my wife and myself could find answers so in many ways, we not only think like our readers. We are them so we’re in this together with them. We’re learning and we’re growing so I think it helps us. We didn’t start the site as experts. We are not experts so actually we’re looking for the same answers everyone else is and that’s really been beneficial for us. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners out there that want to start changing their life, what we love to give on the show, Nil, is solutions so what’s the one choice that you think has the biggest impact for people, animals, and the planet that they can make? NIL ZACHARIAS: Yeah, that’s easy. It’s a choice that we make three or more times a day, the food that we eat. You said this too. I think meat is unsustainable. I think everyone knows the facts. Meat is a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, depleting our natural resources, polluting our air and water. Bottom line, it’s a destructive force and the best way to counter that destructive force is to reduce meat and dairy consumption and eat more plant based food so that one choice that I talk about always, which is simple yet is so challenging and difficult for some people to take on, is to eat more plant based foods because that one choice has the maximum positive impact, not just on the environment but also on your health and obviously on the lives of animals. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners out there that don’t have the ability to look at Nil’s website right now while they’re listening to the show, it is so beautiful and colorful and you cover so many topics. I’ll just give a couple on the header: Earth Monster, all about the earth; Food Monster; Health Monster; Recipe Monster; What’s the Current Buzz Monster; Life Monster and then you have Video Monster so you do a great job of taking thought provoking and controversial topics like factory farming, which we covered a couple weeks back, animal rights, vegan lifestyle viral. How do you do it and deal with skeptics and people who want to throw spears your way and arrows your way? How do you deal with the critics and the people who are very much against what you’re trying to propose and shed some light on? NIL ZACHARIAS: For the first part of your question on how we actually take these controversial issues like factory farming and take it viral, there’s a few principles we follow which have helped us. Firstly, we focus on the positives. It doesn’t mean we don’t talk about the wrongs but for every wrong we talk about, we try to highlight two more rights so we always are talking about how activism is working and change and we’re really changing our habits today so whether it’s people’s opinions about keeping wild animals in captivity people reducing their meat consumption and eating more vegan food, both of which are really happening today, we’re always highlighting those positives. Secondly, we’re very inclusive so while we do create a lot of resources that are very helpful for people who are already making conscious food choices, eating vegan or buying eco-friendly products, we spend probably double the amount of time thinking about ways to reach people that don’t care about these issues and really haven’t had the time to think about it and thirdly, we have a sense of humor. I think one of my favorite Mahatma Gandhi quotes, and I’m paraphrasing here, is, ‘If I didn’t have a sense of humor, I probably would have committed suicide a long time ago.’ I think there’s really an important lesson in there for activists because sometimes it feels like we’re banging our heads against the wall. There’s so many skeptics and it seems like these unjust industries will never change, at least not in our lifetime, so it’s important to not take yourself too seriously sometimes so we do that as a team but we also bring that across in our content and you see that across the site. On the issue of skeptics, we’re not selling products so we can’t use marketing tricks and gimmicks to get people to click and buy things. We’re trying to change people’s minds, which is an incredibly tough thing to do so yes, there are a lot of skeptics out there but the way I think about these issues and the choices that we talk about, I think it’s part of an inevitable future we’re heading towards and people probably don’t realize this but the future is coming here quicker than we anticipated. You just have to look at how, in recent years, companies like Beyond Meat started Ethan or Hampton Creek Foods by Josh, not only are they creating great products and are plant based but they’re getting backed by venture capitalists like Bill Gates and the Founders of Twitter so that’s just one example of a shift that’s starting to happen and I think it’s very exciting so skeptics, we welcome skeptics because we believe it’s not really a question of whether they’re going to change. It’s a matter of when. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s great. For our listeners who just joined us, we’re so excited and honored to have with us today Nil Zacharias. He’s the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of One Green Planet. You can check out all his important and great work at www.onegreenplanet.org. Nil, you know, scale. When you start a website and a web property, scale and visibility is so important. What was your plan? When you and your wife started this venture, what was your plan and how has it worked in terms of getting visibility and scale when there’s so many other websites out there in the world now fighting for the eyeballs and the minds and the hearts of the audiences out there. How did you go about it and how come you’ve risen above the din so successfully? NIL ZACHARIAS: I think back to what we mentioned, we started the site because we ourselves were trying to create a resource that we could go to. That was one thing. Secondly, not being from The States has helped us because we brought in a fresh perspective on issues. We had time to develop our own original editorial voice that’s independent and fair and that’s appreciated by all the nonprofits and businesses we work with today because they know we’re unapologetic about our mission and our editorial voice can’t be influenced very easily. My wife and I, if I haven’t already mentioned, she’s my co-founder. We both built our careers in the online media space so we’ve worked for online publishers. We understand how to build products. We understand technology. We understand the business issues. We’re just very lucky to be able to use all that skill, that knowledge, and that experience and apply it to something that we truly feel passionate about so we brought that in too and as I pointed out at the beginning, we happened to be talking about the right issues at the right time. In terms of how do we approach this issue, we considered getting investors initially and we did spend some time thinking about that issue and we thought we had two choice. We could spend two months or maybe more than that talking about potential and convincing them we had the right idea or we could use the same time and build it ourselves so obviously, we chose the latter. We built this independently and we’ve, in many ways, surprised ourselves. We are now as big as some sites that have millions in investment and we’ve done it by just staying committed to our vision and running a very lean operation but we’re definitely open to investors. We’re open to strategic investors, especially those that understand what we’re doing and our mission and would love to partner with us. JOHN SHEGERIAN: What’s the next steps? Speaking about strategic investors, I understand that. What’s your goal? When you and your wife are done with the day and you go have a meal together and you’re talking about where to take this, what’s both of your collective vision and how far do you want to go with this and how big can it get? NIL ZACHARIAS: We think of One Green Planet as not just a content publishing website. We have a bit of a different take on it. We think of ourselves as a technology platform that’s powered by content by that has tools and resources that can empower nonprofits in the space as well as these emerging new businesses that are trying to do good and consumers who are trying to make better choices and as I said, we’re just getting started in many ways. Our goal is to build a long-lasting brand in the space and that takes time and we’re ready to put the time and commitment. This is not just a business for us. It’s our life’s work and we’re working on some exciting things in the short term that will be launching later this year. I think it’s just going to take out site to the next level but we want to create a longstanding brand that’s associated with this emerging conscious consumers and economy that’s rising. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Nil, you know, we have so many young people from around the world that listen to this show and they get so inspired by great people like you who are doing such important and relevant work. Do you have any advice for other people now, other social entrepreneurs in training or other social entrepreneurs in school that want to go and become the next Nil and go found the next One Green Planet or the next Beyond Meat or other great brand? What are some of your favorite tips for social entrepreneurs out there that want to be as successful as you are? NIL ZACHARIAS: You know, I think you probably know this, John, too but entrepreneurship is not easy and it’s not for everyone and I think some people probably are of the opinion that idealism has no place in entrepreneurship, especially if you’re trying to build a startup that’s focused on growth, but I believe that idealism actually makes me a better entrepreneur and I say that because no matter what business you start, even if it’s not focused on social good, you’re going to have skeptics. You’re going to have people who will question the long term viability of your product, about your business plan, about your judgment and possibly even your sanity and when that happens, it’s very important to stay strong and I think being an idealist makes you strong inherently because you’re driven by a cause that’s bigger than you. You’re driven by more than just money and this is going to happen no matter what business you start. You’re going to have those dark days where you’ll have to dig deep and find inspiration and push on no matter how hard the task ahead seems and I think that’s when idealism really helps and so I really believe at the core of any good entrepreneur is an idealist so social entrepreneurs or those focused on creating really good products have an inherent advantage but obviously, that’s not the only thing. I think you have to balance that sense of idealism and that desire to change the world with the ability to go ahead and build stuff and do something so even at One Green Planet, from day one, we’ve just been committed to building a great product and we work day and night to improve that product, whether it’s the feature on our site, whether it’s our content, our approach to social media. We are obsessed with trying new things, failing, learning from our failures, and trying again until we get it right and I think this obsession is almost to the extent where we hardly do any marketing. This is one of the rare interviews I’ve ever given because we think that if we build a great product, it’ll speak for itself so to sum that up, I think the magic formula, if there is any, and I’m still working on it myself, is idealism plus the ability to build stuff. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I love it, Nil, and we’re so honored and thank you. I know this is one of your rare interviews and we’re so honored and thankful that you came on today and we want you to come on again in the future and continue to share the journey and the great story of One Green Planet. For our listeners out there, please join The Green Monster community at One Green Planet at www.onegreenplanet.org. Thank you, Nil, for being an inspiring green monster and sustainability superstar. You are truly living proof that green is good.