We love to be right. So much so, that we often trade being right for being in relationship.
Without relationships, we cannot experience meaningful change because the change we desire is rooted in relationships, not the certainty of being right.
But dang, the expediency and certainty of being right sure are seductive.
Pursuing being right cultivates the tunnel vision of perfectionism which runs rampant over our curiosity and creativity–the very ingredients needed for us to have a sustained impact.
When we focus more on creating change instead of criticizing ourselves or others, we are freed up to get creative about our sustainability practices and modeling this for others too.
But too often, perfectionism has a party. We want to get it right from the start and fear making mistakes.
Or we worry about sustaining the work we are already doing, so we don't bother starting, counting ourselves out, believing our small actions do not make a difference.
But they do.
Climate solutions require collective action.
Most solutions that are sustainable require collective action and leaders focused on being right end up cultivating conflict and criticism instead.
Leaders who are committed to relationships end up cultivating creativity, community and the collective action we need to create sustainable solutions. We can all start or continue our sustainability journey with this in mind.
My guest today leads many on the imperfect journey of sustainability.
Ashlee Piper is a political strategist turned vegan and eco-lifestyle expert and author of the bestselling–and very funny–book, Give a Sh*t: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet. Her work has been featured in/on Washington Post, Real Simple, BuzzFeed, GLAMOUR, NBC, CBS, and ABC, to name a few.
Ashlee Piper: We can get really tunnel visioned about our approach and our beliefs are the right ones, and then we can just become completely tone deaf to any other approaches. I think having a healthy amount of openness and curiosity and also tolerance, to a certain extent, is really a key ingredient to bringing more people to the table, because we do need more people at this metaphorical table of being concerned about what’s gonna happen to the planet.
[Inspirational Intro Music]
Rebecca Ching: We love to be right, so much so that we often trade being right for being in relationship. Without relationships, we cannot experience meaningful change because the change we desire is rooted in relationships, not the certainty of being right. But, dang, the expediency and certainty of being sure are seductive. Our love of certainty and being right protects, or at least tries to protect, from the discomfort of vulnerability, but instead we workshop certainty which crushes innovation while steam-rolling the very people who can help us achieve our commitments to change. Pursuing being right cultivates that tunnel vision of perfectionism which runs rampant over our curiosity and creativity -- the very ingredients needed for us to have sustained impact.
When you make a commitment to change, it is less about getting it right than it is about doing the work, day in and day out, toward a shared goal, learning from mistakes and the viewpoints of others. The falls and the failures are the data that guide us towards solutions, instead of just bandaids, and value humans and our planet while doing meaningful work. As soon as we focus more on being right or committed to one way of doing something, we move farther away from the actual change we are seeking.
I'm Rebecca Ching, and you're listening to The Unburdened Leader, the show that goes deep with leaders whose burdens have inspired their life's work. Our goal is to learn how they’ve addressed these burdens, how they rise from them and become better and more impactful leaders of themselves and others.
It is easy to overthink making an impact. We want to get it right from the start and fear making mistakes, or we worry about sustaining the work we’re already doing so we don’t even bother starting, counting ourselves out, believing our small actions don’t make a difference. [Deep breath] Oh, but they do. Climate solutions require collective action. Well, most solutions that are sustainable require collective action. Now, the leaders that are focused on just being right end up cultivating conflict and criticism, but leaders who are committed to relationships end up cultivating creativity and community and do so imperfectly while still leaving an important legacy. We can all start or continue our sustainability journey with this in mind, and my guest today leads many on the imperfect journey of sustainability.
Ashlee Piper is a political strategist turned vegan and eco-lifestyle expert and author of the bestselling and very funny book, Give A Sh*t: Do Good. Live Better. Save The Planet. Her work has been featured in or on The Washington Post, Real Simple, Buzzfeed, Glamor, NBC, CBS, ABC, just to name a few. Now, listen to how both Ashlee and I connected, how our experiences working in politics have shaped how we engage with the changes we desire to see. Pay attention to Ashlee’s experience writing her book, getting rejected, and then giving it another try. Her experience reminds me so much of what Jennifer Konfrst shared in an earlier episode on her decision to run for office again after failing.
It really is freeing to fail. Notice the journey Ashlee went on in her own sustainability journey, changing, shifting, giving space for everyone to develop their own sustainability practice, instead of staying in a dogmatic posture.
Now, please welcome Ashlee Piper to The Unburdened Leader Podcast. Ashlee, welcome to The Unburdened Leader Podcast!
Ashlee Piper: Thank you for having me. I’m very excited to be here.
Rebecca Ching: I am too. We were talking before we started recording that we have a lot in common in our professional background working in the field of politics, and we’re gonna touch on some of that today, but I want to start by taking us back to your childhood home in Texas where you had your first entrepreneurial experience selling homemade lip gloss as a kid.
Ashlee Piper: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: So I want you to walk us through what was going on in your life that led you to pilot this venture and also share with us how it was received.
Ashlee Piper: Well, firstly, I’d say that I’m an only child. I had always been the kind of kid to dabble in my mom’s bathroom. Under her cabinet, she had all her makeup and stuff. I would constantly go in there and mess around with crushing up eyeshadows, much to her chagrin, and doing a lot of stuff that [Laughs] kind of messed with her harmony, I think. So I was always creating little concoctions, and, at the time, I had found a flyer about animal testing in my local grocery store in Plano, Texas where I grew up, and I realized it was a PETA flyer, actually, from, gosh, it was in the early ‘90s, and I realized all of the lip glosses and the shampoos and the conditioners that I was using were all tested on animals. I wasn’t vegetarian or vegan or even raised in a particularly eco-conscious for nature-forward home, but I had a lot of companion animals, and something about this issue really struck me.
So I was like oh, I need to make a lip gloss that’s not tested on animals. Now, at the time, in my limited wisdom, I was basically just taking lip gloss I already had and crushing it up and mixing it together. So completely freaking unhygienic as well. Like, don’t do this.
Rebecca Ching: Ooh.
Ashlee Piper: But I was selling it. My friend and I were making it, and then we were selling it at school. My friend was into art and stuff. She was kind of the Jane to my Daria, and she made cool labels, and we would just go into school and sell them for five bucks or something like that. So it was a very lemonade-stand-esque venture that lasted maybe only a week, but it was funny because suddenly a lot of the girls in school really wanted this lip gloss even though it was a totally gnarly, homemade, not hygienic thing. But, at the time, the impetus was really good. I thought I was making something that was cruelty-free, even though the raw ingredients to make it [Laughs] -- the other products were just products I already had at home. So it’s one of those harrowing tales of childhood entrepreneurship. Like, don’t do this as an adult. Don’t do this as a child either. [Laughs] But it was a fun experience.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, it’s like the idea that if it’s homemade it’s better, but you're like oh, wait.
Ashlee Piper: Sure.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, it became this sought-after product. What grade were you in when you had this venture?
Ashlee Piper: I think I was in maybe seventh grade.
Rebecca Ching: Okay, so…
Ashlee Piper: Probably old enough to kind of know better.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Ashlee Piper: But we thought it was really cool. We hadn’t yet experienced a global pandemic, so there wasn’t a lot of this -- there wasn’t as much germ concern, clearly, because, you know, I was, for a week, marketing a lip gloss that was definitely made from other lip glosses that I had.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] And it became the “it” lip gloss, so…
Ashlee Piper: For a minute, for a hot minute in middle school.
Rebecca Ching: For a minute.
Ashlee Piper: Boy, everybody wanted that frickin’ lip gloss but, you know, no longer.
Rebecca Ching: A hot minute in middle school goes a long way.
Ashlee Piper: Yep.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Ashlee Piper: That is, like, a year in your thirties.
Rebecca Ching: I’m parenting a seventh-grade girl.
Ashlee Piper: Yeah. [Laughs] Absolutely.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, maybe even now. Even as we get older, a hot minute goes a long way. I’m just curious, though, too, that sense of wanting to do something that was more eco-friendly or kind to animals, why was this so countercultural at the time in your community?
Ashlee Piper: I mean, nobody was really -- I don’t want to say nobody, but nobody in my sphere and no one I was exposed to was really into animal rights. I mean, I grew up in a home where we did always adopt animals from shelters (companion animals), and my mom is this really big-hearted, soft-hearted person who was kind of like the neighborhood animal rescuer. People would bring injured animals to our house.
Rebecca Ching: Aww.
Ashlee Piper: We had kind of a menagerie of animals at any given time. So there was that, but I didn't know anyone who really knew about animal testing, and the only cosmetics at the time -- ‘cause, you know, I was a teenage girl. I was really into cosmetics. The only cosmetics at the time that were cruelty-free or not tested on animals explicitly were Bonne Bell stuff which is still really good. Lip Smackers? Come on, you know? Then there was a cosmetics company called Jane which I don’t know if you remember Jane.
Rebecca Ching: Yes!
Ashlee Piper: But it was very much these little black plastic pots, and it was kind of, I think, pretty ahead of its time. It was very much around being cruelty-free. Vegan wasn’t really a thing then in personal-care grooming products, and it was very much about enhancing your own natural beauty. So it’s definitely geared towards younger, more consciously-minded gals. I don’t know if Jane still exists. I feel like everything from that time period has gotten a reboot now ‘cause all of the folks who are in their late teens and early 20s are super into the stuff we used to wear and the stuff we used to use. And so, I don’t know, maybe Jane cosmetics is back, and if so, I need to get on it.
Rebecca Ching: We’ve gotta Google that.
Ashlee Piper: [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, no, I just remember people passing around those little pots of lip gloss.
Ashlee Piper: Yes!
Rebecca Ching: But I didn’t want to share mine.
Ashlee Piper: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: I didn’t want to share [Laughs].
Ashlee Piper: You’re not a nasty bastard like me who’s not only sharing theirs, you’re making a new product out of your old shit.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Ashlee Piper: That’s me. I hope I can swear on here. I don’t know.
Rebecca Ching: Yes.
Ashlee Piper: But yeah, that was me. I had no qualms about that apparently, so that’s kind of embarrassing. I hope when people listen to this they’re not like Jesus, Ashlee Piper is nasty.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Ashlee Piper: We were all kinda nasty as kids, too, you know? We’re all kinda grungier than we are as adults.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, my daughter gets into my makeup, and I’m like Hazel, I don’t want that -- please, let’s talk about where you’re putting your fingers and my makeup and your face and my face, you know? She’s just like, “What? It looks good!” You know?
Ashlee Piper: [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: There’s this little bit of bliss there, but also yeah, you talked about disrupting your mom’s harmony with her makeup, and I’m like oh! I don’t wear a lot of makeup. I’ve got a little bag, just a tiny little bag, but my daughter beelines for it. Wherever I try and hide it, she finds it.
Ashlee Piper: Boy, that name, Hazel. That’s a great name.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, it means commander or commanding presence.
Ashlee Piper: Ooh! Is she living up to that? [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: She’s living up to it. Oh, Ashlee, you had no idea.
Ashlee Piper: [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: And the recording of this today, she’s 13 today, and she has orchestrated --
Ashlee Piper: Ooh, happy birthday, Hazel!
Rebecca Ching: Oh, she’ll be so stoked to hear that from you! As we were talking about this conversation -- because we talk about these issues in our house a lot.
Ashlee Piper: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: I mean, my gosh, we’ve had a year of deep reflection and then some.
Ashlee Piper: Sure.
Rebecca Ching: We do talk about it, and she actually got an award at her last school, out of the whole school, for caring about sustainability and being aware and all of that stuff.
Ashlee Piper: Ah!
Rebecca Ching: She would walk around and tell people what they needed to do better. [Laughs] Like or you could show them, Hazel. We don't have to just tell them, but we could show them.
Ashlee Piper: Love that. Look at that commanding presence, Hazel. Well, happy birthday! Hazel sounds like a great gal.
Rebecca Ching: She is, and I’m curious for you, when did you first start caring about sustainability and the impact of products you use, the environment, animal welfare, the intersection of all those things. What was the inspiration behind this initial awakening for you?
Ashlee Piper: Yeah, I mean, I think I had little entry points to it, but then I was so young it would peeter out for me, but it really actually began to stick for me when I adopted my dog, Banjo, about 12, 13 years ago. I just started to see her and every animal, and for a while I had wanted to become vegetarian and vegan, and something about adopting her just really made that stick for me as a lifestyle change. Veganism, I think, was kind of my gateway drug into broader sustainability because I just started to see so many intersections of how eating more plant-based or being more vegan was actually helpful in other ways to other social justice issues tht I was concerned about. So everything from human rights and resource inequity, I just started to see how the way I was choosing to live and some of the changes I was making were also positively (hopefully) impacting other things I cared about. So that just bled into me becoming really interested in my general footprint and what was going on in the world and over-consumption and minimalism, kind of all of these issues that I consider to be sub-issues of sustainability or sub-movements within the border sustainability umbrella.
So yeah, it started with that. Being vegan was my gateway drug. [Laughs] Adopting my dog and being vegan was my gateway drug.
Rebecca Ching: But what does that mean for you to be vegan? I live in Southern California. I’m from the Midwest, and even saying vegan in some circles is like asking for a fight.
Ashlee Piper: Sure.
Rebecca Ching: It has become a very polarizing thing in some circles, but I know it runs deep for people. So for you, what does it mean to be vegan?
Ashlee Piper: Yeah, and I get that, you know, having been vegan now for 11 years. It definitely was not something that was as popular then as it is now, or as well known or well understood, and there are certainly shades of it. So, for me, I became vegan for animal rights reasons purely. I’m still, to this day, not a health purist or a health vegan, you know, which I know there are many people who kind of enter that, and, for me, it’s a lifestyle as well, but I also guess I would call myself an ethical vegan which is kind of a term to say it’s not just how I eat, it’s in other aspects of how I live, but I have eased up.
My veganism has evolved over time. I used to be very anti-leather, anti any kind of animal materials, and now I buy second hand leather, I buy second hand wool. I do that ‘cause I live in Chicago. It’s very cold here. So kind of as my sustainability rubric has changed and my values systems have changed there, my veganism has become, I think, more flexible, not necessarily like I’m deviating from the values of it so much, but I’ve been with it for so long that I’m pretty comfortable in it, and I’m okay with having some modifications that I’ve made over time. I’ve also changed attitudinally. I always say there’s nothing more insufferable than a baby vegan, and that’s true. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Ashlee Piper: When I was new to veganism, boy, I was so awful because you’re, you know, discovering this thing that you feel is so right and you feel so strongly is a solution to a lot of ills, and so, you just don't understand why other people aren’t like yeah, let’s do it, you know? So I had a real, I don’t know, quarter-life crisis or something where I just didn't feel like I fit in my old kind of group of people and friends but didn't feel like I fit the vegan community because they were so punk rock and activist-y, and their job was to leaflet, and I was like a political strategist. So I just didn't feel like I fit in the movement, and I also just became really insufferable to be around. I would be like, “Hey, want to come to my house and watch Earthlings?” It’s like fuck, nobody wants to do that. That’s a terrible idea, you know?
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Ashlee Piper: So I was just a really militant, unwelcoming, judgemental vegan, and now, I am not that at all I’m like the opposite of that. I’m pretty chill in it, and so, I think I’ve changed in that way as well but, you know, I totally accept, one, there are plenty of environmentalists who are not vegan, plant-based, anything like that. I totally recognize that there are people who consider themselves vegan or plant-based who might do that in diet only and for different reasons. So, you know, it’s part of that accepting and understanding that there are a lot of different approaches and in-roads into sustainability and into veganism as well. These, I think, made me mellow a little bit in my public judgment or understanding of veganism, but also feel really comfortable in my own definition of it for myself.
Rebecca Ching: Gosh, I love that on so many levels. On a micro-level just understanding -- ‘cause I think when people talk about health and veganism it can be such a lightning-rod term.
In my clinical background, I’ve worked a lot with people with food and body issues and sometimes we have to parce around values versus a way to really do harm to yourself, and this, for you, is an entry point of caring about your pup and animals around you, but you also -- I think it’s like growing up. Whatever we’re passionate about in our 20s, oh my gosh, and I look to where I’m at -- I’ve got a big birthday coming up this summer, far from my 20s -- and I really do appreciate this. We change. What I heard you say that I love is you still are true to your core values around these issues, but you’ve evolved in how you interact. You brought in flexibility without compromising what you believe. That’s maturity. That’s emotional literacy. That’s resilience.
Ashlee Piper: We hope, you know? [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Ashlee Piper: Some days I think I could use a lot more, but thank you for saying that.
Rebecca Ching: Well, me too. Me too, but I think it doesn't mean we lose our passion and feeling indigent about things, but we still recognize that we want to connect with people. It isn't about being right, and that’s when that kind of almost becomes a religion of rigidity. It’s kind of cult-ish, and it’s not about relationship, it’s not about change, it’s about something else. We all, I think, find that in our 20s, and some people sometimes stay stuck there. [Laughs]
Ashlee Piper: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: That intensity of all or nothing, and there isn’t a forgiveness or space for people to evolve in our culture right now.
Ashlee Piper: Right. Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: We are policing everyone. “Well, you used to do this.” I get this all the time on certain things I’ve said or done. I’m like, “I’ve learned and I changed.” They’re like, “But you said this.” I’m like, “Yep.” Or, “You believe this or you did this,” and I’m like, “I did, and I got information, I collected data, I checked my values, and I shifted.” “Well, doesn't that make you a hypocrite?” I’m like, “No! That makes me a growing, learning adult.” [Laughs]
Ashlee Piper: Yeah, absolutely.
Rebecca Ching: So there’s this interesting -- we really don’t have room. That’s why I love what you just walked us through. This evolution of growth in issues and things that we really care about, and I see this even in my clinical space and even in my leadership space. If we don’t heal whatever those wounds are, sometimes we try and heal our pain through our activism. [Laughs] That doesn't look good. That’s not sustainable either.
Ashlee Piper: Yeah, you make so many wonderful and true points with all of that because I do really believe we’re not these monolithic beings.
Rebecca Ching: No!
Ashlee Piper: We don’t walk a static path, and if we were, that would be pretty boring, but it would also be, I think, not the point of life. Just like I used to be the furthest thing from a vegan and the furthest thing from an environmentalist. There are so many things ideologically that have changed for me. I mean, I grew up in a really conservative household. I grew up in Texas, you know? That’s not an excuse for me to necessarily bring some of those ideologies unchecked into my adulthood, but that is also a very formative experience of where I came from, and a lot of people have those experiences and can pivot, completely do a total 180 on their values systems, and it’s a very genuine change, and it’s a very lasting change.
Maybe your political experience, as well, and I’m sure your clinical experience has colored this for you, but it’s always interesting to me when people will (for a politician, for instance) call up something that a politician did, like, 30 years --
Rebecca Ching: Yes!
Ashlee Piper: -- prior, and I’m like well, people evolve just like society evolves, social phenomenon creates evolution. So, you know, of course, someone might have some belief 30 years ago that they absolutely don't resonate with, don’t associate with anymore. In fact, they're the opposite of that, and I’m like no one person is completely consistent from the time they are 15 to the time they are 60, and thank god for that, right, because I don’t want to be -- there’s plenty of stuff that I did in my teens and my 20s, even my early 30s, that now, as I’m approaching 40, I’m like that doesn't feel like me.
That’s not who I am anymore. I’m not saying wild or bad stuff, but there are beliefs that I don’t at all hold anymore, and I feel the exact opposite about. I think, like you said, the whole point of a life well lived is to be open to that kind of curiosity and change.
With sustainability, it’s really interesting as there’s become a new kind of fresh crop of sustainability activists, more of whom are younger, and I really love to see it because I think this is a movement that needs everyone. I also notice in that fresh crop of activists there is a very quick-to-judge, quick-to-write-off vibe that if someone’s not doing something that’s exactly like this, they're not part of the solution, and I kind of just want to be like, “Whoa! Hold up. We’ve gotta have all hands on deck here.” Real inclusion means, also, creating a little space for everyone, even people who have dissenting opinions, even people who have different approaches. Sometimes I think, not just with younger folks, but with older folks too, anybody, we can get really tunnel vision about our approach and our beliefs are the right ones, and then we can just become completely tone deaf to any other approaches. I think having a healthy amount of openness and curiosity, and also tolerance to a certain extent, is really a key ingredient to bringing more people to the table, ‘cause we do need more people at this metaphorical table of being concerned about what’s gonna happen to the planet, and we just can’t do that if we’re judging people automatically for stuff they did 20 years ago.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, gosh, I have a couple follow-ups to that. So I agree. We evolve and change, and I’ve seen that particularly -- you and I both have a background in politics where people change their positions, and not in the sense of okay, I need to do this for votes and expediency, but something happened, they evolved. But I think there are exceptions to that too. Even though our brains aren’t fully developed and stopped growing ‘til mid-20s, if we do harm to somebody --
Ashlee Piper: Sure.
Rebecca Ching: -- I’m just thinking of the Kavanaugh hearings and he was just a kid, I’m like no, you still have accountability and consequences, matters around race, matters around assault, those types of things. I think there’s still absolute accountability, but when it comes to these ideologies around oh, my gosh, I was passionate about this, and now I’ve evolved, we don't give a lot of grace. I do think there’s a place, though -- I do watch folks that are just on fire and tunnel-visioned and focused. I feel like there’s a place and a purpose. I mean, I think we need all of that to drive these issues.
Ashlee Piper: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: There’s such a fear, I think, of compromise or of listening, but, again, if we’re not doing our own deeper work, that drive, that focus goes unchecked, and then it starts to be like we’re not safe unless we have everyone thinking the way we do, and we conflate those. Then it gets dangerous. Maybe it’s age. Maybe we mellow with age. I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ve mellowed. Maybe some people would say I have, but my husband probably wouldn't. [Laughs]
Ashlee Piper: [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: He gets the unedited stuff in our conversations, but I do appreciate that. Some people are afraid to change their minds, these days especially in this culture, or to ask the questions that might lead to, just even by asking it, being afraid of being misunderstood. So I really appreciate this conversation, and it’s a great seguy even to shift to your background.
We’ve touched on this a little bit. You have a substantial background in political communications. I studied public relations and really focused on political communications myself in my undergrad work. I ended up working in DC, and I know you’ve worked on some different campaigns and with different candidates. Can you walk us through how you made the shift from political consultant with a side hustle writing about sustainability to developing as a sustainability expert?
Ashlee Piper: So, you know, I want to note also, it was more in a way an ideological shift than, necessarily, a business shift.
Rebecca Ching: Ah.
Ashlee Piper: What I do sustainability-wise is very much still a side hustle, although, has the work of a full-time job, but I have a whole other full-time job and have this entire time, so I think there’s sometimes -- not that you're saying this, but sometimes people would be like, “Oh, you get paid to do TV. Oh, you get paid for this.” I’m like I don’t get paid to do that stuff. [Laughs] When I’m not doing this stuff, I am working full time at a Fortune 50 company doing something that is not related to sustainability. I think it’s important to say that because the journey and what people see, the background of that is totally different sometimes than what people assume it is. And so, you know, I just always like to pull back the curtain and be like, “No, I still work a full-time job that I appreciate but isn’t related to sustainability at all,” and I do that because I’m realistic about what I’m able to do at this point with the kind of sustainability work that I want to do. I don’t want to be a full-time influencer or anything like that. That feels pretty well covered to me.
Yeah, so I’m still in flux. I’m still exploring what that looks like, but I feel like the journey to this has been ever-evolving and has resulted in a book and a lot of TV appearances and a lot of other stuff, and it’s been really fun.
But what kind of happened for me is I just became so interested in veganism and then sustainability. So I used to work for both governors of Massachusetts at the time, so Mitt Romney and Deval Patrick. I was on both of their cabinets doing health and human services advising, so everything from universal health care to child welfare to public health, stuff like that. That was actually my first job out of graduate school where I studied evidence-based social intervention, so a lot of how to quantify and use statistics to see if different kinds of interventions, different kinds of social work types of interventions are actually working. So, really, evidence-based social work in a way. I went to work for Romney whom I wasn’t politically affiliated with or even familiar with, actually, and started working with him on universal health care which was really, you know, the springboard for Obamacare. Massachusetts is not progressive, as Mitt Romeny is now, compared to my own personal ideologies. At the time, being a Republican governor in Massachusetts, you’re basically a democrat anywhere else. [Laughs] I really enjoyed working for him. I found he was a really nice and solid human being. Of, actually, all the politicians I’ve worked with, I found him to be one of the most reliably stand-up human beings that I had met who, at least in all my interactions with him in two years, treated everyone with respect and with great care. So I enjoyed that experience. It really shaped me in a lot of ways.
Then, I went on the work with Deval Patrick who was his successor and also a really great human being and kind of a nice experience to be working on a Republican cabinet and then on a Democrat cabinet and seeing the differences between those two because when Deval Patrick came into office, those of us who were more progressive and were doing social services stuff were like phew, it’s open season on these policies. Let’s get it, you know? Let’s get some more kind of just aid in place for these different kinds of public programs.
But then I moved to Chicago -- well, I worked for a few different agencies as well. I worked for the office of early education and care. I worked for the office of victim assistants. The governor kind of placed me at different places as an assistant commissioner to repair some of these agencies that were in flux. Then, I decided I wanted to do the consulting thing, do the outside in helping to fix governments, so I went to Chicago, where I live now, and worked at a government consulting firm where I was a political strategist directing their strategy practice and worked for different agencies and on different campaigns and with different candidates helping to shape their messaging and strategies, policies, things like that.
So as I personally became interested in veganism and sustainability, I found that I felt like I was good at the work I was doing, but it was not for the candidates or for the types of mission-driven things that I was interested in doing that work for. When you’re working at a consultancy, you don't really get to pick who your clients are so I had clients who I was completely ideologically divergent with who I still had to develop messaging campaigns for, and I was making a great living, but it felt very incongruent with where I wanted to go.
So I made a plan, saved a little bit of money and left my job, and I didn’t have another job lined up. I wouldn't recommend this, but this happened to be my journey. I didn't have another job lined up. I thought I would go and maybe work in lobbying for an animal rights or an environmental organization. I dipped my toe in that water, did a ton of research and informational interviews, found that wasn't necessarily for me, and I struggled for a whole year to figure out who I was without this decade-long career I had cultivated, who I was without this salary that I got used to having, who I was and where I fit in this movement that I felt extremely passionate about, passionate enough to leave it all behind basically, but didn’t feel like I fit because I was seen as too corporate, too buttoned-up, whatever, for it.
It was a really hard but also a really formative year for me and time for me. It changed me, and if I could go back in time I would still do it, but in the moment, it felt extremely difficult to be so direction-filled for a good portion of my life, and then to completely be rutter-less, like, where am I going. It was during that time that I financially struggled a lot and was pretty, by any standard, poor, and it was also a really good juxtaposition between the life I had been living before and becoming more resourceful, becoming more acquainted with my resourcefulness just as a young woman. And so, a lot of the strategies that are considered sustainable, I was doing because they were sustainable but, also, out of financial necessity. So shopping secondhand really blossomed for me because that was, really, the only way I could afford stuff. Eating plant-based and eating in bulk was really one of the only ways I could afford stuff, so I lived those habits, basically, and I found that they worked for me, and I still brought them through with me even in kind of my more financially-prosperous and plentiful life as I kind of started to find more of a direction.
At the time, there was no one who was really doing stuff on TV around sustainability, and I kind of wondered why. I felt like this was something that was gonna be important, and also having the experience with my family, being so skeptical about climate change and sustainability, generally, I felt like gosh, if it could just be made easier for people, and if we could show it to be simple and joyful and stylish and fun and economical, and take a lot of the research component and demystify it for folks, I think more people would do some of these smaller steps.
And so, that’s what really drove me. So I started seeing if I could write pro bono for people’s blogs, and then started writing pro bono for different media outlets, and then I started hounding producers on Twitter which I don’t recommend you do, but I didn't have context in these worlds at all. What I really had was just this spirit of shit, I’ve got nothing to lose because I already gave up all the things that were really secure in my life. And so, I think that’s kind of a gift in a way because I was so like, “Hey, I’ll try anything. If I fail at this big whoop,” you know? I was also so committed to -- I did not want to go back to doing political strategy. I didn't want to try this whatever this was and then go back with my tail between my legs and be like, “Okay, I’ll do this job again that I left,” -- you know, that I took great pains to leave.
So that’s really kind of how it started. I wish I had a more rags-to-riches story that kind of goes with it, but that’s the real story of it.
Rebecca Ching: It’s scrappy.
Ashlee Piper: It’s scrappy. It is! [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: It’s scrappy and real and true!
Ashlee Piper: [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: So you know what stuck me in listening to you talk about that time when you left political consulting, you weren’t comfortable because of your financial constraints ‘cause as this season got longer than you had anticipated of being without steady work. I just realized that comfort, then, kind of fosters convenience and how, then, convenience is, in many ways, the antithesis, so we think, of sustainability or contributes to where we’re at in our world today and where our planet is struggling and so many of us in it that this convenience, and we want easy.
Ashlee Piper: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: It’s almost this god we worship, with a lowercase “G,” because we are so exhausted.
We are so overcommitted. We are so burdened with so much, even emotionally and relationally, then they're like, “Okay, really, Ashlee? You want me to think about this too?”
Ashlee Piper: Yep!
Rebecca Ching: “Can I just survive? Thank you very much.” We’ll get to this about your book ‘cause you do break it down in ways -- and I’ve read a lot on this, and I’ve been dabbling in it ever since I had kids. Probably like a lot of parents, when you have kids you start to think about things in ways that are different than when it’s just you. I just want to get this right, though. I’m not sure I’m clear. How come you chose to leave political consulting? I’m not clear on your decision to be like I need to do something different. Can you unpack that briefly for us?
Ashlee Piper: Yeah, I just couldn't take it anymore. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: Ah. [Laughs] Enough said. I gotcha.
Ashlee Piper: It felt like such a soul-suck --
Rebecca Ching: I get that.
Ashlee Piper: -- to me, for, like, a year plus. I mean, really, working with candidates, for instance, who I could say I felt like were actually really bad people.
Rebecca Ching: Ugh, yeah.
Ashlee Piper: Also, it was the kind of job you never shut off from. Not like I've achieved some kind of mythic work-life balance or any of us have, but it was the kind of job where three in the morning your phone is blowing up, and you're in crisis mode, and stuff.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, yes.
Ashlee Piper: And so, besides from family and friends and my dog, the only thing in my life that was really lighting me up was my own personal sustainability journey and discovering that ‘cause I made it one of joy.
Rebecca Ching: Got it.
Ashlee Piper: And so, I would have that, and then every day I would just go to work, and it just felt like I was just working to maintain this salary that was really nice, but I was pretty unhappy. I’m not saying this to be like -- I don't have some kind of pie-in-the-sky idea about what a job should be. You get paid to do it. If you can be surrounded by cool people or you care about the mission or it’s enough to pay your bills, if you have, like, two of those, you're pretty flippin’ lucky. It’s a job, but I knew that for my emotional and mental health, I was done there. It was time.
Rebecca Ching: I’m having memories, too, hearing you talk. When I transitioned from working for a member of the Senate to, then, working for an issue advocacy firm in New York City, and I didn't stay there long because of just what you're saying. I still got to connect. Some of these things were interesting to me, but it was always about the revenue, you know? Like, “Oh, you're working on a twenty-million-dollar account?” And I’m like, I don’t feel like I want to brag about that, but I feel like I’m supposed to, here in New York City. I just landed a twenty-million-dollar -- and I’m like ah, versus, “Oh, my gosh. We got to talk about this issue or we impacted this or we won this election.” It just was about getting -- and I got the business of it, and it was seductive, but it was soul-sucking too.
Ashlee Piper: Mm-hmm. Yep.
Rebecca Ching: It was very soul-sucking. I get that for sure, so thanks for clarifying that. Go ahead.
Ashlee Piper: Yeah, I was just gonna say I 100% feel you. I feel that feeling in your gut where you’re like could I do this? Could I rock this? Yes, but how long can I fake this for?
Rebecca Ching: How long can I fake it, yeah! [Laughs] Yes.
Ashlee Piper: I also had told myself -- you know, the time I was in my early -- was I in my -- when I left political strategy I was in my early 30s, and I felt like I don’t have children. I’m not married. If I don’t make this change to explore this other thing now, even though I don't know what this other thing looks like, I might not ever do this. I could see myself staying in that job, being increasingly unhappy forever, and because I felt like I didn't have any people who were dependent on me financially to keep bringing in the bread or whatever, I was willing to risk my own comfort for potential future happiness and kind of more aligned values.
That was a decision I labored over for a long time, and the guy I was dating at the time was incredibly supportive. [Laughs] He’s probably like Ashlee Piper is a crazy person, but it was a real transitional moment, but I just knew if I didn’t leave then, I might not ever. That’s kind of how I felt. It was sort of like I’ve got to jump from this boat. I just need to.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, I’m so tracking with that. I want to make sure I get this right. You had this season of wandering and wondering and exploring, and it really teased out where you didn’t want to work, even though making your passion for sustainability is not necessarily a full-time job. So you’ve gotten another job right now that you're showing up at. You've got a roof over your head. You can travel, and you can still, then, have the flexibility to get the word out about and contribute to the conversation of sustainability. Am I tracking this accurately?
Ashlee Piper: Yeah, I actually have a director-level career that I cultivate on the side -- or not on the side. That is my day job, basically. I’m to the point, also, to be fully transparent, where I’m not able -- both things have become big enough that I’m gonna have to make some kind of decision at some point, but I’m also trying to (being a very type-A person) take some of the pressure off of myself. Is it working? No! Not at all, but at least I’m trying to flow with life a little bit better [Laughs] and not feel like I solely have to control everything.
Rebecca Ching: Oof, yes.
Ashlee Piper: So I’m trying to chill on it, girl, you know? I’m trying to just chill on it a little bit.
Rebecca Ching: You're at an interesting place, then, right now where you’ve got one area of your life that’s working and another area of your life that’s working, but there’s not enough hours in the day to do them both. You’re at this interesting place where something’s gotta give, so I’m excited to see, in the future, how this unfurls for you. I’m probably more excited than you are ‘cause you’re living it now. [Laughs]
Ashlee Piper: [Laughs] Well, I think a lot of people feel like that, especially now with the pandemic.
Rebecca Ching: Sure!
Ashlee Piper: I mean, I just feel like it’s easy to feel like nothing in our lives is working right now because it’s just been such a strange time. So thank you for saying that. That’s very nice to hear that you are excited. That’s really nice.
Rebecca Ching: No, but it is. It’s one of those places where it’s gonna get really uncomfortable with a lot of things that you're good at and that you care about, and something else good’s gonna come of that, but it’s gonna take another leap for you. I know there’s gonna be something really great on the other side, and I’ll be cheering you on in the in between, no doubt.
Ashlee Piper: Oh, my god, I’m hugging you right now. You're such a sweetheart. You are.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] Well, I work with a lot of leaders who anticipate this. They're like oh, gosh, I can't sustain as I’m at with all of these things, but if I give up one, then they start to run all the trap shoots and doesn't seem to fit and they don't know the future for sure. And so, there’s just gonna be a point to go okay, I’ve gotta just make a decision, an informed decision, and take that leap. It’s not a fairytale. It’s not linear. You’ve already had round one of this, and so, your round two is gonna come up, but you have more data, more experience, and a bigger platform in this.
I want to get into your book. Before I do, I’d love to hear how your previous work working in politics helps inform your work in the sustainability space.
Ashlee Piper: Yeah, I think working in politics is extremely beneficial for anyone. [Laughs] There are so many things that you're exposed to when you work in politics or even in public policy that you don’t get exposed to as much as in other areas. I’ve worked in corporations, startups, non-profits, governments, and I feel like being in politics is a very unique community and a unique universe and a unique experience.
I think being in politics at the beginning of my career made me, not impervious to misogyny or anything like that, but definitely made me more exposed to something that very much is still an old boys’ club --
Rebecca Ching: Yup.
Ashlee Piper: -- and made me realize that I actually have a lot of things at my disposal, and I’m not talking about sexy things or anything like that, but I have tools in my toolbox that help me to navigate in a world of people who don’t think like I do, they don't come from the same kinds of backgrounds, and they don’t share the same values or beliefs that I do. I think actually working in politics has helped me to feel confident going into almost any kind of interpersonal or social situation and being able to navigate it and being able to at least, maybe not make in-roads with people, but still have a good conversation with someone. And so, I think that’s really important. That’s, like, a skillset that, again, I think with where culture is going as well with what we were talking about grace and stuff, being able to have a conversation with someone where you're not just tolerating them but you're actually really hearing them is a lost art in a way.
Rebecca Ching: Yes!
Ashlee Piper: I think it is a really key ingredient in bringing people to the table around sustainability or around any other kind of issue. And so, that was something that early on I think political exposure really helped me with that. It also helped me to see that stuff doesn't happen overnight, you know? Activism is beautiful and it’s important, and I think sometimes activists lose sight of the fact that changing something politically, and I say this as someone who worked on universal healthcare, moving from private payer systems to one that is more socialized medicine, it is not like flipping on a lightswitch; it’s like turning a frickin’ cruise ship around.
It takes a long time to dismantle things that are institutionalized, that are systemically established. And so, that’s not to say we shouldn’t take really proactive steps to do that, but we also need to be realistic about how long it takes. So even some of the most progressive politicians, people will get very disenchanted with them and be like it’s not happening fast enough. It’s like y’all know how the senate works? It takes a while to get shit done! Is that the way the system should be? No! It’s not an ideal situation, but I think people have this idea that politics should be a choose-your-own adventure game or something. Like you should get the exact thing you want from the candidate, and that person exactly resonates with your entire individual values system, and that’s not how life works, that’s not how the world works. That doesn't mean we shouldnt be moving towards something that is more just overall, but I think having the understanding when I was young and kind of wide-eyed and very idealistic was helpful for me to see how you can navigate that system to at least expedite some kinds of positive changes and also how to liaise with the right people so that you can make those changes.
So yeah, I think politics taught me a lot about the world and about human nature and about the system itself, but also about how to bring people kinda into the fold to make them feel listened to and welcomed.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, I mean, I was fortunate. I really credit my time in DC that taught me a lot of those lessons even though I think my hubris and spiciness over-rode those important lessons and maybe still do.
Ashlee Piper: [Laughs] You think? Mm!
Rebecca Ching: Oh, the red hair gets redder at times.
Ashlee Piper: I love it!
Rebecca Ching: I mean, I remember seeing my old boss, they were debating something so fiercely on the floor, and I’m like, “They’re the enemy and we kicked his butt,” and then I saw them laughing it up and making plans for dinner or getting together on the weekend, and I’m like, “How can you?” He’s like, “What do you mean? We’re debating the issue. Our kids went to school together. He’s a good guy.”
I’m like, “But he believes this, and he votes for this, and this is the antithesis of what you stand against.” He’s like, “Yeah, and we’ll work it out.” There was moment after moment of that. I’d see in the elevator conversations or working with the staff of other members of Congress who I was like oh, you're the enemy, and I’d get this if I associate with anyone who thinks differently, then I am a hypocrite.
Ashlee Piper: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: Something about that had got in my belief system early on, and then I started realizing these are human beings, and I started to recognize the quality of staff. I could tell the kind of leader a member of Congress was based on the interactions I had with their staff. I found, often, that some of the members of Congress who I was so, gosh, just so on the other side of viewpoints -- opposing viewpoints, but they were good people. I could just tell, again, how -- and I noticed working from the White House all the way down to local governments, and it was something I’ve really taken away, that there’s this “we all have to be in this echo chamber and you can't associate with the enemy,” and we look at where that’s at right now, and it is destroying so much, and we’re holding onto fighting for democracy and fighting for families and fighting for navigating community. There’s a lot at stake, and so, I do appreciate that. There's still such a pull like why are you talking to them and those people, and so, I try to intentionally be in situations, even though I confess, after this last year I told my husband, I said, “I don’t want to, but I try and be around folks who have different ways of seeing and doing life,” ‘cause I feel energized by that, but after this last year I’m a little tired.
Ashlee Piper: [Laughs] It’s understandable, my friend. You are allowed to be tired.
Rebecca Ching: I was like okay, I’m a little tired. [Laughs]
Ashlee Piper: [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: Tired for the nuance. Sometimes I’m like did you check your source on that issue? Really?
Ashlee Piper: Mm-hmm!
Rebecca Ching: I don't want to be nice to you right now, but I know I need to be.
Ashlee Piper: Yes.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] You know, I want to just go, “Idiot,” and say those things in my head, and then I’m like no, that’s not who I want to be.
Ashlee Piper: Right.
Rebecca Ching: But it feels even more exhausting than it was back in the ‘90s working in DC to hold space for that. These days it just is -- I guess ‘cause I feel like the stakes are higher, I’m in a different season of life, but also, it feels a lot more serious. I appreciate you walking through how your experience working in politics serves you, and honestly, I say this to my kids, I say, “I want you to do an internship in DC at minimum, and I want you to live abroad, if you can, at minimum.” So the chance of living abroad, seeing our country from the outside in, those are big values that have shaped who I am and how I see and, to the world, how I parent so much
And so, I want to shift, now, to talking about your book, and I get to swear!
Ashlee Piper: Yay! Swear!
Rebecca Ching: I get to swear, ‘cause it’s called Give A Sh*t: Do Good. Live Better. Save The Planet. So it is funny. I was telling you this. It is funny, and it’s so smart, and I was just so sucked in with your storytelling and having been on this journey of dabbling in and out with sustainability and trying to do the things not just on a micro level, but to have someone that actually, as our family, can make a bigger impact. I wish I had your book when I was starting this journey. The original intent of this book and how it shifted after the results of the 2016 election came in, and so, I’d love for you to share about that. What were the stakes if you didn't shift how you wrote your book or how did you see those stakes shift?
Ashlee Piper: Yeah, I had secured a literary agent back in, gosh, like, 2014 or something, and, at the time, I wanted to write a book around stylish vegan living. So with a focus on sustainability but definitely more focused on ethical veganism. We went to publishers with the proposal and had it all fleshed out. At the time, there was an editor at Simon and Schuster who was interested in the book. When you go through the book process, you have editors. It’s kind of like dating in a way. We were having our first chat, and this editor was like, “You know, as I was reading this, I just feel like it should be called, like, Give A Shit or something, ‘cause that’s what it made me want to do.”
That kinda stuck with me, and then it came time for these various editors and publishers to bid on the book, and this was, at this point, in 2015, and there’s a day set and a time set when they’re all supposed to have their bids in, and my agent called me and she was like, “I’ve got bad news. Nobody bid on it.” I was like, “What?!” I was devastated because I just had really gassed myself up for this is it, I’m gonna write this book, this is all gonna happen. I talk about this a lot in podcasts when people ask about the book-writing process, because I think people have this misconception -- not you -- but people have this misconception that you’re on Instagram, and a publisher finds you and says, “You! I want you to write a book!”
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Ashlee Piper: It’s not like that at all. It actually can be really challenging in a way. Nobody comes out of the womb knowing how the publishing world works, and so, even if you have an agent who’s great like mine, you're still sort of like this stuff can happen.
So I was pretty devastated. It turned out that particular editor at Simon and Schuster had accepted a different job right around the same time the bid was happening, and she ended up moving out of publishing totally, otherwise she would have bid on the book.
So I took some time with my tail between my legs a little bit and just was feeling my feelings, and I really wondered should I even be trying to do this? Should I be doing sustainability stuff at all? It doesn't seem to be sticking. You know how you have one setback and it can really feel monumental. You just, like, take a pause. So I basically took a pause for that whole summer and just enjoyed myself. I didn’t put these pressures of having to secure TV segments and write for different outlets, I just did my job, my day job and partied with friends and enjoyed myself, and I think that was actually helpful.
Then, the election happened, and Trump was elected, and I was very actively not into that result, you know what I’m saying? I felt pretty downtrodden by that and pretty energized, actually, activism-wise. I was going to a lot of peaceful protests and things like The Women’s March, all that stuff. My agent wrote me, and she was like, “Listen, I know that it felt like a big setback, but I think now is really the time. I think having a climate-change-denying president in office, this is now, more than ever, when people need to feel reinvigorated with some hope about their personal decisions.”
And so, I took a little bit to think about it, and then I was like yeah, why not. So we retooled the proposal entirely to have the book really focus on sustainability because I do feel veganism can be polarizing. It can feel exclusive and exclusionary, and I didn't want that, but I definitely have the veganism factor prominently as something people can embrace in whatever degree they desire in the book because it is still a solution or a strategy, I should say. Yeah, we did the same process over again, and it was received wildly differently. I don't know if it was because the zeitgeist of Trump being in office had really energized people to care more about sustainability.
I don't know if it was because of the different changes we made to the proposal. I don't know if it was because it felt less high-stakes to me because I had already failed before, you know? So I was kind of like eh, what the fuck. It’s fine. I could fail again. And so, it ended up being awesome, and we had multiple publishers interested, and I remember the publisher I went with was Trisha at Running Press, and the first call I had with them, my editor Jess was like, “Ashlee Piper, I’m so ready to give a shit!” I just thought you know when you go on a date and you're like this could be something great? That’s exactly how I felt.
I wrote the book at kind of a break-neck pace because I did want it to come out not at a specific holiday or earth month or any of that stuff, but I did want it to come out at a time where people who were feeling pretty apathetic about the political climate in the US could pick it up and be like okay, here are some things I could do, could actually feel like it was fun and actionable and, through that, feel a little bit more reinvigorated to take some positive steps. So that’s kinda the trajectory of the book from failure to here’s the book. [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: You know, I never tire of hearing those stories around failing, feeling the devastation of a failure, and then -- you know, people could go, “Oh, I’m never trying again. I can’t feel that feeling,” versus, “Well, I already crashed and burned. We’ll give it a shot. We’ll see,” and it feeling different in the round two, three, four or whatever it may be, and just redefining your relationship with failure after just that first kind of, you know, heart break, that rejection. [Laughs]
Ashlee Piper: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: And so, thank you for sharing that. I think that’s something that a lot of people will relate to. At the beginning of your book, you write: “And this is why I’m here writing this book. Not just because I believe that everyone is capable of making small shifts that can encourage powerful change, but also because much of the guidance out there can be so darn preachy, crunchy as hell, in a way that scares people, even me. Straight up judgemental or simply not relatable. Not all of us have ten hours to mill their own flour.”
Oh, my gosh, okay. So I was laughing out loud reading that, and my husband’s like, “What?” You know, “What are you laughing at?” I was reading your book prepping for this, and I shared the quote with him, and he’s like, “Well, you were trying to mill your own flour.” I’m like, “I know!” While I was working full time, and a newborn on my hip, and I was like I can’t do it all.
Ashlee Piper: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: There was this element of even feeling not enough, like a shame. There was a part of me that was like, “Well, I’m gonna one-up you. I will do it,” and then I was like, “No, I can’t. I’m tired.”
Ashlee Piper: Yeah!
Rebecca Ching: “I’m really, really tired.” What are some examples from your perspective on the guidance that you saw out there around sustainability that felt particularly preachy, crunchy, or judgy, again, from your lens?
Ashlee Piper: I mean, I think just judgey from the standpoint of the same thing we were talking about. Like, a complete lack of social grace around -- you know, not all of us were raised by hippies who cared about this stuff. So just by virtue of that, not all of us grew up caring about this stuff. It might be newer to us or uncharted territory for us as adults, and I think that’s okay. So there’s some element of that. I feel like a lot of the -- and this isn't to shade any of the books out there, the guidance out there, ‘cause there are a lot of really good guides, and to different aspects of sustainability, be it zero waste or vegan cooking or gardening or minimalism. There are a lot of good guides to that kind of stuff.
I felt like, for instance, bulk shopping and buying package-free, it is super awesome if you live near something like that. If you don’t, it’s really difficult, and I think it’s wonderful as a suggestion. I certainly suggest it and try to do it as much as possible. We’ve even seen, with the pandemic, right, like, forget about it.
Places in Chicago, at least, where you can do a lot of that stuff largely won’t let you bring your own stuff which defeats the purpose. A lot of them have been closed, and so, while we’re seeing more and more kinds of places where you can refill things or the farmers’ markets are reopening, that’s not how it is everywhere, and that wasn’t how it was everywhere even before the pandemic. So kind of having that here’s my fridge picture, my pantry picture, and it’s all things beautifully in glass and it’s all very purist.
Rebecca Ching: Totally.
Ashlee Piper: It’s like well, that’s beautiful and that is inspiring, but that is not something that I do. I mean, you look in my fridge, there are some things that are in plastic, you know? There are some things that are in glass. It’s like whatever, and, you know, I think we see a lot of that with people who have the trash jar, and that’s kinda gotten overly-villainized I think. I know Bia and Lauren Singer, and they're really nice people who are doing good things in the world. They also happen to be aspirationally collecting five or seven years of trash in one mason jar. I wish I could do that. I’ve tried it. I’m shit at that. I can’t do it. I create more trash than that, and that’s just the truth.
And so, I think people see examples and they think, “Well, I can’t do that, so I shouldn't even try,” and I hate that that’s the residual impact that what’s supposed to be inspiring is actually having on some people, and it makes them think they can’t measure up so why even bother. So, you know, I wanted to show some imperfect sustainability. I also wanted to show a lot of different strategies ‘cause I really do believe it’s not a one-size-fits-all thing. What works for you isn’t gonna work for me and vice versa, so I wanted to show a lot of different options for people so that no matter their lifestyle, their income, where they live, what they’re aiming to do, they can find strategies and a combination of strategies that work for them.
There are sustainable strategies that I have tried, and they don't work for me, and after years of trying them I kind of decided is it worth my energy to keep trying this one thing or is it better to try something else? For instance, eco-friendly deodorant. Natural deodorant or whatever, it’s a small thing, but I tried for freaking ten years to make that work for me, you know? It just simply never did, and I just kind of realized it’s okay to have a few aspects of your life that aren't completely sustainable. That’s all right.
Rebecca Ching: Okay, you are talking about real stuff here when you're talking about trying to find an eco-friendly deodorant.
Ashlee Piper: [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: My pits have been through hell and back on that journey.
Ashlee Piper: Mm-hmm!
Rebecca Ching: I’m sorry you all are listening to this but TMI. Holy cow. You know, so what I’m thinking is any virtue stops really being virtuous if scarcity is driving it and perfectionism is driving it and fear is driving it.
Ashlee Piper: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: And so, it’s trying and recognizing. We really have a hard time -- but there is something about sustainability that does attract this kind of orthorexic, perfectionistic, scarcity, shame --
Ashlee Piper: What a good way to say it! Yes!
Rebecca Ching: And then that fuels and then hijacks good people wanting to do good things, and then it makes it exhausting and then starts to -- it’s not good for our mental wellbeing. I appreciate you talking about this accessibility, this flexibility. I even hear the perfectionist part of me saying, “But that’s cheating. If you're not all in, then you're not making a difference.” I still have the echoes of that in me, and so, I know other people do too, but I really encourage anyone listening to check out your book because it actually gave me new ideas. It was an invitation, and I think that’s what I feel like how your approach to sustainability, I don't know how you see it, but I see it different than the conventional wisdom out there.
It’s approachable, it doesn't foster scarcity or shame or fear, and it actually gave me tangible ideas that my whole family were like, “Oh, we can do that!” It wasn't like “What’s mom want us to do now?” [Laughs]
Ashlee Piper: Aww.
Rebecca Ching: But they’re like, “That makes sense!” Everyone was kind of drawn to different things. The last section of your book has different things. Everyone had something different, and I’m like oh, wait, they can make their own decisions! I don't have to boss them around and tell them what to be sustainable about. That gave them this menu of just starting to care. So thank you for that.
Is there anything else you would add to how your approach to sustainability is different than conventional wisdom?
Ashlee Piper: Well, firstly, thank you so much ‘cause just hearing that is so lovely to hear that that’s how it landed for you. I really appreciate that.
I think as far as conventional sustainability goes, the one thing that I’m noticing lately that -- I bristle against a little bit is this -- you know, there’s that stat about a handful of corporations who are chiefly responsible for all of the harmful global emissions, and that’s an important stat. Most of those companies are fossil fuel companies. Some are sort of big ag companies that are also intertwined with fossil fuels.
Rebecca Ching: Yes.
Ashlee Piper: But, you know, people will throw this statistic out, and they will throw it out in a way that almost makes it sound like we as individuals are absolved from taking any kind of individual sustainable action, and I hate that [Laughs] personally, because I look at sustainability like I would -- or I look at climate change, for instance, like I would at any other systemic issue, as being something that requires a real compliment of approaches on macro and on micro levels.
And so, I don’t think that acknowledge -- I think yes, corporate regulation, yes, policy changes, yes, industrial governmental changes for sure, this is my macro hand. Then, yes, us making small, sustainable shifts in our own lives. I believe that because I just feel like we are these corporations. Whether directly or indirectly, our consumption habits are still creating the business, the profits, the demand, and so, to just write something off as being an industry problem or government problem or policy problem seems really, to be honest, kind of immature to me. Like, you don't actually have a real view of how the world works. You can push for systemic change and also be changing yourself as well. I look at that as anything.
Obviously, this summer has especially brought the racial tensions and inequities in our country and in our world to the fore, that have always been there, and I think systemic racism is a huge issue that needs a systemic solution. That doesn’t absolve me from educating myself on how to be actively anti-racist. Understanding the history and lived experiences of BIPOC, that doesn't change the responsibility I have as well to make proactive changes and productive changes to be just a better person while also I’m advocating for systemic changes as well.
So, you know, not necessarily to bring other big topics into it, but that’s how I feel about any kind of thing.
Rebecca Ching: Yes!
Ashlee Piper: Maybe that’s my background in politics that’s helped me to see how interconnected all those things are, but I never think, “Oh, it’s just the corporations’ problem.” If you're buying something that’s ever been made with fuel, if you're driving a car, if you're taking a bus, all of it has some kind of indirect feeding back to those companies’ profit and creating that demand for them.
So I always want people to remember they are individually powerful because all good activism starts at an individual level and then rolls up to the collective. I think when we lose sight of our individual power, that's when we lose steam in this movement, and I know it can be hard not to feel apathetic or hopeless, but we really are extremely powerful and can just make positive changes when it’s just us.
Rebecca Ching: I love it. I want to wrap up talking about sustainability in leadership. I’m curious, from your perspective, what does a leader do and say who truly cares about sustainability in both action and words?
Ashlee Piper: Well, I think I could be a lot better at this. I don't necessarily think I’m a leader in sustainability, but being understanding is, I think, a really key ingredient. It’s an important ingredient. It ties back to a lot of what we’ve talked about because being understanding and being open to evolving and open to other viewpoints and hearing those and other strategies, I think, is actually what makes anyone a good leader no matter what you’re doing. Being a little less rigid, even though I think rigidity a lot of times is kind of a quality that’s associated with a good, strong leader. It’s like an unflinching rigid leader. I actually think being slightly open to being malleable around some of these beliefs that I’m not pearl-clutching about some strongly-held belief, I’m open to data changing my mind if it’s compelling enough. I’m open to trying new strategies. I’m open to personally evolving as the world evolves and as the world’s needs evolve, as this movement changes.
And so, I think being somewhat open and understanding and being willing to listen and hear other things and try other things, having that healthy curiosity is important, and showing people that you have that, I think, allows people to feel okay with being changeable, imperfect, trying and failing things. It just creates that kind of humanness, that comfort level whereby people feel like, “Okay, I can give this a whirl. I’m not gonna get judged if I can’t put all my trash in a jar or if I still eat a chicken breast,” or, you know, whatever.
Rebecca Ching: So what do you say to those who say sustainability practices are too expensive or too time consuming?
Ashlee Piper: I mean, I think that’s also a matter of opinion. Statistically, it’s not [Laughs] more expensive or more time consuming. I think what’s expensive and what’s time consuming -- and we have heard data on this through The Department of Labor -- is our current obsession in Western and, especially, American consumer culture. That is what is extremely expensive and extremely time consuming. So I do feel like wrangling our spending and having less stuff is just better for the environment but better for our psyches, better for our wallets.
If we’re talking about food, dried beans, legumes, and rice are some of the cheapest foods on the planet. Does everyone have access to those? No. Are food deserts real? Absolutely. Do people have disordered eating patterns that need to be attended to? Yes, absolutely. So it’s not for everybody, but on face, eating a whole foods, plant-based diet is not more expensive than the standard American diet if you're doing it in a way whereby you're getting the dried, more pantry-style items and you're getting them unpackaged? No, that’s simply not supported by a lot of the data.
It’s expensive if you're buying all the cool, newfangled plant-based products that are out there, sure, but even still, buying an Impossible burger is less nowadays than it is to buy a 90/10 ground beef of the same weight.
So I don’t necessarily think that plant-based eating has to be expensive. It’s how you kind of approach it and also what you have access to, but living sustainably does not have to be expensive and does not have to take a lot of time. If anything, I feel like I’ve saved time because I simply don't do a lot of the things that I used to do when I wasn't living in this way. I don't shop as recreation. I don’t have 70 different cleaners for 70 different things in my home. I don't have a ton of stuff that I have to clean all the time or tend to. It’s kind of freeing in a way. There’s an unburdening, if you will, to living in this way. So I’ve found my personal journey has been one of joy and adventure in the exploration and myriad benefits to my health, my mental health, my relationships, my finances, everything. So I wouldn't be aspousing this as a lifestyle if I wasn't getting a lot of other benefits from it as well.
Rebecca Ching: This was such a fun conversation, Ashlee. I feel like I could keep talking to you, and I hope we do stay connected.
Ashlee Piper: Same!
Rebecca Ching: This was really fun. Where can people find you if they want to connect with you and learn more about your work?
Ashlee Piper: My Instagram, I’m particularly active there. It’s @ashleepiper and then my website is ashleepiper.com, so those are two places where people can find me.
Rebecca Ching: And your book, again, titled Give A Sh*t. It’s the title. My daughter is like, “Can I say it?” I’m like, “Ahh!” She was like all excited that I’m saying this live. Give A Sh*t: Do Good. Live Better. Save The Planet. Add it to your queue. It’s definitely worth it. You even addressed how you printed that book, too. You printed that with a lot of sustainable practices in mind which is cool.
Ashlee Piper: Yep.
Rebecca Ching: Thank you so much for your time, Ashlee.
Ashlee Piper: Thank you!
Rebecca Ching: I am really, really grateful to get to know you, and I appreciate your time today. This was a delight, and thank you so much for your leadership in these issues. It is making a difference, so thanks so much.
Ashlee Piper: Oh, my gosh. Mwah! Right back at you. Thank you for a great time.
Rebecca Ching: When we overthink sustainability, we’re usually letting perfectionism get the better of us. The fear of being misunderstood or criticized if we do something wrong is where perfectionism has a party, but when we focus more on creating change instead of criticizing ourselves or others, we are freed up to get creative about our sustainability practices and modeling this for others. Ashlee taught us that key components of her approach to sustainability are grounded in accessibility, practicality, and relationship. She shared from her own lived experience how perfection can turn striving to make a positive impact into dogma and disconnection.
Now, where do you want to grow your impact around sustainability issues? Where may perfectionism and fear of failure keep you from starting to live more sustainably? What is your next best step to take as you seek to live more sustainably? The title of Ashlee’s book on sustainability, Give A Sh*t: Do Good. Live Better. Save The Planet is more than a catchy title; it is a powerful call to action for all of us right now. Dare to care and dare to do the work to make sure perfectionism does not hijack your power to make important decisions and changes that are needed right now.
[Inspirational Music Interlude]
Leading is hard, and leading is also controversial as you navigate staying aligned to your values, your mission, your boundaries. Navigating the inevitable controversy can challenge your confidence, clarity, and calm. You don’t mind making the hard risk, but sometimes the stakes seem higher and can bring up echoes of old doubts and insecurities during times when you need to feel rock solid on your plan and action.
Finding a coach who gets the nuances of your business and leading in our complex and polarized world can help you identify the blocks that keep you playing at safe and small.
Leading today is not a fancy title or fluffy bragging rights, it is brave and bold work to stay the course when the future is so unknown and the doubts and pains from the past keep showing up to shake things up. Internal emotional practices and systemic strategies are needed to keep the protector of cynicism at bay and foster a hope that is actionable and aligned.
When the stakes are high and you don't want to lose focus, when you want to navigate inevitable conflict between your ears and with those you lead, when time is of the essence and you want to make hard decisions with confidence and clarity, then Unburdened Leader coaching is for you and where you deepen the capacity to tolerate the vulnerability of change, innovation, and doing things differently than the status quo.
To start your Unburdened Leader coaching process with me go to www.rebeccaching.com and book a free connection call. I can’t wait to hear from you!
Thank you so much for joining this episode of The Unburdened Leader. If it was meaningful to you, I’d be honored if you could help out the show and leave a review and share it with someone you think may benefit from it. You can find this episode, show notes, and free unburdened leader resources, along with ways to work with me, at www.rebeccaching.com.