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Environmentalist touts stylish way to an eco-friendly life

Few youngsters have tried so hard to change the world as Danny Seo, who has championed eco-friendly ways of living at the tender age of 12 when he founded Earth 2000, an organization aimed at saving the planet from pollution.

By the time he was 18, Seo had turned Earth 2000 into the largest teenage activist charity in the United States.

Now at 35, this Korean-American has once again transformed himself ― albeit staying with the theme of natural biodiversity ― as an eco-stylist.

Seo was previously named one of “40 Under 40” to watch by Crain’s New York Business and one of People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People in the World.” 
The self-described environmental activist is also the author of several popular books, including “Conscious Style Home,” “Generation React” and “Heaven on Earth.”

Other books he wrote such as “Simply Green Parties” and “Simply Green Giving” were about Seo’s personal take on “stylish green living,” which he has now turned into a full-time career.

When he is not writing books or talking to an audience on how to live healthy and in style, the environmentalist is busy giving out tops and ideas on paper, as he is a columnist and contributing editor of “Better Homes and Gardens.” 
Environmental lifestyle expert Danny Seo (dannyseo.com)
Environmental lifestyle expert Danny Seo (dannyseo.com)

Q: You have changed your career from an environmentalist to a green designer. What were your reasons and motivation?

A: I wouldn’t say I changed my career. … I simply evolved into what people wanted me to do. As an activist, I was working to promote sustainability and preservation of our natural resources. As I got older, I realized the ways I lived my everyday life ― from renovating my home to making small choices everyday ― were not so clear to others. By being an environmental lifestyle expert, I have thousands of tricks, tips and ideas that people can use to live greener without trying too hard. I find I can reach millions more people this way and get a much greater impact all around.

Q: With rapid economic growth, environmental issues in Korea were unnoticed until recently. What do you think about the quality of Korea’s Green design and what can be improved?

A: Design is more than just creating beautiful things; it can alter the way people perceive things, empower them and give them the tools to look at problems and solve them collectively themselves. I think with the rising prices in oil, for example, we are seeing more and more plastic packaging reduced simply because the cost to make plastic has risen so high. This has resulted in not only more environmentally-friendly packaging, but more beautiful design that is pleasing to the eye and ― this is key ― easier to open.

I’ve always felt as an American we have it too easy when it comes to waste; with ample space and almost limitless landfills, you see trash just pile up because people can easily do it without any repercussions. In Asian countries ― like Korea ― this isn’t the case and I think Korea is actually a wonderful study of what countries like the United States should be doing to use design to cut back on waste.

Q: In 2008, at the Early Show, you stated environment-friendly thinking can create wealth. Why is this so?

A: Because being sustainable means you are also not being wasteful. Our world only has a limited amount of resources and being the one who comes up with ideas and solutions to cut waste can also mean you can increase your wealth.

I’m not saying going green is a fast way to get rich and I’m also not saying my goal in life is to get rich. What I am saying is you don’t have to decide between career and giving back anymore: you can have both.

Q: You switched to green design in 2000, running businesses on recycling and eco-friendly house decorations. What does design mean to you as an environmentalist?

A: I wrote my first design book “Conscious Style Home” in 2000 and it really shock up the interior design world. I was saying to designers: You cannot just go into a home, throw everything away and buy everything new and repeat the process every couple of years. It isn’t sustainable and it’s just a waste of resources and money.

To me, design means “quality, durability, everlasting.” I think an LED light bulb is a good example of this: These bulbs are eco-friendly because they contain no mercury and use very little energy. They case a beautiful light and you can dim them. And they last up to 30 years, so you never ever have to really replace a light bulb ever again.

To me, this marriage of sustainable design with technology is a match made in heaven.

Q: In recreating waste and recyclables into new products, how does design liven them up?

A: Because it’s creative. I call it “Upcycling” … that’s the title of my new book and it’s all about elevating a material’s intended purpose to a whole new level.

I would never take a detergent bottle and just cut a hole in it, hang it from a tree and say it’s a recycled bird feeder. Why? Because it’s ugly and looks weird hanging from the tree.

But I might take several detergent bottle and figure out a way to use lots of them to make an interesting light fixture or even a chair, but the end result is something unexpected and ― this is important ― beautiful.

Upcycling is almost like being an artist: you have to be as creative as possible, but also be modern and unexpected, too.

Q: Please introduce some good examples of green design.

A: I’m a big fan of Method cleaning products in the United States. They took a boring category ― cleaning products ― and made it sexy by introducing modern shaped bottles (made from recycled plastic), naturally dyed products in bright, bold colors (using eco-friendly formulas) and gave them interesting names like Go Naked. The whole company shook up the cleaning industry and now they are a huge leader in the business, forcing some of the big players to reinvent themselves and reformulate themselves as more eco-friendly brands.

Dyson is also a brand I love because they took the ugly vacuum cleaner and made it look cool and proved a bagless vacuum could actually not only work, but work better! Their simplistic approach in doing complex products is admirable because anyone can use the products, but there is still a ton of research and science that went into each and every one.

Q: What is the role and prospect of green designer who finds value in waste and used items?

A: I see it as a celebration of seeing beauty and potential in everything. I don’t see a chair that’s at the side of the road as trash, but as a challenge. I don’t see a bag of plastic water bottles as simply trash or recyclables but as a potential bouquet of beautiful plastic flowers if you snip and cut them just right.

But in addition to creating waste into new things, you also make one-of-a-kind items that are special in their own right. In a world where everything comes from big box, mass produced stores, I think we all crave having a home decorated with things that are unique and found and special. That’s how I see each item I make.

Q: You pointed to “Conscious Style,” which naturally pulls people to join environmental protection movements without having to give up comfort and style, as a key code of the 21st century’s environmental movement. What does this mean in detail?

A: What it basically means is this: we have to evolve. Be modern. Be aware.

Our cars, our homes, our clothes, our furniture, our food … it will evolve into something that considers every single step it took to get to our hands. We will be more concerned with the forests that are cut to make furniture and how to replenish them. We are more concerned about the farms that grow the food and what chemicals they use to grow it. We want our homes to not waste energy or our cars to guzzle fuel like there’s an endless supply.

We’re there … but people still need to realize going green is not giving up a single thing. What it means is growing a new conscience.

Q: How can the governments pursuing growth utilize green design? What kind of efforts is needed and how should the investments be made?

A: Governments are funded by our tax dollars and the best thing we can do as citizens is to speak up and demand our tax dollars be used to sustainable design in the construction of new buildings, the renovation of roads and the protection of our open and green spaces.

Q: What directions do you think the upcoming Herald Design Forum should take?

A: I’m not sure since this is my first time visiting, but I think we’re all going in the right direction if we’re even having this conversation about sustainable design! 

Following is the second in a series of interviews with the world’s top designers and scholars who will participate in the Herald Design Forum in Seoul from Oct. 5 to Oct. 6. ― Ed.

By Kim Ji-hyun (jemmie@heraldcorp.com)
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