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Shopping with Danny Seo

By Lauri Apple in Miscellaneous on Jul 27, 2009 6:40PM

danny seo.jpg When Chicagoist caught up with environmental expert Danny Seo last Thursday afternoon, he was sitting by himself at a table just outside the doorway of the Anthropologie clothing store in Lakeview, quietly examining the contents of his new box of assorted candies. Dressed in jeans and a buttoned-down shirt, he looked like a regular guy just out for some casual Southport shopping -- not at all like a someone who is often referred to as "the Green Martha Stewart." But while Stewart provides counsel on how to make "creative cupcakes" (if such a thing can even exist nowadays) and scrapbooks, Seo pushes his passion for eco-living: getting his message across by developing super-organic bath and beauty products and his own mattress line sold at JCPenney; writing books on environmentalism, green living and home decor; and partnering up with green companies such as Method, which sells eco-friendly personal care and household cleaning supplies. Among other things.

O.K., make that "many, many other things." Seo has also published a best-selling calendar that he has developed into "Do Just One Thing," a nationally syndicated column that features a daily green living tip. He contributes green advice to CBS's The Early Show. He's served as a guest, contributing or co-editor on several of the nation's best-known magazines, and as an eco-consultant to the stars. He's the national spokesperson for Call2Recycle, which collects and recycles rechargeable batteries. And he's done all of these things while attending to those many other necessary functions of current daily life: Twittering, blogging, and traveling across the country to promote his work, not to mention eating candy.

Seated outside the Anthropologie, Seo's taken a short break from all of this over-achieving to share a couple of non pareils. Cheerful and buoyant and looking not-at-all overworked, he laughs at a fuzzy little dog who seems to have been abandoned by his owner. He is surprised to find out that this is our first time inside an Anthropologie shop; their elegant-casual clothing is right up our alley, we say, but their prices and our wallet have bad chemistry. We've been known to dress out of the trash, after all. "Aw -- but the sales are very good here," he informs us.

We go inside and he leads us toward a household items display, where we find Wholearth: Seo's line of eco-friendly bath and beauty products. The Wholearth perfumes are the first U.S. Dept. of Agriculture-certified fine fragrances to ever come to market, he says. The process used to make them was popular 100 years ago -- before perfume companies started filling their products with synthetic materials such as plasticizers, which can be harmful to one's respiratory system. He picks up a bottle of scent No. 7; the top is shaped like two pebbles, one piled on top of the other. "I found [the originals of] these pebbles in the Delaware River," he says. Seo gets intimately involved in all of his projects, writing his own books and blog posts and learning about the science involved with each project that bears his name.

Stocked by Seo's scents are his bath products, which come in bottles made of non-toxic black plastic. The black coloring serves as a barrier to ultra-violet light, which gives the products inside a longer shelf-life. Many bath products contain sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), which puts the "bubble" in "bubble bath"; eco-consumers claim that SLS can irritate the skin and worse. Seo says Wholearth is the first SLS-free bath line, using apple juice instead.

After wrapping up his product spiel, Seo points out a giant store display that looks like a honeycomb. The sculpture, which is as well-assembled and visually compelling as any gallery installation piece might be, serves as Anthropologie's effort to draw attention to the plight of bees, which have been disappearing nationwide due to "Colony Collapse Disorder." At this time a store employee approaches to ask if we need any help. She's mildly shocked to find out that the guy who's holding the bottle of Grateful Planet body lotion actually made the stuff. "Just let us know if you need anything," she says.

Getting people to bathe, decorate, and smell "green" is the way Seo is comfortable promoting his politics. He tried out the activist lifestyle in Washington, D.C. for a while, but the politics game just wasn't for him. His true calling came about "accidentally," he says: A reporter visited his house to interview him and, in the resulting story, highlighted Seo's cooking and hospitality. "I saw the article and was shocked." Other people saw it and wanted to hire him: "The more I resisted, the more they were insistent." And so he relented, creating the multi-faceted career he's got today. A management team helps him juggle his many responsibilities, which are still growing in number. One item on his agenda is to take his message to Korea (Seo's parents are Korean immigrants), where landfill and waste issues are becoming more urgent due to the country's small size and shortage of landfill space. Another book lies on the horizon. And much, much more.

How does Seo make it all work? Being tenacious is one way; in the early stages of his career, Seo says, he got told "no" constantly -- by publishers, companies, and others -- but never let rejection stop him. Another factor is his ability to act on instinct. "I identify voids -- 'if I need this info, then someone else does.' I created a mattress line because I couldn't find a mattress that I liked -- not because I thought, 'how will I own the mattress industry?'" He won't put his name on any product that he doesn't believe in, he says, and doesn't make any five-year plans.

By the time our shopping adventure at Anthropologie comes to an end, we've touched upon dozens of topics -- which might be expected, given the range of Seo's work. As his company grows, the more fun it gets, he says. "Even when I'm working 24-hour days, this is all something I love to do. I'm never tired or angry."