What Is a Changemaker?
Innovators, thought leaders, original thinkers, disruptors. Behind every idea that has inspired change has been a person or group of people addressing a problem and finding a better way. People with the smarts to think creatively, a passion for the greater good, and that unique dynamic to make it happen. These are the changemakers—and these are the people we are honoring in this edition of the Treehugger Best of Green Awards.
How We Found Our Winners
Over the course of the last year, we have celebrated individuals, companies, and organizations with our Best of Green Awards across multiple categories. We collaborated with our Dotdash sister sites, combining each one’s authority in their space with Treehugger’s expertise in sustainability. During the endless hours of vetting nominations and researching the categories, we kept coming across people who stood out for their remarkable drive to make a difference. And so we decided to make an award just for them.
Changemakers can come in all shapes and sizes, from a kid who starts a movement to a genius who revolutionizes a technology. To all of our honorees here and to changemakers everywhere: Thank you!
Photo illustrations by Catherine Song / Getty Images
From the World of Food
Bryant Terry: Chef, Author, Advocate
For tirelessly inspiring a sustainable food system.
Some people are so active in their fields that it’s hard to keep up. Bryant Terry is one of those people. In 2011, the James Beard and NAACP Image Award-winning chef, educator, and author became the chef-in-residence at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora, where he creates public programming around food, farming, health, activism, art, culture, and the African Diaspora. Bryant is co-principal and innovation director of creative studio, Zenmi. He is a prolific author; his sixth book, a collection of recipes, art, and stories, “Black Food,” was published this year. And if all of this weren’t enough, he also just became the editor-in-chief of 4 Color Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House dedicated to a more “healthy, just, and sustainable world for all.”
Leah Penniman, Co-Director and Farm Manager, Soul Fire Farm
For growing food and community.
In 2010, farmer Leah Penniman co-founded Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York, with the mission to “end racism in the food system and reclaim our ancestral connection to land.” As a soil steward and food sovereignty activist, Penniman wears more hats than one can count. And her list of accolades is epic, from the Soros Equality Fellowship and The Andrew Goodman Foundation Hidden Heroes Award to the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program and Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching. Her book, “Farming While Black,” is a field guide, so to speak, for all aspects of small-scale farming and so much more. “Stewarding our own land, growing our own food, educating our own youth, participating in our own healthcare and justice systems,” Penniman writes, “this is the source of real power and dignity.”
Daniel Humm, Chef and Owner, Eleven Madison Park
For redefining luxury dining.
New York City’s Eleven Madison Park boasts three Michelin stars and is widely considered one of the best restaurants in the world. Meat-centric menu items have been the main attraction, which is why foodies collectively gasped out loud when chef and owner Daniel Humm announced earlier this year that the restaurant would be shifting to a plant-based menu. Like for many of us, the pandemic inspired a reset for the storied eatery. Humm says it became “time to redefine luxury as an experience that serves a higher purpose and maintains a genuine connection to the community.” Noting that a restaurant experience is about more than what’s on the plate, Humm’s $335 vegan menu puts plants on par with the most extravagant of animal products—an incredibly bold and welcome move.
From the World of Decor
Nicole Gibbons: Founder of Clare Paint
For shaking up the paint industry.
Nicole Gibbons may be best known as an interior designer, HGTV star, and Emmy Award winner—but we’re here for her paint. Namely, the direct-to-consumer paint brand called Clare. Noticing a distinct gap in the industry, Gibbons came up with a fresh spin on the old, with water-based paints that are free from the toxic solvents of conventional paints.
Clare’s formulas have zero VOCs and are GREENGUARD Gold certified to ensure good indoor air quality, and they also comply with LEED green building standards. Paint containers, trays, and liners are made from recycled materials … and of course, the colors are a dream.
Anna & Greg Brockway: Founders of Chairish
For helping to normalize second-hand furniture.
In 2012, husband-and-wife duo Anna and Gregg Brockway launched the vintage and antique furniture e-marketplace Chairish, despite predictions from friends and colleagues that people would never buy used furniture online. Nearly a decade later and the company has kept more than half a million vintage items out of the landfills. Treehugger always says the greenest building/garment/furnishing is the one that already exists, and Anna agrees: “Vintage is an essential part of the circular economy and we’re proud to be leading the way. It’s the most stylish way to be kinder to our planet.”
From the World of Travel
Greta Thunberg: Environmental Activist
For showing us how to sail instead of fly.
The young Swedish activist needs little introduction; Greta Thunberg is the face of youth climate action. In naming her Person of the Year in 2019, Time Magazine wrote, “By clarifying an abstract danger with piercing outrage, Thunberg became the most compelling voice on the most important issue facing the planet.”
But unlike many other climate activists, Thunberg really walks the talk. While celebrities and dignitaries fly from one climate event to the next, Thunberg shows us there’s another way. To avoid the carbon cost of flying, Thunberg has now crossed the Atlantic twice by sailboat to attend climate conferences. While cross-oceanic travel without flying may have seemed inconceivable to many, Thunberg shows us the way.
Cheraé Robinson: Founder and CEO, Tastemakers Africa
For facilitating “slow travel” in Africa.
Travel can be terribly unsustainable, but it doesn’t have to be. “Slow travel”—travel that skirts the tourist traps and focuses on a more authentic experience—is the way to go. And that’s where Cheraé Robinson’s Tastemakers Africa comes into play. Robinson has created an “online experiences marketplace disrupting what the world thinks about Africa one trip at a time.” Her brainstorm is a mix of a tour company, travel guide, and community builder, connecting travelers with local artists, creators, and makers in Africa and beyond. We love how Robinson has flipped the script and is encouraging a beautiful rethinking of travel in Africa.
Kristin Victoria: Accessible Travel Advocate
For showing that nature is for everyone.
As more and more people are learning about the many benefits of spending time in nature—of forest bathing and hiking and awe walks—there’s something all too often overlooked. How is one supposed to stand on the beach to admire the ocean or hike along a bumpy trail when one can’t stand or walk? Enter Kristin Victoria.
With her popular Instagram feed and inspiring blog, Sand in My Wheels, Victoria shares tips and personally experienced accessible itineraries—showing the world that life in a wheelchair does not mean a life without exploring the planet. “The beauty in this big wide world should be accessible to everyone,” she says, “and I want to help you find it!”
From the World of Beauty
Kristian Edwards: Founder, BLK + GRN
For creating a one-stop-shop for natural Black-owned products.
The beauty and personal care industry hasn’t been great to Black women. According to the Environmental Working Group, most of the cosmetics and hair care products created for Black women contain more harmful ingredients than those manufactured for anyone else. This is why BLK + GRN makes so much sense. The online beauty marketplace was founded by Dr. Kristian Edwards and features rigorously vetted clean and green products created by Black makers. “A life free of toxins and all things artificial is a life worth cultivating,” says Edwards. “My purpose through BLK+GRN is to help you do exactly that while also elevating a group of artisans who otherwise would not have a place to share their stories or their products with the very people they created them for.”
Jada Pinkett Smith: Co-Founder and Creative Director, Hey Humans
For taking the shi-shi out of clean, green beauty.
Self-described “beauty junkie” Jada Pinkett Smith loves personal care, but was feeling anxious about packaging and wondered what could she do. The answer? Start a vegan, non-toxic, plastic-free personal care brand, obviously. Co-founded with beauty-brand incubator Maesa, Hey Humans packs its formulas in aluminum and paper containers—and remarkably, in an age of extraordinarily high-priced offerings in the space, all products are under $6 and available exclusively at Target. “We’re focused on putting ‘care’ back in personal care by responsibly and conscientiously protecting the environment and the health of all humans,” says Smith, “and making our products accessible to all.”
From the World of Cleaning
Gero Leson: VP of Special Operations, Dr. Bronner’s
For writing the playbook on scaling ethical production from the ground up.
While Gero Leson doesn’t bear the Bronner’s last name, he has nonetheless played a vital role in the family-run wonder business. In his new book, “Honor Thy Label: Dr. Bronner’s Unconventional Journey to a Clean, Green, and Ethical Supply Chain,” Leson recounts how the company shifted its entire product line to fair-trade and organic-certified ingredients. Mind you, the supply chain did not yet exist. Leson was hired to help with the enormous task that has now spanned over 15 years.
In our review of “Honor Thy Label,” we note that the book “is not exactly entertainment material, but it provides great resources about certification processes, dynamic agroforestry (DAF) methods, regenerative agriculture, ethical financing, and more.” In other words, a brilliant playbook on how to do business responsibly.
Stuart Landesberg: Co-Founder and CEO, Grove Collaborative
For making natural household products accessible for all.
“We want it to be easy and affordable for everyone to create a healthy home they feel proud of. This is why Grove exists,” says Stuart Landesberg, who founded the e-commerce platform in 2012. Fast forward to 2021 and Grove Collaborative offers more than 150 sustainable, high-performing brands that meet the company’s four main standards: “uncompromisingly healthy, beautifully effective, ethically produced, and cruelty-free.” With so many choices out there, having a well-curated marketplace helps take the guesswork out of what products are both sustainable and efficacious. That Grove’s products are fairly priced makes it all the better—and in fact, they will even price match if you find a cheaper option elsewhere.
From the World of Fashion
Aurora James: Founder and Creative Director, Brother Vellies
For bringing traditional African design practices to luxury apparel.
If fast fashion can be defined as craftless, cheaply made items that last for a single season, Aurora James’ Brother Vellies can be defined as the opposite. James founded Brother Vellies in 2013 with the goal of “keeping traditional African design practices, and techniques alive while also creating and sustaining artisanal jobs.” James has translated this lofty ideal into a sought-after luxury brand sold at stores like Sak’s Fifth Avenue and Norstrom. Her super sustainable shoes and accessories are now handmade artisanally across the globe and one thing’s for sure: Their timeless design and beautiful craft will ensure they are worn for more than just a season.
Amber Valletta: Model, Sustainability Ambassador
For lending her fame to sustainable fashion causes.
Amber Valletta appeared on the first of her 16 American Vogue covers at the age of 18 and has spent her life as one of fashion’s favorite supermodels. But not content to rest on her laurels alone, Valletta has been championing sustainability ever since she partnered on a sustainable production company with Yoox.com in 2013. She’s been a vocal advocate for sustainability at fashion conferences. She is Vogue’s first contributing sustainability editor. And she was recently named the Fashion Institute of Technology’s (FIT) first official sustainability ambassador, where she will focus on the biodesign courses. “She is … a dedicated and respected advocate and activist,” said FIT president Joyce F. Brown. “which makes naming her our first official sustainability ambassador a natural and easy decision.”
Naiomi Glasses: Weaver, Skateboarder, Turquoise Collector
For bringing traditional Diné weaving to high fashion.
Some may know Naiomi Glasses for her viral skateboarding videos on social media, others might know her for her glorious collection of turquoise jewelry. But we’re here to talk about the fact that Glasses, a First Nations woman from Navajo Nation, is a seventh-generation weaver crafting gorgeous textiles. As part of the Diné (Navajo) culture, Glasses’ practice begins with raising the sheep that will provide the wool, and every process along the way to arrive at her finished creations. Earlier this year, Glasses acted as a consultant with designer Gabriela Hearst on items featuring Diné weaving. Flashes of the textile art showed up in the SS 20221 collection in panels on coats, shirts, and handbags, putting the Diné tradition front and center for all the world to admire.
From the World of Family
Shazi Visram: Founder and CEO, Happy Family Organics
For providing parents with great sustainable choices.
On Mother’s Day in 2006, Shazi Visram launched Happy Family Organics, a company that would go on to become the largest and fastest-growing organic baby food brand in the country. This family-first company stands out for things like free chats with lactation consultants and registered dietitian nutritionists. This company alone would be a tremendous success for mere mortals, but then Visram went on to launch healthynest, maker of the first and only EWG Verified diaper.
Yes, healthynest diapers are a disposable single-use product, but they are made from plant-based materials (like premium organic cotton and FSC certified wood pulp) and are exceedingly soft and efficient. But here’s where things get rad: healthynest also makes cloth diapers! Some people might say that’s a bad business move; but with Visram’s vision, we’re expecting nothing less than more success.
Megan Chen: Founder and Executive Director, The Urban Garden Initiative
For inspiring youth to embrace urban gardening.
Seventeen-year-old Megan Chen founded The Urban Garden Initiative (TUGI), a non-profit that teaches kids how to achieve urban sustainability through a gardening-based educational program that now has 60-plus chapters around the world. Noting the problems of supplying and distributing food to urban areas, and especially of the poorer sectors of the population, Chen says: “In an effort to solve these community issues through something that I love doing, The Urban Garden Initiative was born. At TUGI, we believe that we can not tackle these issues alone though, instead we aim to provide the youth the knowledge and skillset to take on these challenges together.” And TUGI is just one of Chen’s accomplishments—this dynamo is a changemaker to watch.
From the World of Pets
Alexander Tsao: Founder, Rocks 2 Dogs
For turning trash into treasure.
When rock climber Alexander Tsao, then 16 years old, noticed the ropes at his gym were frequently being replaced, he asked what happened to the old ones. Upon learning they were thrown away for safety reasons, he got to thinking. “This discovery made me want to devise a solution to the environmental issue of climbing rope waste,” he told Treehugger. His brilliant solution? Turn them into dog leashes—and thus Rocks 2 Dogs was born. The nonprofit organization sells handmade leashes upcycled from retired rock climbing ropes with 100% of the profit going towards no-kill animal shelters and local charities. So far he’s donated more than $30,000 to animal shelters and food banks with the profits.
Dr. Melissa Shapiro, Founder, Piglet International Inc.
For speaking up for pets with special needs.
Dr. Melissa Shapiro is a veterinarian and lifelong animal welfare advocate who also happens to be mom to Piglet, a deaf and blind pink puppy who has inspired a movement. Piglet’s social media platform has become an avenue for education and advocacy for adopting pets with special needs. Meanwhile, Shapiro founded Piglet International Inc., a non-profit that supports the Piglet Mindset, a free educational program for all ages that teaches growth mindset, acceptance, inclusion, empathy, and kindness all around the world. And just in case anyone needs further inspiration? Shapiro’s book “PIGLET: The Unexpected Story of a Deaf, Blind, Pink Puppy and His Family” is guaranteed to uplift.
From the World of Tech
Kyle Wiens and Luke Soules: Founders of iFixIt
For fighting for the right to repair.
One could argue that much of our disposable culture is the product of planned obsolescence, where companies intentionally design products that don’t last and are not fixable. In 2003, when unable to find a repair manual for an Apple iBook, Kyle Wiens and Luke Soules founded the how-to site iFixIt.
While the site has grown to add e-commerce to its online repair guides for consumer electronics and gadgets, the duo remains true to the iconic Repair Manifesto, which could serve as a sustainability mantra for us all: Repair is better than recycling. Repair saves you money. Repair teaches engineering. Repair saves the planet.
Max Roser: Founder & Director, Our World in Data
For uncomplicating the complicated.
There is so much invaluable research being done on the world’s largest problems, like poverty, disease, hunger, and most relevant for us here at Treehugger, climate change. But how do we get the fruits of that research into the public conscious? Dr. Max Roser has found a way, and it’s a beautiful thing. Our World in Data is a platform that brings research to life in impactful visualizations, making complicated data accessible and understandable. Roser founded the project in 2011 after frustration with the lack of accessible information about how the world was changing. To date, the organization has created 3,297 charts across 297 topics; all free via open access and open source. Changing the world, one easy-to-read chart at a time.
From the World of Finance
Rose Marcario: Partner, ReGen Ventures
For bringing radical sustainability to the global economy.
You may know Rose Marcario as the former CEO of Patagonia; a trailblazing executive who pushed an already-sustainable company to be even more so. Prior to that, Marcario spent 15 years in finance—now she’s combining sustainability and finance as a partner in a global early-stage venture fund called ReGen Ventures that invests in regenerative technologies that “go well beyond incrementally reducing harm by actively restoring ecosystem health.” ReGen’s mission is to move $1 billion of capital into regenerative technology by 2030 in an effort to close the enormous funding gap that will be needed to achieve a net-zero economy by 2050. Marcario also sits on the boards of electric vehicle company Rivian, as well as Meati, a plant-based meat company.
Elissa Freiha: Founder, Womena and Womentum
For empowering women entrepreneurs in developing countries.
Elissa Freiha has been variously described as a businesswoman, entrepreneur, investor, executive producer, and feminist activist. She is also the founder of Womena, a female-focused media company whose aim is to “bring the stories of female innovators, creatives and changemakers to a global audience.” They have also partnered with Standard Chartered’s Women in Tech on an accelerator program called Womentum, which empowers female-led startups by connecting them to the investors, mentors, and markets they need to grow. “We believe that the next wave of innovation will come from emerging market entrepreneurs—the women of these markets are pivotal in this journey,” says Freiha.