Born and raised in NYC by an environmentalist mother (who apparently passed on some great genes), Madeline MacGillivray Wallace is a scientist and fashion model with a 15-year track record of activism — and she's only 23!
At nine years old, she founded a nonprofit to raise awareness about the impact of climate change and drought in Africa, earning recognition from Bill McKibben, one of the foremost leaders of the climate change movement.
At sixteen, she appeared as one of six youth plaintiffs as part of the hugely influential Our Children’s Trust lawsuit, which sued the US government and the EPA for the government's affirmative actions that cause climate change, violating the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property. The case reached the Supreme Court.
Since then she's stood up for indigenous tribes impacted by fossil fuel extraction in their rightful homes, become educated and vocal about microplastics, and pursued art forms from silkscreen to music.
And somewhere in there she became a model, representing brands who reflect her values and contributing to a necessary shift away from fast fashion's throw-away culture. We're proud to call Madeleine an Activist brand ambassador and we know you'll be fascinated by her story.
Tell us a little about you. Where are you from? What do you like to do for fun?
I grew up in Brooklyn (which seems rarer and rarer these days?!) but spent a chunk of my teens in SF before moving back to NYC for college. I am very lucky to be culturally literate up and down both coasts.
These places have also given me a sense of ever-expanding interests. I love to make music, play cello, guitar, silkscreen, photograph in film, dabble in woodworking, paint, work in gardens and learn about farming, talk about sustainability, play dress up, explore dyeing with plants, give talks, go thrifting... it could end there but hopefully never will!
You have a degree in environmental policy from Barnard, did your thesis on microplastics and are a 5 Gyres ambassador. Out of all the environmental issues plaguing our planet these days, how did you choose to focus on microplastics?
I love this question because, having worked in various environmental and ethical fields since I was nine, there is a real reason I’ve chosen to focus so heavily on plastic pollution.
In my view, plastic pollution is the most accessible connector between consumer and corporation. Plastic is a petroleum product; fossil fuel corporations own plastic production. Therefore by voting with our dollars to decrease the amount of plastic we consume and verbally demand corporations to adopt circular production strategies, we can collectively truly change this industry.
We’re seeing change so clearly now, which is very exciting. Because for folks in economically underserved areas, where survival takes precedent over sustainability any day, we’re starting to see low-waste systems being built into communities rather than existing externally as a privilege.
Lastly, the plastic pollution issue is a human health concern over anything else. We are ingesting toxic chemicals through plastic every day and doctors are starting to understand the severity of the health implications that this has.
The change comes through legislation (bans and taxes on products and materials).
It comes through brands using programs like Loop and Terracycle to circularize their production systems.
And it comes with us producing and using WAY less than we are! In no sustainable world are we using and producing as much as we are, no matter how "sustainable" the packaging is.
You became an activist at the tender young age of nine, and a plaintiff suing the government at 16. Were you a precocious child? What are your parents like, and what role did they play in your formation as an activist?
I like to believe I’ve always maintained a great balance of ambition and humility! I also am blessed with a mother who has an incredible background fighting bad corporations as an environmental attorney BUT who never pushed me into an environmental activist mold. She supported my inclinations as best as she could on her nonprofit lawyer salary! She helped me form my organization Superheroes Needed at age nine and has helped me along the way. I’m very lucky.
You're all over the place, in the best way possible — modeling, creating visual art, writing music, and of course, advocating for our planet through your work with leading environmental organizations and your own research. How do you find the time, energy and focus to do it all (and do it well)?
Well first of all, I used to get sort of jealous of people who do a lot of stuff because I thought they had a drive or set of qualities that I lacked. But this question just put it into perspective for me and helped me realize it’s just a subconscious, accidental, random but connected, ever-expanding group of interests and genuine curiosity in the world! So it’s not so much about finding the time — it’s simply an innate, built-in mechanism I guess.
I also believe that while having a bunch of projects going on is great, it’s best to focus on one or two at a time more full-on, in kind of rotating batches of however much time... but I’m still trying to work on that!
Lastly, I’ll say that being conscious about the climate crisis and doing whatever is accessible for you is very important but we all need to do what makes us happy without guilt, so that we can keep going!
What are your best tips for living lighter on our planet?
Consume less — buy secondhand, borrow stuff, buy stuff that is not packaged in plastic — this stuff is all really important and it’s much more effective to have many people making small conscious changes than have a couple people do full zero waste!
Eat less mass produced animal products. Industrial animal agriculture is the #1 industry contributing to climate change.
Think about how you can support sustainable agriculture and farming practices that sequester carbon — this is the next big thing and hugely important in tackling climate change. This is the food you buy and the clothes you wear.
If you’re looking for a constant flow of cool brands/people, their causes, and actionable items you can do on a daily basis, check out the podcast that I cohost — it’s called Better World, and we’re launching a whole new set of guides, content, events, and brands soon!
Thanks to Madeleine MacGillivray Wallace for sharing her story with us.
Follow her at @madeleinewallace