3 Environmental Activists Who Are Changing the World


he 1970s Earth Day narrative of planting a tree and bringing your own bag is due for an upgrade. In today’s reality, with estimations that we have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 80 percent soon to avoid the most damaging impacts of climate change, environmental activism is more important than ever for leading global reform. “There’s a strong culture change that needs to happen,” says Shilpi Chhotray, senior communications officer for the global Break Free From Plastic movement. “This is a really serious problem, and we need to level up.”

Below, three activists in different industries, all working on behalf of our planet, share their challenges, triumphs and calls to action.

Shilpi Chhotray

Through her role in the Break Free From Plastic movement with The Story of Stuff project, Chhotray communicates the problems with plastic pollution and efforts happening globally to stop it. In 2016, she founded Samudra Skin & Sea, a wild-seaweed skincare company with an ocean-first ethos.

I’ve been working on plastic pollution issues for a few years. With the Break Free From Plastic movement, I communicate the serious health impacts and socioeconomic impacts for people in other areas of the world, with a focus on solutions, that aren’t necessarily highlighted in the mainstream media. The movement is about reducing plastic pollution and actually stopping single-use plastics for good.

Plastics never biodegrade. They’re in the environment forever. Only 9 percent of plastic waste has actually been recycled since the 1950s — let that sink in. My background is in ocean advocacy, but for me, it’s not only about the ocean anymore; that’s just the most visible part of the problem. It’s about the impact we’re causing to other areas of the world that have very different waste management than we do.

We are pretty privileged in the United States because we don’t often see the amount of waste that’s ending up in other countries. We’ve been shipping our waste overseas to China for years. China decided that it wasn’t going to take our waste anymore as of January 1st, so now it’s going to areas like Malaysia, India and Vietnam. That is not okay with me. Our waste should not be shipped to vulnerable areas of the world to inundate other communities. It’s simply not equitable. Our plastic goes beyond impacting the ocean — it’s impacting every facet of this earth, and that’s startling.

Only 9 percent of plastic waste has actually been recycled since the 1950s — let that sink in.

I see a lot of parallels between my work with Break Free From Plastic and my social impact brand, Samudra. They’re both about a culture change. Samudra’s operational measures are grounded in conservation. We hand-harvest the seaweed for our skincare products with a team of ecologists locally, and encourage reuse through our zero-waste packaging. We also partner with a number of marine conservation campaigns that benefit people and marine life, and many of those campaigns are plastics-related. It’s been incredible to reach a new demographic beyond the typical environmental circles that I’m used to and provide a mechanism for change through an intimate product.

On Earth Day, I’d love to see individuals and communities involved in our global effort to end plastic pollution. You may have heard of coastal cleanups, where people get together to clean up the coast. That’s great, but it’s not enough. Every day there are coastal cleanups all over the world, but our goal is to make cleanup a thing of the past by identifying the top polluters on our coastline. Break Free From Plastic is rolling out a toolkit for a brand audit. The brand audit lists 10 very simple steps for categorizing the types of branded packaging you’re finding on the beaches as you clean them up. You don’t actually have to be on the coast to do this — even inland communities can help because rivers, lakes and watersheds are the source of plastic pollution that will eventually end up in the ocean. If we can get data on the number of packaged items we find, we can say to companies, “Hey, this is your waste, and you need to be responsible for it.” Through corporate campaigning, we can hold industries accountable.

Livia Firth

Since founding consulting company Eco-Age in 2009, Firth has been a prominent advocate of sustainability in the fashion industry. In 2015, the Oxfam global ambassador served as executive producer of the groundbreaking documentary The True Cost, and now she’s creating a series of short-form documentaries to continue the conversation.

When I walked inside a fast-fashion factory and met young female garment workers for the first time in Bangladesh in 2008, something clicked for me. I got the chance to put myself in another person’s shoes, and that’s what you need to do to get to grips with a global system. I saw the implications of our consumption, and I was confronted by the truth: There are millions of enslaved people across the global fashion supply chain.

Visiting factories and workshops around the world and seeing fashion production firsthand is a privilege. The women working in the fast-fashion chain with unregulated work hours and wages do not have much spare time. When I get to hear their experiences, I am aware that their testimony is a precious commodity. That personal connection is what guarantees that you persevere in your mission. Suddenly it’s not about a cause, but about the people you meet.

My new short film, Forever Tasmania, is the first in a series of short-form documentaries, Fashion-scapes. For this series, I was interested in talking to producers who have shifted their outlook and methods to become ambitiously sustainable. I heard about a group of wool growers in Tasmania who signed a perpetual covenant to preserve the landscape, which committed them and future generations. This is sustainability that looks ahead 100 years. Once I’m intrigued, I’m driven to go and see, and normally I try to take Andrew Morgan — the extraordinary director of The True Cost — with me.

Fashion is a full-spectrum industry, from the cotton fields to the catwalk, so there are hundreds of different issues, from pesticides in cotton to the right to a decent livelihood.

The argument for sustainable fashion production and consumption has become increasingly compelling. Fashion is a full-spectrum industry, from the cotton fields to the catwalk, so there are hundreds of different issues, from pesticides in cotton to the right to a decent livelihood. I am finding that people who have invested a lot of emotion and time in this industry are beginning to feel less connected to it. This is because the industry has become desperate, fixated with selling increasing volumes of clothing and undermining our fashion culture. Part of taking a sustainable view is wresting back power.

Over the last decade, I have received thousands of emails and communications from fashion consumers who feel trapped in a cycle of wear-it-once fashion. It’s hard to fight back against a system geared to make you buy and convince you not to question. At its core, change comes down to you. The maxim we use at Eco-Age is #30wears to inspire people to commit to wearing a piece 30 times. Of course, we end up wearing some things 300 and maybe 3,000 times. But the point is that these strategies help you buy more mindfully.

My drive comes from representing women in the supply chain and utilizing our power to fight for other women. With The Circle, an organization set up by Annie Lennox, this is our focus. I recently went with my colleagues to the European Parliament to present evidence on the living wage in the garment industry. Our report collects evidence from women in textile-producing hotspots around the world. To me, this is global feminism in action. If there is one change you should make this Earth Day, it’s to become a global feminist.

Pashon Murray

Co-founder of Detroit Dirt, a composting company, Murray’s closed-loop composting system has been recognized nationally as a leading model of organic waste recovery and reuse.

Food waste is a $218 billion problem — that’s how much it costs to process and dispose of our waste each year. When I started Detroit Dirt, I felt like nobody was talking about the issue.

I grew up jumping in the truck and going to the landfills with my father for his small contracting business in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I also visited my grandparents’ farm in Mississippi, and I was fascinated by how my grandfather was very in tune with the earth. That’s where my interest started. After undergrad, I moved back to Grand Rapids, and at that time the city was investing billions of dollars into building more efficiently. Seeing that, combined with my experiences going to the farm and the landfills, I realized waste was no longer waste — it’s a resource, based on green building practices.

I knew that Detroit was facing a lot of problems financially and had a lot of vacant land. The urban farming movement was starting to pick up there, and I thought, How do we have an urban farming movement if people don’t really have the resources? I figured I could start composting based on the knowledge that I had, alongside my co-founder, who was an urban farmer. My main goal was to create a model that could be expanded and replicated. Using an aerobic process, we process food waste, green waste, spent grains and herbivore manures to make high-quality compost for local urban gardeners and farmers.

We went from composting on a small scale to working with so many partners. We’re now collecting the food waste from the General Motors headquarters, which has 26 restaurants. We’ve had a long-term relationship with the Detroit Zoo and just launched a new byproduct with them. In the beginning, Detroit Dirt was just a proof of concept, and now it’s a viable business.

I realized waste was no longer waste — it’s a resource, based on green building practices.

At first, there was a lack of support, which was really challenging. I had something great to contribute, but I had to go out and really advocate because people didn’t see the value at first. I think women, and especially women of color, still get treated a certain way in this country. I kind of had to say, “To hell with it — I’ll just build this on my own.” I had to create my own pathway. I’m grateful now because I learned a lot, and if somebody was supporting me the whole time, I probably wouldn’t have had some of the experiences I’ve had. Now I’m getting awards for my work, so the reward came later.

I started our nonprofit, the Detroit Dirt Foundation, to focus on education, research and awareness through campaigns about healthy soil. It’s about educating the youth and getting people to see the soil contamination and erosion issues we’re dealing with around the world. I want to bring experts together to continue to do research on these issues. One way to help this mission is through aligning with and donating to organizations like mine.

By composting and keeping waste out of landfills, we’re solving a climate issue because food waste contributes to global warming. Food waste and yard waste should be banned from going to landfills in every city. But depending on where you live, not everyone can easily compost. It’s important to know your county’s regulations. If you have a yard, you can collect your own scraps and use the product in planters or landscapes. In cities, research and find out if there are urban farmers, gardens or pick-up services in your community.

Instead of just celebrating Earth Day, start putting goals in place for the whole year — look at your lifestyle and think about what you can do differently until the next Earth Day, like wasting less. Every little bit matters. Composting is one thing, but what people have to realize is that when we waste food, we’re contributing to a bigger issue.

Get involved with Break Free From Plastic here, join The Circle here, and donate to the Detroit Dirt Foundation here 

Photo credits:  Shilpi Chhotray by Smeeta Mahanti, Livia Firth by Will Whipple, Pashon Murray by Caroline Lee

Jackie Homan

Jackie Homan

Jackie Homan is a journalist, writer, and proud owner of an indoor s’mores maker for the rainy days.

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