Adria Vasil, ecoholic-environmentalist-human rights advocate-game changer

Hear the latest podcast with this Kickass Canadian.
Recorded: August 7, 2013

“We’re never disconnected from the environment... We’re all part of nature. The products that we bring into our homes and put onto our shelves make pollution personal, and they bring pollution into our bodies.”

People often ask me what makes a Kickass Canadian. I’m always looking for inspiring people. But another common thread is that everyone on this website takes action when they see something they want to change or give a voice to.

By that definition, Adria Vasil personifies Kickass Canadian. This is a woman who sees injustice—to each other, ourselves, our planet—and sets out to fix it.

Adria is a strong advocate for women’s rights and social justice. But she’s best known for her environmental work. As writer of NOW Magazine’s advice column Ecoholic since 2004, she’s appeared on nearly every TV and radio station in the country, including CTV, Global, CBC, MTV Canada and MuchMusic, promoting green living with humour and eloquence. Her column has been warmly embraced by readers and critics alike. It’s also led to a fantastic series of books, all proudly published by Random House of Canada. So far, there’s Ecoholic (2007), Ecoholic Home (2009) and the just-released Ecoholic Body.

Adria’s fine writing has made her the go-to resource on green living in Canada. She tells tales of where to shop, what to buy and how to do it yourself, tossing in her trademark spark and wit wherever she can. Or, in the words of Josh Snider, my friend, ardent Adria fan, and Manager, Communications at The Natural Step Canada:

“She’s great because she brings really well researched, sustainable decision-making information to a wide audience, in a super digestible language, size and format. Her writing is frank, funny and incredibly practical. She’s a walking primer on how to make the most sustainable choices in our everyday lives. Adria got me to change so many purchasing decisions and behaviours, from my deodorant, soap, shampoo, toothpaste and household cleaners, to what I eat. She’s amazing.”

After researching Adria and the Ecoholic lifestyle for a work project, I was keen to learn more and discover just what it takes to grow someone so kickass on our own turf.

Strong roots

Adria was born in Montreal, Quebec to a French-Canadian mother, Francine, and Greek-Canadian father, Peter. She’s the third of four children, all of whom went on to become “health nuts.” Nick became a holistic nutritionist and chartered herbalist; Lisa is a family physician with a passion for holistic health; and younger brother Mark is an educator for Whole Foods Market.

Adria’s parents started out on the right foot. With her first two siblings, she says, they were pretty strict about feeding them only healthy, preservative-free food. But by the time they were on to their last two kids, “it was a bit of a free-for-all in terms of diet.”

Compounding matters, when Adria was five, the Vasils opened a fast food restaurant in Shawinigan, Quebec, a town known for its factories and chemical plants. “My elementary school was almost across the street from paint plants, and five minutes away from an aluminum refinery,” says Adria. “There was a lot of mercury emission back then from nearby pulp and paper mills.”

The family also ate a lot of processed food—Velveeta cheese, Cap’n Crunch cereal, canned beef ravioli. “Not exactly the quintessential Ecoholic upbringing,” says Adria.

But then her father’s doctor told him he’d be dead by 40 if he didn’t change his diet. So, making it clear that Adria’s discipline and commitment runs in the family, he changed his eating habits overnight, and the rest of the Vasils enjoyed the benefits. They traded in buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken and went back to their Mediterranean roots, enjoying “Greek cooking—lots of vegetables, lots of fish,” says Adria.

Fertile ground

After five years in Shawinigan, the veggie-loving family moved back to Montreal. And that, says Adria, is where she had a real environmental awakening.

“I remember being 12 or 13 when Exxon Valdez happened,” she says. “I remember sitting on the couch with my dad, who always watched the news, and just being horrified by the images of birds drowning in oil from the spill. I think that was the moment where it hit me that there is a world outside my door where things aren’t going rosy and where things are going wrong.”

Around that time, reports about acid rain and growing holes in the ozone layer started getting more prominent. Then the Blue Bin Recycling Program came to her neighbourhood. And then the environmental message came even closer to home for Adria.

“My older brother (Nick) started working for Greenpeace, and he started bringing home all kinds of literature on saving the world,” she says. “That had a big influence on me, and continued to seep into my consciousness.”

Adria credits Nick with leading the family down the green path. She even dedicated Ecoholic Body to his memory, after he passed away while she was writing the book. “He really helped transform all of us into more conscious citizens,” she says. “And he had a lot of chemical and environmental sensitivities, so I think that opened our eyes pretty early on to the fact that these chemicals do a lot more damage below the radar that most of us can’t detect, but that some Canadians are more sensitive to… That’s definitely an underpinning of my understanding of environmental and toxic issues when I write my column.”

Steady nourishment

Adria was 15 when her family moved to Mississauga, Ontario, not far from Toronto. By then, she was already flexing her activist muscles at a number of meetings and protests about environmental and human rights issues.

Moving to a new city also gave her the opportunity to meet people who were doing things “a little differently.” Adria recalls meeting a friend’s mom—the first green consumer she’d ever met—and marveling at her Tom’s of Maine natural toothpaste. “I’d never seen that before,” she says. “I remember going back to my parents place and looking at my own ingredient list in my bathroom and wondering, ‘What are all these chemicals and why is the list so long and why can’t I pronounce any of them and why don’t we use more natural options?’”

Adria announced that she’d use the money she’d earned bussing tables to buy her own natural products at the health food store. And that’s exactly what she did. What’s more, she kept her resolution from that day forward, choosing only natural and organic products for her body. (Admittedly, one of her biggest expenses today is organic food, but it’s a price she’d much rather pay than the alternative.)

Room to grow

Adria never lost sight of the importance of preserving our environment. But even in her teens, she was expanding her horizons beyond environmental issues.

At 16, she became the youngest volunteer at Interim Place women’s shelter, and planned to become a social worker. But after seeing how exhausting the profession was, she decided to try a different kind of social work.

Adria studied political science and cultural anthropology at the University of Toronto. After graduating in 1998, she spent a year working and traveling around the world before taking a job researching labour rights violations for the Maquila Solidarity Network (MSN). “That was the beginning of my research career, which continues today,” says Adria. “I researched corporate practices and abuses… I was also looking at the environmental footprint of some of the products.”

While researching a jeans manufacturing operation in Mexico, she discovered that the chemicals the workers used to dye jeans blue were also turning the nearby river blue. “People couldn’t go home to use that water for their families without getting sick,” says Adria. “I started to kind of branch out then, looking at the ramifications of consumer products and delving into the untold story behind our consumer products.”

Adria was determined to give more voice to corporate social responsibility and the anti-sweatshop movement. But she quickly ran up against stumbling blocks to getting those stories out. “We had so much trouble securing media attention,” she says. “So I just thought, ‘That’s it; I’m going back to school to become a journalist and write about the issues that matter to me.’”

A nurturing environment

Once again, Adria stuck to her guns. She enrolled in a post-graduate journalism program at Ryerson University, and within her first semester, was interning at NOW Magazine. After graduating in 2003, she took a full-time job with the publication and hasn’t looked back.

“I didn’t expect to be a writer,” says Adria. “But I always knew that I would speak out about issues, and I always enjoyed writing. So writing became the format to voice things that I was concerned about. I’m lucky to have this outlet where I can… share what I learn and have people read it and take it in and hopefully apply it to their life. That’s a really great gift.”

When she started at NOW, Adria wrote about a range of issues—the environment, to be sure, but also social justice and corporate sustainability (or, as she says, the lack thereof). Over time, though, Adria started writing more and more about the environment, calling out organizations that were guilty of greenwashing (i.e. selling products that aren’t as green as they claimed).

The column Ecoholic started up in 2004 when NOW owner Alice Klein asked Adria whether she thought it was worth bringing to Toronto a syndicated environmental column she’d seen in the U.S. Adria’s opinion was this: “The column was good, but I thought we could do something that was homegrown, Canadian, and had more of an interesting voice, a little more sass, a little more edge.”

And so Ecoholic was born.

The ideal climate

It was an interesting time to start the column. Adria wrote the first Ecoholic installment in April 2004, the same month she wrote an Earth Day article on the lack of mainstream environmental consciousness across Canada.

“But then it all started to turn around,” she says. “The price of gas started going through the roof and people started talking about all the weird weather across the world and (Al Gore’s documentary) An Inconvenient Truth came out. And then ‘Boom!’ It just started exploding. I saw an explosion of green products on the shelves from one year to the next.”

In spite of the boom, Adria is concerned when she hears that Canadians have become disconnected from the environment in the last few years, due to other pressing concerns such as the economy. That, she says, is a very dangerous message to spread.

“We’re never disconnected from the environment, we’re never disconnected from the world around us, we’re never disconnected from the ecosystem,” she says. “We’re all part of it. We are contributors to it, we are animals in it and we’re all part of nature. The products that we bring into our homes and put onto our shelves make pollution personal, and they bring pollution into our bodies.”

Ecoholic Body

That personal take is exactly why Adria wrote Ecoholic Body. “For me, the book is really all about showing Canadians how pollution is personal,” she says. “It’s not a far-off problem… I wanted to highlight the whole boomerang effect of how the products we use every day are put back into the world—into our water and our air—and they come right back at us to smack us upside the head.”

Ecoholic Body points out all you need to know to green the skin care, fashion, cosmetics and supplements you consume. It includes product reviews, ingredient definitions, DIY recipes and boxed-out tips for living as green as possible. And it couldn’t have been written by a more qualified writer.

Adria is a walking example of green living. She’s a vegetarian (except for the occasional organic fish dish prepared by mom, as long as it’s not an endangered species), favours her big blue cruiser bike or the streetcar for transport, and uses only natural body care products (though she admits it was hard to part with antiperspirant, her last secret toxic product that she snuck on occasion, until she finally pitched it for good a few years ago).

She also personally tested each of the products reviewed in her book. So when she recommends a natural body care product that can replace the toxic ones you’ve been using, you know you can trust her. (You can also be sure you should avoid the Mean 15, her list of toxic ingredients that are included in far too many body care products.)

Spreading seeds

When Adria started writing Ecoholic Body three years ago, she didn’t know its exact release date. But as it turns out, its timing couldn’t be better.

“I feel like we’re at the exact same moment as we were in early 2005,” she says. “People may have gotten distracted from the environment for a few years, but now they’re starting to ask questions about the weird weather across Canada. Also the price of gas has been rising this year and sales of hybrids have gone through the roof. I think we’re at the start of another upwards wave in terms of environmental consciousness.”

Adria is doing everything she can to awaken that consciousness. The more awareness she can spread, the more we as Canadians will put pressure on companies and politicians to make real changes. And that is exactly what’s needed to help get our bodies, and our planet, back on track.

“We’re kind of at an interesting point right now where the federal government is really declaring war on environmentalists and the environment,” she says. “They’re trying to shut down any criticism of their environmental policies, which is really upsetting for anyone who’s involved in the movement, including myself.”

Adria acknowledges that Health Canada has been making progress by declaring a few new chemicals to be officially toxic. But so far, they aren’t taking steps to ban those ingredients, such as antibacterial triclosan, from our shelves.

Adria is convinced that Canadians never stopped caring about the environment; she cites the many advertising campaigns that cry green (whether legitimately or not) as evidence that buyers want to go green. The issue, she feels, is that our collective interest isn’t being expressed in our federal politics. That’s something she expects to change when the next federal election rolls around.

“I think there will be a massive switch come 2014, when Canadians get fed up with the lack of action they’ve seen on the environment,” she says. “We are going to need Canadians to keep stepping up and saying, ‘If you want us to vote for you again, then you’ve gotta do better and purge more from our environment, in terms of pollutants that are out there and in our products.’”

But that’s two years away. In the interim, Adria is doing all she can to present the facts and let people know there are natural alternatives to the harmful toxic products so many of us consume.

“My role is to lead and educate,” she says. “But it’s never to judge. It’s just, ‘Let’s talk about the ideas and let’s talk about what it means.’”

There you have it. Taking action. Inspiring others. Totally Kickass.

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For more on Adria, visit Ecoholic.ca, check out her Ecoholic column, ‘Like’ her Facebook page and follow @ecoholicnation on Twitter. You can also click here to order Adria’s wonderful books.


6 Comments

  1. Catherine jensen says:

    What a great (kickass!) way to celebrate Earth Day! Congratulations on this inspiring story, I look forward to learning and thinking more about these ideas.

  2. kickasscanadians says:

    Thanks Catherine! Adria’s doing amazing things. I have her new book and can’t wait to go through it in detail. Her writing is super fun :-)

  3. Rachelle Mesheau says:

    Great article!!

  4. kickasscanadians says:

    Thanks Rachelle! Keep up the great green work yourself – really excited about the new terra20 stores coming to Ottawa this year :-)

  5. Josh Snider says:

    Great article, Amazing Sage! Adria is a hero and important voice in the sustainability movement. Thank you for helping to bring her story to the masses. I hope all of your readers buy, borrow, or pick-up her books from the library, enjoy a great green read, and make strides to improve the health of their bodies, their homes, and our environment. Adria Vasil? Kickass? You bet!

  6. kickasscanadians says:

    Thanks as always, Josh :-) You’re leading an amazing example yourself, with all the work you do for Ecology Ottawa’s Great Glebe GREEN Garage Sale, among other things… Glad to know you!


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