These are not your parents’ eco-careers. It wasn’t so long ago that your typical environmentalist was a whale-saving, alfalfa-sprout–eating lefty with bumper stickers slapped on the back of her VW bus. But times have changed: As environmentalism has evolved from a grassroots movement into a lifestyle, ecorelated jobs have become more fashionable, better paying, and more mainstream. From global conglomerates to small-town shops and businesses, today’s green workforce has created more eco-professionals than ever before. To showcase this sea change, Plenty interviewed men and women who are applying their green interests to a diverse array of fields. From helping high-end audio manufacturers abandon cancer-causing lead, to turning a once-gritty Midwestern city into a green jewel, to playing the renewable-energy stock market, these professionals show that caring about the environment isn’t just a way of life—it’s a great way to make a living.
Todd MacFadden, chemical engineer, Framingham, Mass.
Among other tasks, MacFadden is helping his employer meet stringent European Union guidelines banning lead from electronics — TVs, microwaves, vacuum cleaners, “anything you touch,” says MacFadden. To accomplish this, he tests non-lead component alternatives, coordinating with suppliers and grappling with the cost-benefit ratio of altering the company’s manufacturing methods. While eliminating cancer-causing lead makes sense for health reasons, other alternatives—tin and copper—require landscape-razing mining. It’s a Catch-22, especially for somebody like MacFadden, an avid hiker who bikes 22 miles to work to minimize his eco-footprint. “I’ve never been on the inside of a company to see how unrealistic my expectations once were for industries to change their practices.” Yet he’s optimistic, adding that with the electronics industry undergoing a green overhaul, it’s a vital time to be working from the inside. “We’re changing the global economy,” he says.
Kate Bakewell, landscape architect, New York City
Bakewell also leads green-design seminars for coworkers and is consulting on the design of an “organic” golf course on Long Island to be planted with native species. In 2005, as part of the community-based Sustainable South Bronx initiative, she helped design a rooftop meadow that’s tended by teen horticulturalists. This begs the question: Where’s the green roof on Bakewell’s downtown Manhattan apartment building? “No comment,” she says, laughing. “It’s on the drawing board.”
Justin Law, firefighter, Craig, Colo.
During wildfire season—from May until about mid-October—Law is on call around the clock. On two hours’ notice he must be ready to spend up to 16 hours a day felling trees with a chainsaw, clearing brush, and digging trenches. The Hotshots travel hundreds of miles from their home base to places like southern Nevada, where his Colorado-based crew (one of about 90 such crews in America) saved the endangered desert tortoise’s habitat. “I love my job’sunpredictability,” Law says.
Except for the odd day off, Hotshots spend every minute with their crew of 20 men, usually sleeping out under the stars because they’re too tired to pitch a tent. “Most people would give up after a week, but I can’t,” Law says, “We’re saving people’s homes and protecting the ecosystem—that’s what’s important."
David Ansel: Soup salesman, Austin, Texas
By the end of 2002 Ansel had 48 soup subscribers, or “Soupies”—people who pre-order soups for scheduled delivery. The following year he had over 200 Soupies; today the service enrolls more than 2,000 Soupies, who ordered more than 10,000 gallons of soup in 2005. Ansel, who once cooked and delivered nearly every quart of soup himself, now manages his mini-empire (which has expanded to include foods like lasagna) and writes books like The Soup Peddler’s Slow & Difficult Soups: Recipes and Reveries.
With rapid growth, however, comes compromise: Refrigerated delivery trucks have joined the two-wheeled fleet, but “at least we’re not a pizza-delivery business that makes a gas-wasting roundtrip every time a customer gets hungry,” Ansel says.
Barb Allen: Regulatory advisor, Bozeman, Mont.
Allen has spent the last three years spearheading a pilot asthma-prevention program aimed at Native American communities for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. One in four Native children suffers from asthma, which is higher than the national rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For the pilot program, Allen has trekked hundreds of miles down dusty roads to visit Native reservations in Montana, providing preteens with educational activity booklets, stickers, and common sense suggestions for curbing indoor air pollution, like telling kids to ask their parents to smoke outside.
Allen is hopeful that the pilot program will be implemented nationwide. Other Native communities have expressed interest, but to roll out the program nationally, she must overcome an obstacle even bigger than asthma: red tape. “It all comes down to paperwork,” she says, “but I know this project can make an impact.”
Mark Townsend Cox: Investment banker, New York City
Which businesses and technologies will be most lucrative in the coming years? Cox has invested in companies like the Englandbased ITM Power, which has devised a more efficient fuel-cell vehicle, and Medis Technologies, a U.S.- and Israeli-based company that manufactures eco-friendly power packs for cell phones that keep them juiced for up to 30 hours of talk time. Researching these selections means he often works hours that make doctors look like slackers, but Cox says, “My job is about passion. Renewable energy is the key to our future.”
Chad Miller and Emiko Badillo: Vegan grocers, Portland, Ore.
The shelves at Food Fight! are loaded with staples like organic bread crumbs and salad dressings, not to mention unusual goods, like condoms that are free of animal products. But what sets Food Fight! apart is its stock of cruelty-free junk food. “You need not give up candy when you turn vegan,” explains Miller, who carries the overseas versions of Skittles and Starburst (the American varieties contain gelatin and other animal products).
Food Fight! aspires to be more than a pit stop for munchies: It’s also a makeshift activist center, hosting movies, bands, and the occasional fundraiser for animal-rights groups. This makes for long days, especially since the couple still runs their graphic design firm. Miller and Badillo typically work 10- to 12-hour days at Food Fight!, packing orders and gabbing with customers. “People drop by and tell us their problems, like we’re on Cheers,” Miller says, laughing.
How is their store faring compared to larger chains who’ve set up shop nearby? “We’re poor,” says Miller, explaining the difficulties of competin against Whole Foods and others, “but we’re paying the rent by doing something that matters to us.”
Louis Fox and Jonah Sachs: Advertising executives, Washington, D.C., and Berkeley, Calif.
Selling the public on the silver linings of eco-messages has sometimes proven tricky. “No matter what options you promote, they are only a drop in the bucket,” says Fox, who bikes to work in Berkeley. But it’s a welcome challenge, he says, because “we’re crafting messages about issues that are close to our hearts.”
Sadhu Johnston: City manager, Chicago, Ill.
The England-born enviro-crusader, who lived in Europe and India until he was ten before moving to the U.S., is equal parts regulator, innovator, and damage controller. After riding his bike to work along six miles of Lake Michigan’s waterfront (“It’s the world’s best commute,” says Johnston, who even pedals through Chicago’s white-out blizzards), he inspects dumping grounds, scouts brownfield sites ripe for redevelopment, and designs zerowaste programs for area residents and businesses. Sometimes the city’s eco-experiments don’t go as planned, like when they used an environmentally friendly anti-icing agent that turned city streets into a sticky muddle, forcing them to reconsider its use. “Setbacks can sometimes make it an uphill battle when you’re trying to convince people to go green,” Johnston says.
But he needn’t worry; Chicago’s green programs have been emulated by other cities nationwide, and with Daley’s support, Johnson has carte blanche to make the City of Big Shoulders sustainable. He dreams of creating city-sponsored composting programs in abandoned silos, as well as training ex-offenders to repair broken electronics, thereby slimming the waste stream and providing employment. “I’m excited to be a part of redefining a city,” Johnston says. “Going green can make green.”
Deb McKinley: Business advisor, Minneapolis, Minn.
To ensure that proper solutions are being implemented, McKinley also acts as a liaison between interns and their employers, and entices new companies to enroll in MnTAP. Attracting businesses who might need environmental help is a challenge because “it’s difficult to put environmental issues in a business perspective,” she says. “Owners don’t understand that we’re trying to help the environment and their bottom lines.”
From a numbers perspective, McKinley and MnTAP are a success. Over the last five years, Minnesota companies have cut about 5.3 million pounds of solid waste and air emissions, and saved more than $3 million in disposal and raw material costs. But for McKinley, personal stories matter most. “When a plant manager thanks me for saving him $100,000 a year, I feel like I’m making a difference,” she says. “I’m helping manufacturers appreciate pollution prevention in terms they can understand.”
Story by Joshua M. Bernstein. This article originally appeared in "Plenty."