The Ecologist: ''No one tells us what we can or can't print'

The new editor of 'The Ecologist' is here to make changes. But though the articles may be fluffier, her magazine will still be campaigning hard, she tells Andrew Wasley magazines 'the ecologist'
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The Independent Online

Walking into the offices of The Ecologist is like walking into an oasis of calm: the noise and rubbish of Spitalfields Commercial Street are immediately replaced by a quiet ambience, plants, art-deco design and a fully equipped kitchen. Half-a-dozen members of staff are studiously working in the background.

"We used to all cook and eat together every week," says the magazine's newly appointed editor, Pat Thomas. "But it all became a bit of a grind."

As top dog at arguably the world's leading environmental affairs publication, Thomas –- who is giving her first interview in the role – is keen to add: "We are a fully functioning magazine, we do get down to it."

In fact, despite relaxed appearances, her office is the nerve centre of a remarkable feat of publishing. The title has just five editorial staff, is fully independent, accepts no corporate advertising or foundation funding, yet manages to produce a monthly magazine that regularly sets the news agenda in its field and courts influence way beyond its size.

"We have a small team and have to work incredibly hard to produce the magazine," says Thomas. "Any independent has to fight to get onto the news-stand shelves, and there has to be constant plugging and talking to people to get it into the festivals, the universities. It's a never-ending job to keep it moving."

Despite acknowledging the occasional difficulties (eased, over the years, by the multimillionaire status of its benefactor and former editor, Zac Goldsmith), Thomas says she is hugely happy to have been given the editorship – "the best job I've ever had" – and has ambitious plans for The Ecologist's future.

Traditionally a specialist publication, available only by subscription or – if you were lucky – in the odd health food outlet or radical bookshop, the title has, in recent years and months, garnered widespread appeal, being found in WH Smith and other high street newsstands.

Since taking the helm in June from Jeremy Smith (who edited just one edition following the departure of Goldsmith to work for David Cameron), Thomas says she has attempted to build on an earlier relaunch to bring "a stronger identity to the magazine, making it something more recognisable on the shelves."

As well as running in-depth and investigative pieces on inequalities in the banana trade and human rights abuses connected to the biofuel boom in Colombia – "our meat-and-potatoes coverage" – she has put Leonardo DiCaprio on the front page, talking exclusively about climate change, and run a light "summer special" examining alternative lifestyles.

Such choices of lead pieces reflect what Thomas describes as the title's increasingly diverse readership and signal a subtle shift from the approaches of the past. "We do have a reputation for publishing lots of very long articles, and we kind of reached a crisis point over this about a year ago," Thomas says. "When you start debating the relative merits of publishing an 18-page article over a 20-pager it's time to take a step back and ask why you feel so compelled to nail everything to the nth degree in every single article."

The Ecologist has come a long way since it was launched in 1970 by Teddy Goldsmith (Zac's uncle). The first issue carried a picture of a man suffocating in a pile of rubble and featured lengthy reports on Eskimo culture, the unreported components of farm animal feed and the world's population explosion.

Although heralded as visionary, the magazine was widely regarded as being highly academic and geared principally towards those already versed in environmental thinking.

In 1997, the editor of 20 years, Nicholas Hildyard, left and the magazine was given to the Bristol-based International Society for Ecology and Culture. Zac Goldsmith was employed by the society and, following the departure of several key staff, became editor. He moved the title to London, pumped in significant investment and resources, and embarked on a process of modernisation. By 2003, circulation had doubled from its original 10,000. Today, it exceeds 30,000.

Thomas is determined to continue with The Ecologist's tradition of in-depth reporting, but recognises the importance of lighter material, and has increased the prominence of the magazine's "Green Pages", a section covering consumer and lifestyle issues, from organic wine and clothing, to fair trade food, eco-construction and gardening.

"This is very much a first step, to bring in aspects of consumer products in a very practical way, making it clear that when you [buy a product] it has health implications, resource implications, implications for food."

Despite the move, Thomas is keen to avoid becoming an ethical lifestyle publication: "I hate the word lifestyle. We are spoilt in the Western world in that we can choose a lifestyle. This is part of the problem, the use of resources, our dependence on everyone but yourselves to feed us, to transport us."

There is little doubt that the magazine continues to punch above its weight. It was at the forefront of exposing problems connected to the supposedly green technology of biofuel production – "we had that even before the UN published its report" – and was the first publication to investigate and report on an alleged cover-up over pollution at a Welsh quarry caused by the multinational Monsanto.

The story was all the more remarkable given that Monsanto was behind a decision by the magazine's printers in 1998 to pulp an entire edition during a legal dispute: "If there's one thing about us that people can trust it is that we'll stand nose to nose with anyone we believe is doing the wrong thing," she says.

Thomas believes that a reliance on corporate advertising in part explains the apparent unwillingness of the mainstream titles to confront wrongdoing in the corporate world. "We are independent, it's as simple as that. We rely on no advertising from corporate sponsors and have no-one directing policy about what we can and cannot print."

She accuses the mainstream media of conducting "tick box" journalism: "Climate change. Tick. Eco fashion. Tick. Energy-saving light bulbs. Tick. Loss of another species. Tick. As long as it gets a few column inches or a two-minute slot on the news the mainstream considers its debt to the environment is paid.

"The journalist writing about the environment in your newspaper this week will be doing 'man bites dog' stories next week. Environment is all we 'do' and we do it better than anyone else. So when you read The Ecologist you are way ahead of the curve in terms of the topics we cover and in terms of making sense of how it all connects."