This summer, several events drew attention to the tropical metropolis of Rio de Janeiro. In June, the Rio+20 conference set out to make progress in global environmental policy. In August, Brazilian entertainers and celebrities previewed the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

Amidst the hubbub, the inaugural Green Nation Fest—an event organized by the Center for Information, Culture and Environment to promote sustainable community development and living—slipped in. Designers and manufacturers from Brazil and beyond presented a compelling picture of contemporary and environmentally progressive product development. Three pioneering individuals stood out.

Extensive travels in her native country have taken Brazilian artist Heloisa Crocco to the Amazon rainforest, where she researched indigenous natural fibers. A student of pre-Columbian art, Crocco makes decorative panels and surface treatments from discarded wood offcuts. Rather than homogenizing the material, in the spirit of engineered lumber, Crocco celebrates the grain and character of each piece, creating richly layered surfaces that she calls topomorfose, or transformation of the top cut of timber. An advocate for community-based arts and crafts endeavors, Crocco also cofounded Piracema Design Lab, which brings together design professionals and traditional crafts­people to collaborate on projects.

German microbiologist and fashion designer Anke Domaske discussed her method of creating natural textiles entirely from milk. While searching for a fabric alternative for allergy-prone clients, Domaske developed a process that transforms the casein protein in milk into a bio-compatible textile. Similar in texture to silk, the quick-drying, anti-allergenic, antibacterial, and durable Qmilch requires much less energy, water, and human labor than the manufacture of other textiles. Because its fibers can embody different properties and textures, Qmilch is an open platform for future experimentation. Domaske is currently scaling up Qmilch manufacturing to meet increasing demand from the fashion industry.

Also from the world of fashion, New York designer Elizabeth Olsen exhibited shoes made from repurposed postindustrial materials. In a heartfelt story about the inspiration behind her Olsenhaus Pure Vegan line, Olsen described her obligatory visits to slaughterhouses to select leather and other animal-based materials for shoe manufacture. Appalled by the inhumane conditions that she witnessed, she wrote on her website, “These industries thrive on lies and profit from the suffering of sentient beings.” Making use of materials like recycled polyurethane, rubber, and canvas in place of leather, her collections of shoes are none the worse for the substitute.

These designers have followed less-traveled paths to develop goods that do good and look good. While the Rio+20 talks stagnated, and with Olympic planning hampered by infrastructure challenges, Green Nation Fest emerged as the summer’s most invigorating testament to design and environmental progress in the city.