If you don’t already know Ashlee Piper, get ready. She been making quite the splash when it comes to changing the way people think about going green. Initially, she began as a political advisor in Washington D.C. but soon realized she could use her skills to educate people on a topic she’s truly passionate about: sustainability. If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it is the importance of taking care of the one Earth we live on. Between writing articles for nationwide publications, speaking at conferences, and TV appearances Piper is encouraging individuals to make slight changes to their lifestyle in order to give Mother Earth a fighting chance. She is working hard to educate all ages on how they can be more active participants in the push for global eco-conscious changes.
You started out your career as a political strategist, what made you switch and dive into eco-lifestyle expertise?
I became personally interested in animal rights and sustainability while I was a political strategist and, when I was about 31 years old, I reached a point where I thought, “I could be using my job skills to benefit causes about which I’m passionate.” I realized if I didn’t make the career pivot then, I probably wouldn’t ever, so I made a few plans, saved a little dough, and took the leap.
You’ve written for various of publications (Refinery29, Glamour Magazine, Reader’s Digest, etc.) how do you approach writing to different audiences so your message resonates?
My main motivation for writing for those publications was to reach a more mainstream audience. Truth be told, I never wanted to be a blogger (and I wasn’t very good at keeping up with posts and such anyway, ha) – I always wanted to get this warm, approachable message that people can make sustainable choices that are easy, affordable, and stylish out to the masses. So the tone in which I write these pieces is pretty much the same as any other outreach (TV, speaking at conferences, etc) I do. I don’t want people to encounter me and think, “that chick is militant and judgey.” I want them to meet me and think, “Hey, living like that is actually not as crunchy/difficult/prohibitive/fringey/expensive/weird as I thought it might be,” and hopefully, I’m succeeding a little bit on that tip.
What has been the best feedback you have ever received from your writing?
I’ll preface this by saying that I’m a firm believer that little steps make a big difference, and I always love hearing from people who say, “I bought a new lipstick today and because of your segment, I made sure it was cruelty-free by looking for the Leaping Bunny!” I mean, that makes a huge difference to animals and also to the consumer (who will continually feel good about and exercise those compassionate habits) and sends an important message to companies (“give us more cruelty-free options!”).
That said, the biggest sustainable shift one can make is to eat fewer (or better yet, zero) animal products – The UN, University of Oxford, and other well-respected bodies have this as their top climate-saving recommendation. So, the best feedback I’ve received is from people who tell me that they’ve started eating more plant-based or totally vegan because they read my article or saw one of my TV segments.
Often, these folks are living in an area less replete with options and support networks than Chicago, and I always appreciate that they take the time to reach out, ask for advice, and know they’re not alone in making a brave and ultimately awesome life decision.
Ultimately your goal is to make being environmentally conscious fun, what is the easiest way to go about this?
Well, nowadays, ethical and sustainable fashion/ beauty are as gorgeous as can be and pretty darn accessible. Same goes for more eco-friendly food options. The things that are gentle on the environment, like shopping secondhand, are more en vogue than ever. I think the best way to approach any lifestyle shift is to make it a joyful adventure, rather than an all-or-nothing challenge of perfection.
So, I encourage folks, when they run out of their old standby animal-tested shampoo or are in-need of a new handbag or want to explore veg eating, to make finding the replacement fun. Scan the aisles of Whole Foods, reading labels and smelling formulations, to find your next holy grail beauty product that’s kind to animals. Hit up the consignment store to score that amazing new, gently-loved bag. Find recipes that excite you and start by making a few vegan meals a week. This exploration should be fun, because, truly, living in concert with one’s values and in better harmony with our planet is the most liberating and fulfilling thing I’ve ever done. I also drink a lot of wine.
How do you approach those who are skeptical about climate change?
I’ve had a good education in this because most of my family is conservative and therefore, is dubious about the whole “climate change thing.” These are people I deeply love and respect, with whom I happen to have very, very divergent political viewpoints. I used to engage in arguments that simply weren’t productive and ultimately hurt our connection. Now, I make vegan food for Thanksgiving and show them how easy recycling and composting are, and they dig it. They’re also wonderfully supportive of the work I do, and I think the increase in exposure I’ve been able to secure has also made them rethink some previously held views.
I also listen and ask questions before I open the floodgates of my stance. I’ve often found that I have more in common with someone than I thought, but we both were crappy in articulating that and exploring what that meant to us. So, all-in-all, I’m not sticking my head in the sand or acquiescing to opinions, but rather, we’ve found a more peaceful common ground in the joy of doing things that are good for the environment just because.
With the general public, I aim for the same rapport. I’d rather show people how great this lifestyle can be by living that example and have them inquire in their own time, than judge the hell out of people and make them feel like they’re villainized from the beginning. That said, I do get fired up about two things: 1) Buying companion animals from breeders and pet shops instead of adopting a shelter animal and 2) wearing fur. It’s 2017, guys – don’t be a dick.
Globally speaking, many countries are making a valiant effort cut back on their green house emission, what do you think needs to be done here in the United States, especially with the current state of the EPA?
Well, staying in the Paris Agreement, which creates a global quorum on energy use and resources, would be a good first start, but that doesn’t look promising as I write this. Other countries, like the Netherlands, Germany, and Sweden have had great success because they’ve married higher-level legislation with shifts in citizens’ personal habits, like mandating vegetarian meals at government functions, fining people for not recycling, giving tax breaks for people who buy items second hand, and holding free and mandatory seminars on composting and recycling. In the US, our government operates as if they’re the single saving grace – as if legislating energy purchasing is the only way to help the environment, an approach I feel is egregiously one-sided.
As people, we are empowered to make choices that make a difference. When we’re encouraged and incentivized to make those by government, then it’s a beautiful harmony.
Take the plastic bag fee in Chicago that was recently passed – I see so many more people bringing their own bag because they don’t want to pay the few cents for a bag. And that’s a perfect example of how government can work collaboratively to bolster citizens to make eco-forward choices. We need more of that – a lot more.
What advice would you give to the younger generation to make a positive, green impact?
It’s clichéd, but get involved. Organize your schools and friends and neighborhoods. I gave a talk recently at a high school at the behest of their Vegetarian Student Association (I wish I had that when I was growing up!) and was so incredibly moved by the talent and passion of these young people. They had big ideas, they had moral fortitude, they were deeply energized. That shit gets me pumped. You guys are going to help make eco-friendly cool, and we need you.
How can people get involved?
I hate to link to an external article, but my recent piece for Glamour is an awesome primer for taking simple sustainable steps forward, wherever you live. There’s larger-scale involvement, like joining groups like the Sierra Club or helping with trash clean up events, and those are great. But I personally dig leading by example. Bring your own cup to the coffee shop. Pack your own reusable utensils for lunch. Suggest to friends that your next hangout be at a vegan restaurant.
Those little things add up. I’ve had some of the best connections and chats of my life because I was in a public place doing something sustainable (like saying, “no straw, please” at a bar on a busy Saturday night) and people organically took notice. Those are the very best opportunities to make a positive and lasting impression.
Do you have a few eco-friendly beauty and/or household products that you would recommend to someone who wants to show switch over?
Always buy cruelty-free. No excuses. Everything you could possibly need can be found in a product that’s not been tested on animals (look for the PETA Bunny, Leaping Bunny, or Certified Vegan symbols for assurance, and shop at places that are replete with options, like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods).
I’d also recommend seeking options with less packaging and fewer ingredients generally. Every piece of plastic ever made still exists on the planet, so reducing packaging helps. As for home cleaners and certain beauty products, I make my own. In the cases of dish soap, spray cleaner, facial oil, and laundry detergent, it’s much more cost-effective and you can control the packaging and ingredients.
Environmental issues aside, what are some are your favorite spots in Chicago?
I adore Urban Vegan and Vegan Plate for killer Thai food, Amitabul for their healing soups, Demera for their magical vegetarian messoab (and a hop-skip-jump from The Green Mill for post-Ethiopian food jazz), The Chicago Diner for everything, Pick Me Up Café for everything (especially their vegan nachos), Pie, Pie, My Darling for knock-your-socks-off cake,
Crossroads Trading for secondhand clothes, The Brown Elephant in Lakeview for secondhand furniture nirvana, Sugar Beet Coop in Oak Park for bulk shopping, Thalia Hall for concerts (they let you bring your own cup for booze so you can eschew the disposables), Logan Square and Green City farmer’s markets, and so so so many other places I can’t even deal.
Is there a quote you live by?
For when I’m feeling like nothing is working:
“Nothing happens, and nothing happens, and then everything happens.” – Fay Weldon
For when I want to take big leaps:
“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” – Anais Nin
For when I’m feeling nervous or afraid:
“FEAR: False Evidence Appearing Real.”
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