After a mission trip to Africa where she saw firsthand the devastating effects of a polluted environment, Natalie Kelly knew she wanted to make a difference in people’s lives by helping others achieve a better quality of life and educating and empowering them to make healthy, sustainable living choices. In 2009, she launched Birmingham’s first online, community-oriented, green living resource, mygreenbirmingham.com, which quickly became known as the area’s go-to guide for green living. Soon after, she launched the same concept in Montgomery, and has plans to continue growing these sustainable living initiatives in other areas. Continuing to channel her passion for empowering others, in 2014, Natalie founded Sustain, an environmental strategy and media agency specializing in environmental education and social responsibility, and today, we welcome her as our FACES of Birmingham feature.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Roebuck and have been in Birmingham most of my life. I guess what has kept me here is family and this town being a great place for startups. Birmingham definitely embraces the entrepreneurial spirit.
What inspired you to start My Green Birmingham?
After a trip to Africa a few years ago, I came back to town wanting to change the way I lived. I had spent some time in a community in Uganda that was surrounded by a landfill, and I had this awakening about my impact on the environment, not just in Birmingham, but on the other side of the world. I was all fired up to “go green” (I hate that phrase by the way), and I couldn’t find any local resources to help me in the process. That’s where I got the idea for My Green Birmingham. I figured that if I was looking for the information, others in town were, too. The site launched six years ago, and it’s been a staple of local green living since.
Have you expanded this concept to other areas? What are your future plans?
Yes, we have a website in Montgomery as well—My Green Montgomery. Our plan is to launch our online platform in communities that don’t have a dialogue about sustainability and green living. We want to be the “local guide to green living” throughout Alabama and beyond. You should see a few more websites popping up in the next year.
And how did this evolve into your current venture, Sustain?
It just kind of evolved out of my work in the green space. Sustain is an environmental strategy and media agency dedicated to moving sustainability forward. It was a natural next step to establish the company and further refine my experience in marketing, sales and consulting into a package that worked in my industry. I wanted to get into work beyond the websites, and Sustain has been the perfect platform for that.
If you could suggest three main things for us all to do with regard to greener living, what would they be?
1. Recycle. Seems like a no-brainer, but recycling isn’t easy in Birmingham. There is no reason why anyone should be sending all of their trash to landfills. Recycling should be a way of life in Alabama. Hopefully, we will get there one day, but until then, we should all make a personal commitment to do our part, even if it isn’t as convenient as putting your recyclables on the curb.
2. Conserve resources. Adopting a mindset that is conscious of saving resources, like water and energy, is not only good for the environment, but good for your bank account.
3. Ditch the chemicals. Women consume so many chemicals and toxins through our daily routines … from hairspray to lipstick, cleaning products and some of our favorite foods. It’s important to know what’s in the items that go on and in our bodies. I love the Environmental Working Group’s Consumer Guides. It’s a great place to do research. Be prepared to dump out half of your cosmetic bag when you do … you will be surprised at the chemicals hiding in your favorite lip gloss.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
To trust my gut. My dad always told me that, and it’s never been wrong.
Is there a typical daily checklist in the life of Natalie Kelly?
There probably should be, but no, not really. I am not a checklist kind of person, but there is a rhyme and reason to each day. I usually prioritize my day the night before and go from there. I live by my calendar.
How do you think the South measures up in terms of green living?
Hmmm … we are getting better, for sure. Green living is becoming more of the norm than just a trendy concept marketed to Whole Foods shoppers. Green living is about embracing the local culture, foods, resources … It’s about the environment, but it’s also about smarter, more efficient living, which is something most people are working toward, whether they would label themselves a greenie or not.
What do you see as your biggest challenge in this arena?
I think it is still awareness and, in some cases, accessibility. Not everyone has access to the information and resources to help them make better decisions for the environment. That’s why we’re bringing our website brand to those communities.
What upcoming local event are you most looking forward to?
Actually it’s one of our events—Eco-Wheels. It’s our green car show, and this year it will be at the Summit on June 13. The show is a free, fun, family event featuring the latest hybrid and electric vehicles, plus bikes and scooters. We also have a number of environmental nonprofits that participate in the day with us, as well. It’s a great way to build awareness about alternative transportation. And who doesn’t like oohing and ahhing over a Tesla?!
Favorite beauty product?
Activated charcoal soap from Freedom Soaps. I picked a bar up at Pepper Place Market last year, and now I can’t live without it. It keeps my skin clear without the use of chemicals. Plus it’s made right here in Birmingham by a lovely young lady.
Favorite thing to do on a Saturday night?
It just depends on the Saturday night, I guess. My Saturday nights go from doing laundry to going out for cocktails at the Collins.
Favorite local restaurant?
El Barrio. I could eat Mexican food every day.
What are you listening to these days?
I’ve gotten into podcasts lately. I read an article in Fast Company one day that highlighted some great podcasts by entrepreneurs and business experts, so I’ve started giving them a whirl.
What books are you currently reading?
Unveiling Jesus by Birmingham author Tricia Gunn. It’s an amazing book about grace. A life-changer, for sure.
Name three things you can’t live without, excluding friends, family and faith.
My phone, my laptop and chargers for both devices.
Thanks for inspiring us to live cleaner, Natalie. Find out more about sustainable living and being green by visiting mygreenbirmingham.com.
And thank you to Beth Hontzas for today’s beautiful photos. See more of Beth’s work at bethhontzas.com.