Eco-conscious but comfortable: making environmentalism hip

by Mayumi Saito

Last year when advertising agencies asked Kazumi Oguro what his rival magazine was, he replied: “I wouldn’t have to put out a new magazine if there was a rival.”

Sotokoto magazine

Sotokoto, the new magazine, is selling the concept of hip ecology to consumers in their 20s and 30s. Addressing environmental issues with stylish photos and layouts, it proposes a globally conscious yet comfortable lifestyle.

Ad agencies were skeptical at first, but editor Oguro’s 15 years of experience at Magazine House, including working on well-known lifestyle magazines Brutus, Croissant and Gulliver, persuaded them to invest in his idea.

Initial bookstore sales were discouraging: Half of the 60,000 copies Oguro printed for the first two issues were returned, and he expected circulation would have to be cut. Surprisingly, though, the distributors Nippan and Tohan encouraged him to hang in there, pointing out that magazine sales had been poor lately in general, and expressing their faith in his concept.

A year later, Sotokoto is not only alive but sharpening its focus. The July 2000 first anniversary issue deconstructed Toyota’s hybrid car Prius and analyzed its environmental correctness, then presented the same (resurrected) car as a free gift to one reader.

The magazine has recently started a tieup with FM station J-Wave and puts their monthly features on the air in a 30-minute program on Sunday mornings. The magazine’s reporters present the issues with a DJ, while discussing their own outdoor experiences.

Sotokoto has announced a policy of building one local school building in a developing country for every 2,000 subscriptions they receive. As the magazine’s subscribers passed 2,000 this April, Sotokoto has launched their first project, a four-classroom elementary school in Kirindoni Village, Transmala County, Kenya.

Meanwhile, the number of subscribers tripled last month. Sony Life Insurance ordered 1,000 subscriptions, and Japan Private Banking Consultants, who are sponsoring a financial guidance column in the magazine, signed a contract for 4,000. Sotokoto is now considering Tibet for their second school-building site.

This series of overseas projects is related to the magazine’s origin. Oguro, who turns 50 this August, became deeply attached to Kenya during frequent travels for his former magazine’s editorial projects. It led him to build a 23-room hotel in Masai Mara county after he left Magazine House in 1992.

The hotel was for Japanese and Westerners touring the national park. Yet, having witnessed the Masai tribe’s lifestyle changing in the course of local development and modernization, he returned to Japan’s magazine industry with a new magazine concept in 1999.

“Nowadays, we are barraged with environmental news, but most of it is described with unfamiliar katakana names and numbers,” Oguro explains. “I wanted to talk about the environment in our own terms. I myself had hit a wall in magazine publishing after pursuing the American, consumption-oriented lifestyle for so long.”

Yet as a product of the bubble economy, he was not intrigued by a stoic, frugal life. After making clothes out of trash in the first issue, he increased style pages in the next issue to garner more ads from the fashion industry. On the cover of the third issue, he used a closeup shot of a British male model to draw women readers.

“Women are more concerned about the environment in general,” Oguro says. The ratio of women readers, originally 40 percent, is steadily rising. Many call the editorial office seeking to become reporters themselves.

While Nikkei Eco 21, another year-old environmental magazine, focuses more on corporate efforts and the public sector’s administrative tasks, Sotokoto presents individual lifestyles suited for the cause. The former advertises mostly recycled products and systems of well-known manufacturers. Sotokoto, on the other hand, has attracted hip fashion and accessory advertisers such as Prada, Gucci and Omega.

“Some letters were saying ‘We’ve seen environmental magazines before, but unlike their hypocritical formats, you just seem to be enjoying yourself,’ ” Oguro says.

Still, his office has received a number of critical letters as well. They have reprimanded the magazine as encouraging waste. In Sotokoto’s defense, the magazine uses recycled paper, despite its fancy ads and trendy editorial contents.

Many readers have also urged Sotokoto to give more scrutiny to harmful industrial products. “We can have such testing maybe twice a year,” Oguro says. “But the bottom line is we want to have fun at this magazine.”

Sotokoto’s income from advertisements amounts to 12 million yen per issue, still far from making ends meet.

“This magazine may be the most expensive in Japan,” Oguro says self-mockingly. He estimates they need 24 million yen just to cover their editorial expenses, but sees potential ultimately to earn as much as 400 million yen.

Oguro is convinced that their environmental theme will make money. Many new ecobusiness owners are approaching the editor to request reviews of their products. Currently negotiating contracts with three companies, the magazine expects to receive royalties from their sales.

Oguro points out the fashion houses once picked by Magazine House’s style magazine Popeye that have all grown big. Even though the ecobusiness proprietors in Harajuku don’t seem to be rich right now, he says, the potential is there.

Sotokoto’s August issue features an interview with outdoor-gear manufacturer Patagonia’s CEO Yvon Chouinard, who holds that environmental protection is not in conflict with business interests, but rather offers opportunities if done well.

Oguro says: “What’s hottest now is the ‘environment’ and ‘digitalization.’ I was expecting more ecology magazines to be born, but few were. So, I started one myself.”