Some of these eco-entrepreneurs you’ve likely heard of, some of them you surely haven’t, but all of them deserve kudos for starting up companies that strive for sustainability. Read about their accomplishments, then tell us about green business owners who’ve inspired you in the comments section at the bottom of this page.
Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia
Patagonia has been a leader in sustainability since Chouinard spun it off from his original climbing-gear company in the 1970s. Having pioneered the use of organic cotton and recycled-plastic fleece, the outdoor retailer continues to innovate other eco-friendly materials, and even takes old clothes back for recycling. The company also powers all of its buildings with renewables, prints on recycled paper, and highlights activists and eco-campaigns in its catalogs.
Nell Newman, Newman’s Own Organics
If you think Paul is dreamy, wait ’til you meet his daughter Nell. Her company, one of the most recognizable organic brands, came to life after she cooked up an organic Thanksgiving meal for her dad, served with a pitch that his Newman’s Own line should add organic goodies to its offerings. It worked: Newman’s Own Organics was launched as a division of Newman’s Own in 1993, then split off to become an independent company in 2001 — but it’s stuck to the model of steering profits to charitable causes, including wildlife preservation and organic-agriculture research.
Ray Anderson, Interface
This carpet king wrote the book on sustainability, literally: Mid-Course Correction: Toward a Sustainable Enterprise chronicles his efforts to green his company. As an early adopter of the sustainability mind-set, Anderson set the lofty goal of eliminating all of Interface‘s negative environmental impacts by 2020. The innovations unrolled on his watch — including recyclable, modular, and eco-fiber carpets — have laid the green groundwork for countless other companies.
Janice Masoud, Under the Nile
Prompted by her own children’s allergic reactions to the dyes, pesticides, and other toxics in most conventionally manufactured clothing, apparel designer Janice Masoud (pictured with her husband and business partner Mohamed) decided to take matters into her own hands and launch a line of organic clothing for tots. Since starting Under the Nile in 1998, Masoud has been adding more and more items — including blankets and soft toys — to its inventory, all made with 100 percent organic Egyptian cotton. Under the Nile products have now found their way into major chain stores like Target.
Jeffrey Hollender, Seventh Generation
Seventh Generation, founded by Hollender in 1988, is fast becoming a household name in greener cleaning, offering an alternative to the industry norm of chlorine-bleached virgin-paper products and toxic detergents. And if that weren’t enough, the company has a new state-of-the-art green HQ near downtown Burlington, Vt.
Jeff Lebesch and Kim Jordan, New Belgium Brewing
We’re only too happy to drink to this craft brewer, whose green cred overrunneth. The first beer maker to power all of its electrical operations with wind, New Belgium also runs its trucks on biodiesel, treats its wastewater on site, and has dramatically cut its water use. The Colorado-based company — started by husband-and-wife team Lebesch and Jordan in their basement in 1991 — just released its first organic beer. New Belgium not only gives employees free bikes, but also promotes cycling in the broader community with its Tour de Fat festival, named after its popular Fat Tire ale.
Gary Hirshberg, Stonyfield Farm
In 1983, Stonyfield Farm started as part of a seven-cow organic farming school. Today, the company, known best for its yogurt, is one of the biggest moo-vers and shakers in the organic dairy industry, pulling in about $260 million in sales each year. At the head of that growth has been President and “CE-Yo” Gary Hirshberg, an environmental activist, windmill-maker, author, and entrepreneur who joined Stonyfield just months after it was founded. He’s now also putting his business smarts to work getting O’Naturals, an all-natural fast-food chain, up and running, and launching Climate Counts, a nonprofit that rates corporations on their efforts to fight climate change.
Michael Gordon and Vaughan Lazar, Pizza Fusion
A good organic pizza is hard to find, but if Michael Gordon and Vaughan Lazar have their way, one will be arriving at your door in a Prius soon. Their Fort Lauderdale-based company, Pizza Fusion, delivers organic pizzas in hybrids, a concept that is catching on fast. Since its flagship store opened last year, the business has spun off more than 50 franchises in seven U.S. states. Pizza Fusion stores are built according to LEED standards and powered with 100 percent wind energy, and their customers are encouraged to return their pizza boxes for recycling, giving credence to their motto: “Saving the Earth, One Pizza at a Time.”
Colin Crooks, Green-Works
Colin Crooks — “arguably the U.K.’s most successful social entrepreneur” — started Green-Works with a dual purpose: keeping large furniture out of landfills and helping charitable groups. Through programs that refurbish, recycle, or reuse businesses’ castoff items, the company provides low-cost furniture to schools and charities, while employing homeless, disabled, and other underemployed populations. Since 2001, Green-Works has kept more than 20,000 tons of unwanted furniture from being trashed.
Gary Erickson, Clif Bar
Clif Bar not only makes a dang good array of energy snacks using 70 percent organic ingredients, it also keeps on greening its operations. The company uses recycled paper and nontoxic inks, focuses on reducing manufacturing and packaging waste, and participates in global-warming awareness campaigns. In his new book Raising the Bar, Erickson describes how his company evolved out of his mother’s kitchen, where he launched it in 1992, to become one of the fastest-growing private firms in the U.S.
Sean O’Hea, Vehizero
It might not have the market clout of Toyota, but Sean O’Hea’s up-and-coming Mexico-based company has high hopes for its lineup of industrial hybrids. Beginning with a one-ton delivery-type truck called the ECCO, Vehizero started tapping into the rapidly expanding market for cleaner vehicles just last year, primarily in Mexico City. Its hybrid truck reduces fuel use by some 50 percent or more and pollutes much less than conventional vehicles. Vehizero plans to roll out more hefty hybrids soon, including a taxi, a larger truck, and a 100-passenger bus.
Joseph Whinney, Theo Chocolate
Theo Chocolate, based in Seattle, is one tasty answer to the problems posed by industrial chocolate. Founder Whinney witnessed the effects of unfair, unsustainable cocoa trading as a conservation volunteer in Central America and envisioned a much different model for his company. Today, Theo is the only organic chocolate roaster in the United States and was the first U.S. company to use fair-trade certified cocoa beans in its confections. Sweet!
Jigar Shah, SunEdison
Since opening its doors in 2003, SunEdison has become the largest supplier of solar energy in the United States. Under the leadership of biz-savvy CEO Shah, who left BP Solar to bask in the rays of his own Sun, the company gives big businesses a win-win deal: SunEdison installs and maintains solar systems on their facilities with no upfront costs — just a 10-plus year contract with fixed power rates.
Martin Ernegg, Zelfo Australia
Seven years ago, Ernegg patented Zelfo as a crazy-useful plastic material made from high-cellulose fibers, including hemp, sugarcane, and waste paper. The process for making and molding Zelfo products, which doesn’t use any glues, resins, or toxics, results in a versatile wood-like plastic that can be shaped into just about anything, including musical instruments, furniture, dishes, and more. One popular Zelfo product is a 100 percent hemp didgeridoo. What’s not to love? Oh, and the company is also carbon-neutral and uses veggie oil and solar for most of its power.
John Mackey, Whole Foods Market
A major player in the sustained growth of the organic market, Whole Foods sprang from humble natural-food roots to become the world’s leading natural and organic supermarket with sales of $5.6 billion in 2006. Mackey has led the company through its massive expansion and its adoption of humane animal-treatment standards for its suppliers, as well as its purchase of wind-power offsets for 100 percent of the electricity used in its North American stores. (Of course, he also led Whole Foods’ controversial buyout of Wild Oats, and he got nailed earlier this year for some outlandish sockpuppeting.)
H. Harish Hande, SELCO-India
It may sound like a faceless insurance company, but SELCO-India actually provides solar-powered lighting to underserved areas in India and other developing countries. The company, co-founded by Hande in 1995, offers sustainable lighting and electric solutions, via small-scale solar projects, to households and small businesses. But it doesn’t just sell its products; SELCO also works with micro-lenders and rural banks to help its customers get solar-system funding that many couldn’t get on their own. Hande’s enterprise is already illuminating some 75,000 homes in India, principally in rural areas.
Josh Dorfman, Vivavi
Though he’s author of The Lazy Environmentalist and host of a radio show by the same name, Josh Dorfman has been anything but lazy in launching and growing Vivavi, an eco-friendly, high-end home-furnishings company.
Virginia Young and Janie Lowe, YOLO Colorhouse
This Portland, Ore., company is painting the town green (and a range of other earth-inspired tones) with its Green Seal-certified products, which are free of volatile organic compounds, ammonia, formaldehyde, and other nasties common in conventional paints. Young and Lowe — YOLO — also use wheatboard, soy inks, and 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper in their displays and materials, and encourage creative reuse of their paint samples.
Mark Bent, SunNight Solar
Mark Bent launched SunNight Solar to provide simple, hardy, and incredibly useful solar-powered flashlights to people who might not otherwise have access to cheap, reliable lighting. Displacing sooty kerosene lamps and candles, the LED flashlights have been making their way into rural homes in African nations and other developing countries, changing people’s lives one light at a time. One distribution channel is the BoGo Light site, short for Buy One Give One, where for $25 you get one solar flashlight for yourself and one for a charity in a developing country. What a bright idea!
Todd Hymas Samkara and Kate Sheppard contributed to this list.