Irvine, California. Ariel Blanco / Unsplash

Michael Brown

MRP '80, Ph.D. CRP '84

Irvine, California. Ariel Blanco / Unsplash

Planning a Sustainable Future

By Dorothy Qian, M.R.P./M.L.A. '22

Originally from Los Angeles, Michael Brown (M.R.P. '80, Ph.D. CRP '84) was first in his immediate family to attend college and graduated from the University of California–Santa Cruz with honors in 1974, majoring in politics. With little career guidance available, and graduating in a recession, he found work in an art supply and picture frame store in Santa Monica, California. After several years of retail and framing experience, he decided that graduate school was his ticket into a professional career. 

Several of his UCSC professors encouraged him to apply to city planning programs. After an East Coast visit to various planning schools, Brown decided to enroll in Cornell's Master of Regional Planning program. In addition to a fellowship grant, the Cornell planning program's reputation, Ithaca's small-town environment, and the region's access to outdoor activities made it an easy decision.

Brown vividly recalls his excitement on the first day of class in Sibley Hall about being back in school. It was also on that first day that he met a classmate who became his spouse. 

"Sitting about halfway up in the lecture hall on that first day, I was looking forward to being back in a learning environment, but at the same time, I was also wondering if I was truly capable of keeping up with the other new grad students who were walking into the lecture hall," he says.

Photo of a man smiling, dressed in a button-up shirt.

Michael Brown, headshot.

Cover of the book Workers at Risk showing a man wearing a hard hat and gas mask.

Workers at Risk (1984), a book by Dorothy Nelkin and Michael S. Brown.

While immersed in the graduate planning curriculum, Brown took the opportunity to explore other courses across the campus, one of which was taught by Professor Dorothy Nelkin, a sociologist in the Science, Technology, and Society program at Cornell and who was affiliated with the planning and government departments. Nelkin's class, Politics of Technical Decisions, focused on scientific and technological controversies, including environmental pollution, creationism, reproductive rights, and the political fights surrounding legislative and regulatory decision-making. Through this course, Brown found his passion, delving into occupational and environmental health and completing a master’s thesis on workplace and environmental radiation standards.

"My brother had worked in a plastic pipe factory, and in this course, I found out that the precursor chemical for making plastic pipe was a carcinogen. I was scared that my brother was going to get cancer, and that made me want to look deeper and deeper into environmental health issues," he says.

With an M.R.P. degree, Brown entered the CRP Ph.D. program under Nelkin's mentorship. He fulfilled his course requirements and passed the "A" exams. At that point, he was ready to take a break and went to work at the U.S. EPA's Office of Toxic Substances as part of the team developing new regulatory approaches to control the use of chemicals that contribute to the depletion of the stratospheric ozone. This had become EPA's most controversial regulatory effort in the decade of the agency's existence. After the election of Ronald Reagan, Nelkin persuaded Brown to complete his Ph.D. in conjunction with a National Science Foundation-funded research project that aligned with his dissertation interests. Together, they wrote a book (Workers at Risk) and multiple journal articles, and Brown completed a dissertation that focused on activism around workplace health.

"I had never had a mentor, and that experience of working with somebody who really cared about her students, and me in particular, was transformational," Brown says. "I hadn't any experience or understanding of what it meant to have a professional career until Dorothy took me under her wing."

Following a post-doc at Tufts Medical School, Brown went on to head a division of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management that created several innovative programs focused on eliminating hazardous waste. Returning to California in 1990, he became the environmental director of the city of Irvine, charged with responsibility for eliminating the use of ozone-depleting chemicals (ODCs) and other hazardous substances and for identifying potential impacts of creating mixed-use zoning in areas that had been zoned for light manufacturing. Irvine had just passed the country's most comprehensive law restricting ODCs, reining in the city's manufacturers that were responsible for about 1 percent of the U.S. emissions of these chemicals.

Brown's experience with industrial environmental issues, along with a passion for surfing, led to a job at Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company founded by climber and surfer Yvon Chouinard. At the time, Patagonia didn't have what is now called a "sustainability program," and the term "corporate sustainability" didn't exist.

"I was on the cutting edge of something that everybody knew was important, but no one knew what should or could be done about it," Brown says. "Thinking back about my career, from the very start I was interested in innovative technologies that addressed environmental problems and novel ways to get companies to change their behavior with the goal of protecting people and the environment. There wasn’t a label for it back then; today, it would fit comfortably in what we call sustainability." 

Along with Eric Wilmanns, who worked with Brown at Patagonia, they cofounded Brown and Wilmanns Environmental, LLC in 2006, a sustainability consultancy that they both still lead today. Brown also teaches in the Department of Environmental Studies at the University of California–Santa Barbara, serves as a governor-appointed public member of the California Ocean Protection Council, and is an associate editor on the Journal of Industrial Ecology.


Selected Works

First page of a journal article

M. Brown, B. Kelley, J. Gutensohn, "A pilot outreach program for SQGs of hazardous waste," AJPH 78, no. 10 (October 1988): 1343. Article discusses the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management's pilot project with hazardous waste generators.

"A pilot outreach program for
SQGs of hazardous waste"

First page of a journal article

Y. Chouinard and M. Brown, "Going Organic: Converting Patagonia's Cotton Product Line," Journal of Industrial Ecology 1, no. 1 (1997): 117. 

"Converting Patagonia's
Cotton Product Line"

Article and charts explaining the Nike Materials Sustainability Index

"Nike Materials Sustainability Index," Nike, Inc. FY10/11 Sustainable Business Performance Summary (2011): 26.

"Nike Materials Sustainability Index"

Cover page of the Aveda Materials Use Tool Kit

Aveda Materials Use Tool Kit (2008) used in purchasing materials and products with improved environmental performance characteristics. The original toolkit was created in 2008 and updated in 2011 and 2016.

Aveda Materials Use Tool Kit

Scanned page from a symposium program

"Fourth Great Park Symposium (August 26, 2004)," Orange County Great Park Corporation, Irvine, California.

"Fourth Great Park Symposium"

Class photo

Brown (far right) and Yvon Chouinard (front, second from the right, seated), the founder and owner of Patagonia, with students from Brown's ENVS 118 Industrial Ecology class (winter 2015) in University of California-Santa Barbara's Environmental Studies Department, during a visit to Patagonia's corporate offices in Ventura, California. 

Brown (far right) with students at Patagonia's office