As we're slowly coming out of our homes this spring with a renewed appreciation for being outside, we wanted to highlight a couple of women inspiring us to be more aware of our daily impacts on the earth. First, we chatted with Ashlee Piper, a Sustainability Expert, Journalist and Author of Give a Shit. A fun and practical handbook encouraging us to make small changes in our lives that make a big difference.
For a decade, I was a political strategist and my personal turn toward veganism had me questioning everything in my life, including how and where I parlayed my talents. I knew I needed and wanted to do something in sustainability but didn't quite know what that looked like. So, I took a leap and left my career, no other job lined up, and started looking for gigs in animal rights. As I was job hunting, I blogged about vegan fashion and cruelty free beauty and food and people seemed to enjoy it, so I did more of that. I began writing pro bono for a variety of blogs and slowly built up a portfolio of work so I could pitch more mainstream publications. Eventually, an editor at Refinery29 recognized the growing interest in cruelty-free beauty and fashion and tapped me to write a recurring column. It was a cool break and for a long while, I was doing it for free and really enjoying it. I'd always felt like sustainable living strategies should be easily accessible to and digestible for the masses. So, bringing the message to TV was the next logical step to me. I doggedly pursued producers I found on Twitter (they probably hated me lol) and pitched segments. I had zero experience on television and no contacts - everything about this journey was starting from square one and kinda figuring everything out. Nowadays, there are 'eco-influencers' and there really weren't those when I was starting this, and no one was bringing eco living to mainstream TV. I got my 'big break' one day when I was working at the Whole Foods cafe. A producer I'd been pitching (see: practically begging) to do a segment, called me said 'someone backed out for tomorrow morning's 7am segment. If you can be here with all the models and clothes, you can have the slot.' I knew it would be crazy hard to wrangle all these elements on short notice, but I also knew this was my shot, so I put a call out on FB for models in my friend group, luckily had been planning with ethical designer friends for this so I had some samples on hand (act as if! :), and was able to pull it off. It was great and I knew I wanted to do much, much more of that. Since then, I've done 250+ TV segments, including two recent appearances on The TODAY Show. Talking sustainability is my passion, so while I'm still working out how to monetize this in a way I feel aligned with so that this can be my primary job (I have a separate keep-the-lights-on job, too), I am so excited to be doing this. I don't consider myself an influencer - I've done sustainability strategy work for companies, candidates, and individuals, I deliver eco-lifestyle guidance on TV, I've written a book, and written for major outlets. I guess we'll call me a multi-hyphenate? A journalist and TV personality? A human who cares about the planet so much I've made my hobby my hustle? Someone who wants to curl up in my Wol Hide sweatshirt and take a nap? Ha.
I also have a rescue dog, Banjo, who is basically my soulmate. I adopted her 12 years ago, she's 14 now, and she inspired me to go vegetarian and then vegan and is just the best. I dedicated my book to her (and my parents). That's how nuts I am about her. I also have a cat, Skip, whom I rescued during the pandemic. A friend found him behind a dumpster at a bakery when he was only a few days old. I'd bottle fed littles before and was lucky enough to work from home during the pandemic, so he came to me and many bottles of formula, scratches and countless destroyed houseplants, I guess he's here to stay.
What inspired you to write Give a Shit?
I come from a conservative family, and while I don't share their beliefs on climate change, etc, it's been a great experience learning how to message eco living in a way that resonates with a variety of different people. Working in politics helped me with that, too. And I realized, holy moly, there are so many barriers to entry with sustainability, so many stigmas people believe that don't have to be true - that eco living is expensive, crunchy, not stylish, gross, inconvenient, ineffective. That last one really gets me! The whole apathy around our personal choices not mattering. Bullshit! We need a multi-pronged approach to addressing climate change - macro (policy, regulation, etc) and micro (you and me and we). Anyway, I wanted to debunk those myths and I wanted to deliver quality info on climate change and solutions without scaring or confusing the shit outta everyone. Like, it's all so sober and sad, and I find those to be immobilizing for people. So, let's make it like we're chatting with some wine and some good tunes in the background and get to exploring solutions in a fun and joyful way. So I was inspired to write the book for that reason. I was also inspired by not really finding anything like it on the market. There were books about niche aspects of sustainability like plant-based cooking, minimalism, ethical fashion, and zero waste, but nothing all 'under one roof.' I really felt like if we want people to consider shifting habits, we need to make it easy. Having to consult a bunch of other books for recipes or charts or guidance is tedious and where we lose some people who believe the whole lifestyle approach is inconvenient. So, yeah, I think the book is a nice 'one stop shop' for sustainable living guidance no matter who you are or where you are on your journey.
Moving toward a more plant-based diet: You know, there's been this phenomenon among eco-influencers where they're like ' you don't have to be vegan to be an environmentalist' and 'veganism is a privilege' and yes, by and large i agree with both statements. But a lot of these folks are also people of relative means. I think if we're people of relative privilege, as in we don't live in food deserts, we have disposable income to choose what we buy food-wise, and we don't have health issues that prevent us from pursuing a more plant-forward diet, and we want to do the single most impactful thing for the planet, eating fewer animal products is the way to go. The data is pretty compelling and large global bodies like the UN and Oxford (my alma mater) have been touting this shift for decades. And the reality is, very few animal products in the United States are produced on regenerative farms, most are reared on large-scale factory farming operations. Moreover, bulk legumes and grains are some of the most affordable foods in the US. Anyway, enough of my soap box. This is IMO the most impactful one step people can do and it's pretty sacrifice free. I really believe that the planet won't be saved by vegans like me, but rather by people like my Dad who used to eat beef at every meal and has since slowed his consumption to a few times a week. Those small steps do make a difference.
Wrangling our spending and buying secondhand: People like to talk about how we shouldn't worry about individual actions because a handful of companies are chiefly responsible for harmful global emissions. But this isn't an either/or situation - it's a 'yes, and' situation. Our consumption habits directly fund and create demand for said companies. That's how capitalism works. And while we should definitely work on a systemic level to shift the model away from abject capitalism, we also need to recognize that the spending habits we've been conditioned to have are messing up the planet (and our financial futures). So, I always recommend doing a financial fast first. So much of our spending, especially as women, is unconscious and emotional, as opposed to utilitarian. We buy out of feeling, instead of need, and most often, that feeling is one of inadequacy. Buying less and acquiring items we need secondhand or thru more sustainable means a the way forward we can actually control that makes a difference on micro and macro levels.
Compost: Food waste is a huge issue and landfills are terrible places for organic materials to decompose. Biodegradation requires light, heat, oxygen, microorganisms, etc, and landfills are notoriously starved on those. Plus, composting is easier than ever no matter where you live.
Buying package free: Plastic packaging waste is so insidious and plastic recycling is broken. Avoiding plastic as much as possible, repurposing and reusing it whenever we can, and opting to go package free with food, grooming, beauty and other items we might need is a great start to stemming the production of more new plastic.
Be cool: I've been (and can still be) that activist who's shaming people left and right because I'm SO DAMN PASSIONATE about the dire situation our planet is in. But that approach has never resulting in someone feeling like they're welcomed into the susty club. Being approachable, warm, curious, open, fun and seeming like you're really joyful in your life and excited about your sustainable choices is the way. We have so many gatekeepers in sustainability - people saying folks are too young, too boomer, too corporate, too conservative, too snowflakey, too whatever to take part and make a difference. That's so shitty and harmful. We need all hands on deck in this fight. We need to welcome and make space for one another. We need to find the joy in this endeavor because joy matters, too.