If you’re anything like us, thoughts of the deteriorating environment have permeated your consciousness. Reading recent studies on the alarming effects of plastic pollution and the distressing news about climate change, we can’t help but want to do something, even if just in a small way.
Here, we spotlight five people whose professional ventures are focused on finding solutions to pressing environmental issues. These eco warriors are pioneering new paths that we hope will influence and inspire other entrepreneurs, government officials and concerned citizens of the world alike and even pave the way for holistic change. From a French politician who is championing laws to reduce fashion’s carbon footprint to an architecture firm that is building the world’s first energy-positive hotel, these industry leaders are dedicated to finding new ways to lessen our environmental impact.
A trip to Mozambique in 2013 changed the course of Nina Flohr’s life. Located between South Africa and Tanzania, the coastal nation is mostly off the tourist trail, but for Flohr, an intrepid traveler, it left a hold on her soul. “I have rarely seen a country so humble and rooted in tradition but also so innovative and embracing of new ideas,” says Flohr. And “Mozambique’s nature,” she adds, “is sublime. It is a place you have to visit to appreciate the scale of the environments, be that the size of the beaches, the number of birds or the height of the palm trees.”
Now the 33-year-old Swiss-born entrepreneur is working to help preserve the country’s pristine beauty while bringing controlled tourism to its Benguerra Island, where she has spent the past six years developing a research center and eco- friendly resort. Located in the Bazaruto Archipelago, Benguerra sits nine miles off the mainland and is part of a national marine park supported by the World Wide Fund for Nature. More than 150 species of birds converge there, and the Indian Ocean teems with humpback whales, turtles, dugongs, whale sharks and dolphins. So far, this idyll has eluded mass-market tourism, and its natural wonders remain in fine fettle. Flohr’s two projects—the Bazaruto Center for Scientific Studies (BCSS) and the forthcoming Kisawa Sanctuary—aim to ensure that doesn’t change.
Founded by Flohr in 2017, BCSS is a non-profit marine research facility and ocean observatory that has pushed the existing boundaries of environmentally friendly construction on Benguerra. Built with local materials, run entirely on solar power and committed to achieving zero waste, the facility undertakes research in animal behavior, climate change and the plastic pandemic. Findings are made available mostly for free to institutions worldwide, and visitors—be they scientists, media or volunteers—are welcome.
The community’s support has been crucial throughout the process. Some 60 percent of the BCSS team is local, and their dedication to the project has been complete, unwavering and, for Flohr, deeply impressive. “I like to work from the bottom up, not the top down,” she says, “and I am amazed at the raw talent I see.”
Just as BCSS is encouraging Mozambicans to protect their nation’s ecological riches, Flohr’s Kisawa Sanctuary aims to influence the tourism infrastructure that will inevitably appear as word of the country’s beauty spreads. Launching later this year, the 741-acre eco-resort will comprise just 14 seafront bungalows where conventional luxuries—private pools, butler service—will be second only to innovations in sustainability, the most impressive of which is the construction process: A specially commissioned 3D printer was used to create not only the resort’s building materials but also artificial coral reefs made from the island’s sand and seawater.
Flohr’s intuition for what makes an exemplary vacation comes from a lifetime of traveling at the highest level—her father founded the private-aviation business VistaJet in 2004, and she was its creative director for years. If her jet-set background comes as a surprise to some, perhaps it’s because her passion for environmental conservation is palpable. Aviation, she acknowledges, is an industry that still has much to do where sustainability is concerned, and VistaJet recently released a white paper detailing initiatives to lessen its environmental impact.
It’s clear to Flohr that eco-minded travelers who wish to indulge their wanderlust responsibly can have a deeply posi- tive impact by visiting Mozambique, a less developed country that stands to benefit from well-managed tourism. “The country welcomes and loves tourists,” she says. “The economic contribution they bring is vital.” And those who do visit, she promises, will discover a place like no other. “Mozambique is brimming with culture and still retains the unique qualities that make it so special. Those special properties are everywhere you look—in the craft, art, design, music, people and also the food, which I adore. It is a soulful and musical land of vivid colors . . . that just makes me happy.” JOHN O’CEALLAIGH
Brune Poirson has jokingly been called France’s Minister of Fashion. Officially, the 37-year-old politician is a secretary of state to the minister for ecological and inclusive transition, which basically means she’s charged with protecting the environment. And she’s doing so by targeting one of the country’s most important, and most polluting, businesses: Yes, fashion.
“Fashion is one of our leading industries, but it’s not doing enough to mitigate its impact on the environment,” Poirson says in an interview in her expansive Paris office on the boulevard St. Germain. So she’s spearheading a number of initiatives to rectify the problem even if her actions result in financial losses for some of the country’s most high-profile executives and businesses.
One of Poirson’s most talked-about achievements is the zero-waste law, which makes it illegal for brands and retailers to destroy unsold goods—a tactic many in the luxury market use to keep their products from being sold at deep discounts that might undermine their brand image. The law was passed in January and will be implemented in 2023 to the chagrin of some industry leaders. Poirson notes that $700 million worth of goods will be repurposed rather than destroyed. The brand might “take a bag and redesign it, or take parts of it for a coat,” she says, or turn it into something else entirely, like insulation. The most viable solution, she adds, appears to be “selling it to employees and getting a tax rebate.”
At first, the fashion industry was aghast. “They feared it would affect their brand,” says Poirson. A mixture of diligence, tenacity and strategy helped her prevail. “At first they think you’re crazy. But if you push the idea, then they say it’s too dangerous. And if you keep pushing, finally they realize it’s doable.” Another aspect of her winning approach: ethics. “I convinced them that you can make money and still do good.”
Last year, 56 companies representing 250 brands earned bragging rights for signing the Fashion Pact, which was initiated by President Emmanuel Macron and is part of Poirson’s oversight. “Macron asked François-Henri Pinault [head of Kering] to bring together 30 percent of the world’s fashion industry to commit to conserving the environment by curbing CO2 emissions, preserving nature and protecting the ocean,” she explains. The group is working on logistics now and plans to meet later this year in Paris.
Poirson also has other initiatives in the works, from putting a carbon tax on goods crossing European Union borders (to incentivize the production and purchasing of local products and reduce carbon emissions) to demanding that filters be installed on washing machines to capture microplastics that become detached during washing and end up in the ocean. And she wants to take zero waste further. “I’m talking to members of the European Parliament,” she says. “I’d like to take it global.”
She credits growing up in southeastern France’s Vaucluse region, in the town of Apt, for instilling in her a love of and respect for the environment. “When you grow up in the countryside, you develop a bond with nature,” Poirson says. She also points to her years working in international development in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, noting her alarm at “seeing firsthand” how insidiously the textile and fashion industries can ruin the environment—textile “dyes washing into rivers,” pesticides being sprayed over cotton fields.
So, having studied at the London School of Economics and Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, she leaped at the chance when the French government came calling to make a difference and protect what she loves. “What is the beauty of something if it makes a massive negative impact on the planet?” she asks. “Is it truly beautiful?” KATHLEEN BECKETT
Nicola Shepherd is an unusual sight in a boardroom. Dressed in white jeans and a green suede jacket, with colorful African beaded jewelry around her wrists and neck and a thick pair of boots climbing halfway up her calves, she looks more world traveler than Wall Street exec. And truth be told, she is: The founder of the Explorations Company, a UK-based travel outfitter that specializes in exclusive safaris and other once-in-a-lifetime trips throughout Africa, Asia and parts of Latin America, is more comfortable taking clients on unforgettable journeys—from the villages of Annapurna in Nepal to the wildlife sanctuaries of little-known Ngamba Island—than she is talking investments with suits. But here in New York, Shepherd has come to conduct serious business.
“Of course it’s daunting, sitting in this austere, spartan environment on the 54th floor of some skyscraper,” Shep- herd says with a laugh. “These people have never been to these places I am talking about, so not only do I have to ignite and capture their imagination, but I have to educate them, too, which is quite a formidable task.”
What Shepherd is selling to the clients of some of New York’s biggest wealth advisers isn’t a mere holiday—it’s an investment in the future. As the next generation of wealth comes of age, the business of philanthropy is changing: Young heirs are less engaged in the family foundation and often inspired to chart a charitable course all their own—but where to begin? With so many organizations and worthy causes, how does one make the most meaningful impact? The Explorations Company—a for-profit business that promotes experiential philanthropy (that is, the combination of charitable acts with monetary donations)—works with these clients to determine where their altruistic efforts can have the biggest bang for the buck.
Shepherd’s guidebook of more than 50 handpicked charities around the world ranges from the Giraffe Conservation Foundation of Namibia and the Mara Elephant Project in Kenya to organizations devoted to a variety of causes: female empowerment in Madagascar and Malawi, education in Tanzania and India, land and ocean conservation in Kenya and South Africa, improving healthcare in Zambia, and saving rhinos, pangolins, gorillas, chimpanzees and other endangered species worldwide. Name an interest, and Shepherd—who grew up in Africa and India and spends more than three months of every year traveling in those regions—has done the due diligence on the top organizations making progress in it.
After individual consultations with her clients, who are often referred by the major investment banks with which she has partnered, Shepherd makes tailored suggestions for project donations and even partnerships. “It’s a case of talking to the family and finding out exactly where their interests lie and what resonates with them from a philanthropic perspective,” she explains. But connecting would-be donors to these well-vetted organizations is far more than transactional; it’s emotional, too. Her clients travel to actually see their dollars in action—and, in many cases, lend hands-on help to make their vision a reality, whether it’s building a school in Malawi or a lifesaving sand dam in Kenya.
Shepherd has helped clients donate millions to elephant conservation; she’s arranged rhino relocation expeditions in Kenya and microchipping in South Africa, which assists with poaching prevention and the ultimate preservation of the rhino species; and she’s aided clients in bringing light—via solar power—to remote villages for the first time. With every philanthropic endeavor, she says, the results are eye-opening. “I think there’s a sea change happening,” says Shepherd. “It’s a very slow wave of people wrapping their heads around just how much change they can actually create. And when you see that potential, and you see the difference you can make, you’re changed forever.” JACKIE CARADONIO
Norway’s Snøhetta is known for aesthetics that wow: the walkable roof of the Oslo Opera House, the carved-stone facade of Egypt’s Bibliotheca Alexandrina and the undulating exterior of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, to name a few. But the cutting-edge architecture firm is more than meets the eye. Last year, it pledged to design only buildings with a radically lower carbon footprint—that is, buildings that normally generate more energy than they consume during their lifetimes—over the next 20 years.
It’s a lofty goal, and one that can be achieved only through a design ethos that puts environmental considerations above all—even aesthetics, says Snøhetta cofounder Kjetil Trædal Thorsen. “The mantra of the design industry should not be ‘form follows function’ anymore but ‘form follows environment,’” he says. “The design thinking of today should focus on environmental considerations and reducing our footprint first, and have the design follow this premise.”
The concept is hardly a new one for Thorsen and his team at Snøhetta, which was established in 1989 with a focus on projects that adhered to standards outlined by former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland’s 1987 United Nations report, “Our Common Future,” a document that defined the principle of sustainable development. During the last decade, Snøhetta has researched and experimented with energy-positive structures that are net-carbon neutral over their lifecycles. A key goal has been to design buildings that pay back their CO2 debt by returning clean energy to society. For the next decade, Snøhetta aims to scale up these ambitions for every project in its portfolio and, ultimately, influence the future of the construction industry.
With 280 employees hailing from 30 countries, a 50:50 gender ratio and offices in Europe, the United States, Hong Kong and Australia, Snøhetta has a portfolio as diverse as its team of creators, with projects this year ranging from a public garden in Midtown Manhattan to a co-working space in Tokyo. Its recent innovations include the wedge-shaped Powerhouse Brattørkaia, the world’s northernmost energy-positive building. Opened last year in Trondheim, Norway, the structure has rooftop photovoltaic panels, which produce more than twice as much electricity as it consumes daily, enabling it to supply renewable energy to itself, its neighboring buildings, electric buses, cars and boats through a local micro grid.
Pinging loudest on Thorsen’s radar right now are inventions that can radically reduce climate footprints, from new battery technology that can help store solar energy during periods of low sun exposure to low-tech solutions such as establishing a closed-loop, zero-waste economy for building materials. And everything in the design process is up for negotiation, he says. “There are also considerations like the size and placement of windows, the design of ventilation and heating systems and, ultimately, the shape of the building to ensure that it accom- modates the optimal exposure to the sun for solar panels.”
For all of Snøhetta’s advances, there are, of course, factors the firm can’t control—one of which could be called the if-you- build-it-they-will-come paradox. Take, for instance, Svart, a striking ring-shaped hotel in Norway that upon completion in 2023 will become the world’s first energy-positive hotel. It will produce clean energy through rooftop solar panels and have a yearly energy consumption roughly 85 percent lower than that of a standard modern hotel—but it will almost certainly draw guests from around the world, a significant carbon expenditure that is not lost on Thorsen. “It is human nature to seek out new experiences through adventure,” he says. “We are not in a position to curb that—nor would we want to—but it cannot be ignored that the freedom of movement comes at a price environmentally, societally and economically.”
Snøhetta is advocating for limited access to Svart’s fragile area (the base of the Svartisen glacier) by encouraging the hotel to cap the number of visitors, who will arrive by electric boat. Thorsen hopes such controls will spark a trend: “[Svart] sets out to make a considerable reduction in its own footprint, and through its design it may become a tool to encourage others to reduce theirs,” he explains. TERRY WARD
Textiles, with their dyes, rinses and chemical fabric treatments, are the second-biggest polluter of clean water on the planet after agriculture. So Stephanie Benedetto has set a goal for her Silicon Alley start-up, Queen of Raw: She’s out to save four billion gallons of water and two million pounds of chemicals—resources that would otherwise be used to produce textiles—this year. Her approach: connecting fashion designers with leftover textiles. It turns out that millions of yards of fabric gather dust in warehouses or go to landfills or incinerators each year.
“I want to reduce the world’s waste, change the way businesses think about waste and solve the world’s water crisis,” says the ambitious 40-year-old entrepreneur.
Benedetto comes from a tradition of repurposing textiles. Her great-grandfather was a master furrier from Austria who in the 19th century turned old furs into new, some of which she wears today. She thought of him a few years ago—during her foray into entrepreneurship, after leaving her job as a lawyer—as she toured textile mills around the world in a quest to develop an eco-friendly alternative to leather. Benedetto encountered warehouses stuffed with rolls of unused fabrics—dead stock that was taking up space and weighing on companies’ balance sheets. She learned that roughly 15 percent of all textiles go to waste because of overproduction, canceled orders and other errors. “It just didn’t make any sense to me,” she says. “Like, ‘Why am I making something new when this perfectly good stuff just needs a market?’ ”
That epiphany inspired Queen of Raw, a two-year-old online marketplace platform based in Midtown Manhattan that uses machine learning and blockchain to connect textile buyers with sellers’ excess inventories. The platform’s bigger clients request anonymity, but Benedetto says they include some of the world’s best-known luxury companies, as well as fast-fashion makers—and roughly 130,000 other users who might buy anywhere from three yards of fabric to a million. Some of her sellers have even become buyers, solving their own raw material needs while helping to reduce the estimated $120 billion in annual textile waste globally.
Queen of Raw is free to join for the amateur crafter who can place an order for as little as a few yards. Sellers pay the platform a commission and set prices that are discounted as much as 80 percent off of wholesale. There is a cloud-based corporate interface and dashboard, called Materia MX, for companies that pay a subscription fee for access to the portal, from which they also receive data and analytics. Because the fabrics are shipped directly from the seller to the buyer, Queen of Raw reduces shipping and warehousing costs as well as carbon emissions linked to transporting goods.
“This is an economic solution. It’s a win-win for the stakeholders,” says Benedetto, who estimates that Queen of Raw clients saved one billion gallons of water in 2019, or the equivalent of clean drinking water for 1.4 million people. The size of the bootstrap business more than doubled last year, and she’s preparing to raise seed money for an expansion that she envisions will one day enable her to assist other industries—automotive, technology—with their own waste-material problems. The platform, she notes, is industry agnostic.
With a four-year-old son, Jacob, and a new baby, Benedetto sees her company’s mission as both global and personal. “I want my children to have clean water to drink, a planet to live on, clothes that aren’t toxic to wear,” she says, “and I know we can be a part of solving this.” CHRISTINA BINKLEY