Christian Thornton

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
This description of Christian Thornton's work was prepared when Christian Thornton was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2016.


Christian is introducing a new approach of sustainable, people-focused production centered on local resources. The goal is to bolster socio-economic development and environmental responsibility. Through his collaborative and education-based approach, he is empowering local economies and spreading sustainable, ethical production technology across sectors, disciplines, and cultures.

The New Idea

Christian has created an educational support structure and network in which knowledge, technology, and best practices are shared between multiple sectors both locally and internationally. With greater access to new technologies, small producers from different industries can widen their markets and create environmentally sustainable products. Christian uses local resources and knowledge to harvest these technologies and production practices that help revive and transform local industries. Through technical trainings, collaboration, research, and technology sharing, micro industrial producers from diverse production industries share ideas and are empowered to innovate and produce ethically.

This sustainable production project uses a skills centered approach that offers the resources, and infrastructure to maintain and promote alternative technologies and work structures among artisans and micro industrial workers. A continued system of support and knowledge-sharing ensures that the models used are sustainable and do not collapse when the innovators are no longer involved. To spread the values of sustainable production to the next generation, Christian partners with schools to demonstrate the methods and philosophy to students and involves tourists that come to visit the studio in the sustainable production methodology.

This network of ethical producers is changing industry norms for small production businesses internationally. It does this by making sustainable production attainable and accessible and empowering worker communities to reimagine industry behaviors. Christian sees a future in which global environmental impact of small business production is significantly reduced in all industrial sectors, and ethical production becomes an ingrained norm.

The Problem

There are around 10 million jobs in Mexico's micro industrial sector which create and sell products ranging from produce, clothing and ceramics to traditional liquors and glassware. Their work is deeply important to the cultural heritage of the country in addition to being a national economic asset. However, many of these artisan studios and trades workers use processes that are environmentally unsustainable and ecologically inefficient. These studios tend to depend on expensive, non-renewable and heavily polluting sources to fuel their work. Aside from decreasing their capital it depletes environmental resources that their communities depend on, as well as takes a toll on the health of their workers.

In the last decade, there has been a greater effort focused on large businesses and their environmental practices. While large multinational corporations have huge environmental consequences on the environment, the role small and medium sized enterprises’ (SMEs) play in environmental responsibility has been largely ignored. Collectively their impact is huge. Over 90% of all Mexican enterprises are SMEs with 72% of the formally employed population finding work through these enterprises. These small enterprises, however, often do not have the resources, time, or capacity to adequately address their environmental obligations, which is why they continue to produce inefficiently and unsustainably. The ratio of volume of commodity produced to energy used is often far worse than in large factories. This is in part due to many SMEs´ tendencies to use traditional production practices which are high in energy consumption, yielding relatively small outputs. Larger factories are often held accountable under environmental standards and codes, while SMEs are easier to ignore, and therefore fall through the regulation cracks.

Small and medium enterprises are a diverse group. As a result, there has not been any proper movement to collaborate within this very heterogeneous business community. Micro industrial businesses produce what the market demands. If there is no market drive, no external regulation, or no internal collaboration for eco-innovation, there will likely be little change. Artisans prioritize product innovation over process innovation, especially since production innovation usually requires technical skills that the artisans may not have. Local saturation of markets, exportation difficulties, and higher energy costs have resulted in a difficult situation for Mexican micro industrial workers economically. This leaves little opportunity for internally proposed production innovation.

The Strategy

The connections Christian formed as an artisan and businessman in New York, the Caribbean and Oaxaca enabled him to envision a powerful network of innovative producers. Christian saw the need for both support and assistance in the artisan and micro industrial community. He constructed a comprehensive model for his organization, which he formalized as a non-profit entity in 2014, called Procesos Proambientales Xaquixe (PPX), or Xaquixe Pro-Environmental Processes. PPX partners with other studios and factories in guiding them to equip themselves with the successfully functioning technologies of Xaquixe Studio and collaborating for further industrial penetration.

Xaquixe spent a decade developing the low cost production technologies it utilizes and disseminates today. The core part of PPX´s strategy is to share and spread sustainable technologies to other producers that would benefit from a shift to sustainable production. These technologies have the sophistication to be able to truly reduce environmental damage. They are made from local materials, with local capacities and is easily replicable within Oaxaca and transferrable to factories beyond Oaxaca.

Studio Xaquixe utilizes several technologies that reduce and reuse city waste and decrease energy costs and the negative environmental effects of production. The most prominent energy creation technology is the conversion of used and recycled vegetable oil to usable gas for ovens and other studio production needs. Every week, the employees at Xaquixe collect 600 liters of used cooking oil from 34 restaurants around Oaxaca and bring it to Studio Xaquixe to be filtered and converted into fuel for the glass blowing ovens. The oil is combined with pig and cow manure and captured rainwater in order to produce methane gas through anaerobic digestion. Over the course of one year, this process converts 31,200 liters of used vegetable oil and recycles 5 tons of animal waste, eliminating the annual propane consumption of 67,600 liters and reducing operation costs by 60%. 15,000 kg of waste glass are recycled each year. Reusable packaging is used to ship the products which reduce negative effects on the environment. All of Xaquixe technology is open-source, as it is Christian’s mission to facilitate the spread and diffusion of these technologies. In order to do this he requires complete training, willingness to collaborate, and the inclusion of a humane element in the working atmosphere.

Christian envisioned more than an environmentally sustainable studio. He began focusing on the human-aspect of his business and focused on ways to scale it. His fourteen workers are all trained in every aspect of the studio and are given room to create by using their own designs. The workers are able to make more than a living wage and all participate in the training and capacity building of other micro industrial workers and visitors to the studio. Christian knew that he had to focus on more than technical capacities, he would need to incorporate an integrated and comprehensive approach to transform these industries.

The way PPX spreads this technology and “living-systems” approach to business is through hosting workshops and lectures with the goal of deepening the impact and reach of Xaquixe technologies and methodologies. Training and technical advancement is manifested through technical classes and seminars that train artisans in various technologies. Mexicans can attend this for a discount of 50%-100%. This educational center also models prototypes for ceramic, distillation, glass-blowing, and textile sustainable production processes. It also provides different types of alternative combustion systems, and a lecture space for trainings and shared learning. A tower of high efficiency solar panels creates usable energy for the center and the studio. So far, more than 100 individuals have been trained in Xaquixe technologies. Since its opening in 2003, it is estimated that 10,000 visitors have come through the doors of Xaquixe. Tourists can have an interactive experience with the studio's technology. Partnering schools bring their students to the studio to learn about environmental sustainability and innovation. After a decade of visitations, interactive programs, and small trainings, Christian saw that he needed to go beyond just in-house training, and introduced the partner support program to assist other producers in the transformation process. PPX provides assistance in the investigation, implementation and long term support of production technologies to partners in various industries, to have a deeper and long-term impact.

To fund these projects, Christian has set up a hybrid system that includes the for-profit Studio Xaquixe and PPX as a nonprofit entity, partly funded by the former. Currently, PPX receives funding from private, governmental and philanthropic sources, annually totaling around 2,300,000 MXN, or 135,000 USD. Foundation alliances such as FAHHO, CONACYT, ADO, Ford, Rockefeller, Hewlett, Packard, and Halloran Philanthropies will help to continue financially sustain PPX as well as allow for international network expansion. For-profits will be able to contract PPX for a variety of services, including feasibility studies, workshops and consulting, which will serve as an additional source for organizational funds.

Procesos Proambientales Xaquixe seeks to be a cardinal resource through its collaborative cultivation and growth for artisans throughout Mexico and abroad. The whole strategy of PPX revolves around the replicability and scalability of the Xaquixe and partner innovators´ models. Christian´s 2016 goals are to expand Oaxacan partnerships and trainings and create alliances in other industries in Mexico and abroad. By 2020, Christian is planning to implement 30-50 more studios that use Xaquixe technologies, in addition to several regional PPX hubs that will serve as the physical and symbolic meeting places for sustainable technology, methodology sharing and regional collaboration. This growing network of micro industrial producers can transform their businesses and in turn, their industries into models of ethical and sustainable growth.

The Person

Christian began to create and innovate as a child. He found traditional Mexican education limiting. He began attending an alternative education school alongside his brother who struggled with dyslexia and also benefited from nontraditional teaching techniques. This school gave Christian the freedom he needed to start exploring his interests and passions, and figure out how to combine his affinity for material based subjects such as glass, plastics, and ceramics projects, and his love and deep respect for nature.

After graduating college, Christian moved to New York City where he began working at various glass workshops. He began to focus on developing himself as an artist by hands on engagement. His artisan achievements since this time include solo and group exhibitions in Mexico, the United States, Belgium, Sweden and China. He focuses on nature and social issues in his art, including his most recent themes of native crop fragility and the expansion of GM food.

Christian first saw this need for locally and globally-supported collaboration surrounding innovative technologies and strategies when he was asked by a colleague to organize and initiate a recycled glass blowing project in the British Virgin Islands. This venture soon turned into a profitable business and tourist attraction. Christian saw an opportunity in Oaxaca, Mexico in 2003 and moved with his co-founder to create the glass-blowing studio that is still profitable today. Xaquixe focused on creating a new model for artisanal production based on recycling waste materials, constant innovation of technologies and techniques, respect for workers and the community, and the creation of beautiful products with a story.

As a craftsman, worker, designer and scientist, Christian clearly understands the different ways that people approach change, as well as the uncertainties, aspirations and true capacity of artisans. Christian has dedicated his life to promoting, teaching, and collaborating for the promotion of responsible production. His passion for creating beautiful products and sharing methodological innovations that respect nature is manifested in his vision for this technology platform.