When Tom Darden bought manufacturing plants in North Carolina 20 years ago, no one could have predicted that the investment would lead him to become one of the nation’s top environmental entrepreneurs.

Darden originally purchased two brick-manufacturing plants with the intent of changing the fuel that powered them from petroleum to sawdust.

“Local lumber mills had to do something with their waste, and sawdust is a clean, carbon-neutral fuel,” Darden says.

With that knowledge in mind, Darden seized the opportunity to cut pollution for profit.

Since that first step, he has made a successful career of this practice.

Darden’s company, Raleigh, N.C.-based Cherokee Investment Partners, is now the world’s largest private brownfield redeveloper. It buys, cleans, develops and then sells formerly contaminated real estate. In addition to spending billions of dollars to restore more than 500 of these contaminated sites, Cherokee has donated $25 million to charitable causes and spearheaded multiple environmental and social initiatives, including green construction, an Ethiopian orphanage, and the cleanup of Bhopal, India — to name a few.

Darden’s commitment to cleaning up the environment began with an accident. He realized one day that fuel storage tanks had spilled at his plants, contaminating the surrounding soil. Luckily, he came up with a creative way of dealing with the environmental degradation: He decided to make bricks from the soil, incinerating pollutants in the process.

Any resulting pollution from the bricks is nothing compared to the effects of soil contaminants leeching into groundwater, says Mike Norman, a brownfield coordinator for the EPA.

“When pollutants are in the ground,” he explains, “they’re free to migrate into water sources. But when they’re being dealt with — with incineration or other methods — the project gets a lot of regulatory scrutiny. One instance is highly controlled; the other has no control at all. There’s no comparison.”

Seeing that his brick-making furnace was already running, Darden began collecting contaminated soil as a separate business and “disposing” of it through the plant.

From there, the business has grown, and today Cherokee has offices throughout the U.S. and in the UK and Canada. Though pleased with his company’s success, Darden admits that he didn’t set out to become a businessman.

He studied anthropology at the University of North Carolina, where he discovered the Club of Rome’s book, "Limits to Growth". The book inspired him to pursue a master’s degree in city and regional planning. He then conducted environmental research in Seoul, South Korea, before heading to Yale Law School.

“I was part of an era that viewed business as the enemy,” he says. “I wanted to work in government. We saw law as the vehicle for affecting positive social change.”

But seeing how business had improved post-war devastation in Korea made Darden realize that a socially and environmentally conscious business could make a difference, too.

And his business has made one. In 2006 alone Cherokee restored nearly 3,000 acres of land through its endeavors.

Though cleaning up contaminated areas is important for environmental health, the best way to protect the environment is preserving land in the first place.

Norman points out that every acre of brownfield redevelopment saves four acres of open space.

“By developing brownfields, businesses like Cherokee prevent urban sprawl and habitat destruction at the same time,” he says.

Businesses can also employ an environmentally friendly approach to construction.

“The impact of inefficient buildings is huge, because they last so long,” Darden says.

Cherokee is building a model home, for example, that will reduce annual carbon emissions by 22 tons compared to a traditional home — the equivalent of not driving for four years.

Darden no longer believes that economic growth has to be limited by environmental consideration. “I think that human ingenuity can achieve any desired outcome,” he says. “I don’t care what it is—over time, there is a way.”

Story by N. Taylor Thompson. This article originally appeared in Plenty in June 2007. It was added to MNN.com in March 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2007.