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.
Todd MacFadden began his environmental career in the public sector —and is now working for the type of company he used to help out. Ten years ago, while working for a state-funded assistance program, he drove 1,400-mile loops around Montana, visiting small businesses to help them find ways to reduce their waste streams through recycling and conservation. “Although we were sometimes seen as wearing the ‘black hat’ of regulators, we did our best to assist these groups,” says MacFadden, who has a degree in chemical engineering. Now he works in the private sector as an environmental compliance manager for Bose, the high-end audio manufacturer.
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
Kate Bakewell, who began her career as a film animator, got burnt out on transience in her late 20s. “I wanted to create something more lasting than a 30-second commercial,” she says. So she earned a master’s in landscape architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and worked for several landscape architects before landing at the international firm Hart/Howerton. Now she spends her days battling gardendesign complacency. “Ecology is integral to our work, but sometimes landscape architects and the teams we work with lack knowledge about how to use natural systems in a design,” she says. One example involves a simple concept: drainage. Though architects and engineers typically route stormwater to expensive underground pipes, “runoff can be an important landscape element to mold and to make beautiful,” by using, for instance, a type of sloped ditch called a vegetated swale, which allows runoff to seep through the soil and replenish underground aquifers.
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.
Call Justin Law the accidental firefighter. During his senior year at the University of Kentucky, he Websurfed onto a site featuring rough-and-tumble forest firefighters in action. “I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do,’” he says. After earning a degree in forestry, Law battled infernos from Kentucky to Arizona before signing on with the Hotshots—the big leagues of wildfire fighting, where he helps preserve endangered animals and their habitats by extinguishing fires in an eco-friendly manner.
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
In 2001, after quitting his fluorescent-lit consulting job to teach yoga and take massage-therapy classes, a dwindling bank account forced David Ansel to reassess his life. “I thought to myself, ‘What else can I do? Well, I can cook,’” he says. The Texas resident taught himself how to make stews and soups (including pumpkin, a favorite of his), and a year later he started the Soup Peddler, a bicycle-powered delivery business. Now his home-style soups, ranging from Zimbabwean peanut stew to barley miso and using locally grown, organic vegetables like sorrel and collard greens whenever possible, make their way to Austin kitchens and dining rooms on the backs of bicyclists. “I like to use up as few resources as possible,” Ansel says.
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.
As a coordinator for the EPA’s Healthy Air Program — a gig she got through a college internship — Barb Allen keeps tabs on all the nasty, unhealthy breathables wafting through our homes. In an average day she’ll distribute radon test kits, soothe callers who are panicked about indoor mold, collect data on smoking, and — just for kicks — take a hike in Montana’s majestic mountains. “It’s always a challenge to see how many balls you can keep in the air at the same time,” Allen says.
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
Beware of crossing Mark Townsend Cox: The 49-year-old Englishman once parachuted from planes for the British Army and fought his way through the Falklands. And these days Cox is still battling for his beliefs: As the brains behind New Energy Fund, he’s trying to convince investors of environmentalism’s money-making potential. Launched in 2003, his nearly $4 million (and growing) hedge fund is based on a simple premise: The earth has reached peak oil production, so how will we power our world in the future? In a British lilt, Cox rattles off a dizzying stream of facts about energy sources: Solar panels are growing cheaper. The hydrogen in water has three million times more potential energy than oil. Wind power is the future. “You can’t deny that there are dollar signs attached to these matters,” he says.
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.
Seven years ago, when Chad Miller and his girlfriend, Emiko Badillo, decided to become vegans, they ran themselves ragged to find foodstuffs other than fruits, vegetables, and legumes. Finally, in 2003, the now-married couple —graphic designers who co-own a studio called Fourteen Little Men— took control of their diets by opening Food Fight!, the first all-vegan grocery store in Portland.
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.
Free Range Graphics has used the Dark Side for good causes: Last year, the advertising firm released “Store Wars,” a brief animated Star Wars knockoff crafted for the Organic Trade Association, in which Chewbroccoli, Cuke Skywalker and Tofu-D2 led an “organic rebellion” against unsustainable farming practices. And that’s just one example: The seven-year-old firm (its slogan: “Creativity with a Conscience”), founded by lifelong friends Jonah Sachs and Louis Fox, has crafted many similar projects for nonprofits and environmental organizations. It’s no simple task, because “you’re asking people to take on the world’s problems,” Fox says. So Free Range uses humor and cutting-edge animation to add sugar to its medicinal messages: To tout alternatives to factory farming, Free Range and Sustainable Table created “The Meatrix” (Parts I and II), which featured—you guessed it— “Moopheus,” a cartoon cow who sports dark sunglasses. [Editor’s note: see “Just Push Play,” page 86, for one of their latest eco-projects.]
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.
“We’re making people want to live in Chicago,” says Sadhu Johnston, who is helping a gritty industrial city create a greener future—a job he’s done elsewhere. While living in Cleveland several years ago, Johnston helped transform a gutted bank into the Cleveland Environmental Center, which sports a green roof and houses nonprofit groups. Chicago’s eco-forward mayor, Richard Daley, was so impressed that he handpicked Johnston to work for him in 2002. A year later, Johnston was named commissioner of the city’s Department of Environment.
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.
After studying environmental communications at Ohio State University, Deb McKinley’s father asked her, “How will you find a job doing that?” Her first step was to become an information manager at the Minnesota Office of Waste Management, which eventually led to a job that’s her “perfect fit”: program coordinator and communications manager for the Minnesota Technical Assistance Program (MnTAP), part of the University of Minnesota. In this role, McKinley places engineering students in internships with area businesses, such as metal finishers and medical-device manufacturers. The student interns help their employers maximize their resources, prevent pollution, and reduce energy use. “We’re helping companies in Minnesota keep environmental issues at the forefront,” she says.
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."