Green Heroes: Elise Van Middelem

By Tia Grazette

5 months ago

The mission-driven entrepreneur on sustainable business


After 18 years as a creative brand strategist, Elise Van Middelem founded SUGi in 2019, a social enterprise dedicated to greening cities and reimagining urban life. Since then, the business has planted 185 pocket forests in cities all over the world, from London to Beirut, plus become known as a leading voice for nature-based solutions. We hear her story below.

Interview with Elise Van Middelem, Founder of SUGi

When was your green lightbulb moment?

In 2018, when I learned about Prof. Miyawaki’s revolutionary approach to rapidly recreating ancient native forest ecosystems.

What motivated you to launch SUGi?

I wanted to help turn the tide against ecosystem degradation and species loss, but I couldn’t find a solution that felt transparent, verifiable, and trackable, so I set about building one. I wanted to create something that respected and leveraged the power of wild nature. I wanted something that brought not just hope but relief to communities. SUGi started with one pocket forest in Beirut. Now we’re at 160 SUGi Pocket Forests, in 28 cities. 

Elise Van Middelem

Why have you decided to focus specifically on pocket forests?

When I learned about the Miyawaki method, I was captivated at once by the idea of ‘bringing back what was once there’, of creating maximal diversity on minimal space. Rather than planting monoculture non-native trees, SUGi creates small symbiotic ecosystems. Nature is complex, and without the complexity you don’t create resilience. Besides focusing on this method of planting, we also decided to apply the methodology to cities. The importance of accessibility, visibility and transparency around the forests for urban dwellers is a key element to me. 

What makes you feel positive about a sustainable future?

One person is not going to solve this massive problem. It takes many people, doing many things with integrity and care. We could not achieve our impact without the communities that help us plant and the network of SUGi Forest Makers around the world helping us bring this vision to life. Also, there are so many beautiful projects thriving out there now. That makes me hopeful. 

And what are the facts that make you fearful?

It’s hard to read the newspaper sometimes. I’d rather look into the eyes of a forest or a caring person. When I do that, the facts don’t pull me down.

Who is your own green hero?

Mother Nature! She is the source of inspiration to everything we do. Other green heroes are our SUGi Forest Makers, who make the magic, our SUGi Community which ranges from team to forest partners to volunteers. 

Your favourite product – and tell us why we can feel good about buying it?

I steer towards brands that source and make their products locally. Jungmaven is definitely one of them. 

A group of people gathered in a circle in a forest

Name three other of your favorite brands who are doing the right thing and why you like them?

It’s been a pleasure collaborating with our forest partners, who share SUGi’s vision of building biodiversity and green infrastructure. Some of them partnered with us not only to create pocket forests, but they’ve also made great strides in reducing packaging and focusing on sustainable practices. 

Should we be green shaming the brands/companies who are doing nothing to change their ways?

I believe human nature responds more to positive encouragement than shaming. If a company can do better, highlighting how and where and communicating the urgency gives them a chance to move towards a better path. This may be naive but it is what feels authentically actionable to me.

What are the biggest challenges in running a sustainable business?

Sustainable funding. I wish we had an endowment for the forests, rather than needing to fundraise around the clock. 

What advice can you give to other businesses who are wanting to do better?

Choose good partners and focus on real results, and always be truthful about your impact.

Four things we should all, as individuals, be doing to help in the climate change fight?

  • Pick something in your daily routine that you can adjust.
  • Buying fruits and vegetables from a farmers’ market (local economy, less transportation, less wrapping, less industrial waste).
  • Walk or take public transportation rather than driving.
  • Simply be mindful. Example: reheat water that’s already in the kettle rather than dumping out what you didn’t use. The options are endless.

What green business practices are you most proud of?

Other than putting all our focus on creating forests, I believe the fact that we are doing so in schools around the world is what makes me most proud. We create these outdoor classrooms with the students themselves, who become stewards of their own forests. They will be the leaders of the future and that gives me a sense of encouragement.

Find out more at sugiproject.com