- Ashlee Piper was a political strategist before building a career in the sustainable-living space.
- The author, professor, and speaker now educates people on how to be eco-conscious consumers.
- This article is part of “Better Me,” a series about improving your lifestyle and helping society through sustainable efforts and eco-consciousness.
In 2013, Ashlee Piper, a sustainable-living expert, pushed herself far beyond her limits. After reorienting her career from political strategy to climate-focused pursuits, she refused to buy anything new for an entire year. She instead purchased items secondhand, borrowed from friends and neighborhood groups, and repurposed products she already owned. This personal action became an initiative called the #NoNewThings challenge, which she launched on her platform.
Piper has since encouraged others to live more sustainably and be conscious consumers through her work as a writer, consultant, speaker, and adjunct professor teaching marketing for environmental sustainability at Loyola University Chicago.
The “Give a Sh*t: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet.” author spoke with Insider about how she developed a profession in the sustainable-living space, what people could do to buy fewer new items, and the best ways to fashion a suitable eco-friendly lifestyle.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did you become interested in eco-conscious living and start using your platform to educate others about it?
I was a political strategist for a decade, and I was working on campaigns that were centered around public health and human rights. The environment was never something that was top of mind at that time for politicians. In my personal life, I had become vegetarian, and later vegan. That was kind of my gateway drug into sustainability because I saw the interconnectedness between human rights, animal rights, global inequities, and how we live well and be good stewards of the planet.
That’s what started me on my eco journey. I thought if I could show people how easy it can be to live sustainably, wherever you are with whatever resources you have, and make it feel inclusive and fun, then people might be more interested in it.
From that point, I left political strategy and started blazing my own trail, writing for different publications and eventually doing television appearances to talk about sustainable living. Then, in 2018, my book came out — it’s kind of a choose-your-own-adventure book for eco-friendly living — and things further developed from there.
If someone came to you and said, “Ashlee, I want to learn how to buy nothing or spend lightly,” where would you tell them to start?
I recommend people make what I call a “need note.” What are the things you’re going to need for the next month? Forecasting what you’ll need gives you clarity and a plan, because my challenge doesn’t include not buying groceries and things like that — you can do all that. It’s about not buying new clothes, home items, supplies, knickknacks. The challenge encourages people to find other ways to acquire that type of stuff.
People should also look at their triggers. Any time you feel tempted to buy something, write it down and write the cost of it, or put it in a cart but don’t buy it. Then wait a day and see if you’re still interested in buying it. That’s one of the biggest exercises: understanding how you shop and what compels you to shop.
What prevents people from thinking like a conscious consumer?
People don’t realize how robust marketing is. I’ve had a career in marketing, so I’ve had an inside view into how the sausage is made. With the internet, social media, push notifications, we can get 50 impressions a day from just one retailer. We’ve become much more steeped in a culture that tells us we’re not enough unless we buy things. So it’s about understanding what situations get you in that place where you’re going to buy things and then developing restraint as a habit.
There are little things you can do, like removing your credit-card information off your phone or off of sites so that you’re not automatically buying things. You can unsubscribe from emails, and you can unfollow or mute influencers who make you want to buy stuff. In giving yourself a pause from buying, your brain will become rewired. You’ll stop associating stuff with recreation.
That’s a good idea. I should go through some retail sites that I frequently shop on and remove my credit-card information. But, see, my problem is that I have my card info memorized.
Oh, wow, that’s memorization.
Obviously, it’s not in my favor when it comes to reducing my shopping habits, though.
But there’s nothing wrong with however you want to shop and acquire things in your life. I also buy new stuff. But I’ve found that my desire to buy stuff has naturally diminished because I get more joy from finding things secondhand, figuring out how I can repurpose items, or borrowing something from someone. Those things have replaced what used to be my Achilles’ heel, which would be going to T.J. Maxx and browsing for six hours.
It sounds like one of the ingredients to the secret sauce is finding new joys in sustainable spending.
Yes, and they abound. I didn’t realize how much time I spent shopping in my life, but when I did my year of no new things, I had a lot more time. I had more time to put together a book proposal. I had time to work my ass off and get a promotion at work. My friendships got better because there was more quality time spent having good conversations, and I got healthier.
The first two months, I was like, “This sucks, and I don’t know why I’m doing this.” But I slowly started to see all these benefits. It enriched everything in my life, and I saved a lot of money, too.
What barriers to eco-conscious living have you noticed?
The biggest challenge for me early on was that it had a very — and I’m, like, the whitest person alive — whitewashed standard of perfection. We’re seeing a more diverse representation of sustainable living, which is great, but it wasn’t always like that. For a long time, I think a lot of people felt like if they couldn’t keep all their trash in a jar, or whatever the sustainable habit du jour was, they’re not welcome in this movement.
The perfectionism and purity of it is hard for some people, and that’s gotten harder with social media because everything is glossy and beautiful. People have these gorgeous minimalist homes. Meanwhile, my vintage apartment looks like shit sometimes.
The other thing is, we’ve been fed this narrative that we, as individuals, are not powerful. We absolutely need industry regulation and government policy change. But we’ve kind of forgotten the power of individuals and how that can lead to collective movements. That’s why I focus a lot on personal habits when it comes to sustainability and education.
What advice would you give to anyone who might feel eco-guilt if they fall short of clean-living goals?
We all feel eco-guilt, even those of us who are sustainability experts who’ve been doing this for a long time. We are humans. We are fallible. There’s tons of stuff that logistically, situationally, emotionally, financially, we are not able to do at a certain point in time. Giving yourself grace is one of the most important things you can do to keep going. My sustainable journey 10 years ago is very different than it is now. It evolves with my lifestyle, and other people have to go through that as well. It should be a journey of joy. I really believe that.
‘Better Me’ tips for sustainable living
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