Community//

Azzedine Downes of the International Fund For Animal Welfare: “Buy local food products whenever you can”

Buy local food products whenever you can. Local produce doesn’t require high transportation costs, carbon emissions, or the same level of chemicals as factory farming. As part of my series about what we must do to inspire the next generation about sustainability and the environment, I had the pleasure of interviewing Azzedine Downes. Azzedine Downes is […]

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres on our open platform. We publish pieces as written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team and must meet our guidelines prior to being published.

Buy local food products whenever you can. Local produce doesn’t require high transportation costs, carbon emissions, or the same level of chemicals as factory farming.


As part of my series about what we must do to inspire the next generation about sustainability and the environment, I had the pleasure of interviewing Azzedine Downes.

Azzedine Downes is the President and CEO of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Downes works closely with experts across the sciences and decision makers worldwide to help animals and people thrive together. A graduate of Providence College and Harvard University, Downes is fluent in Arabic, English, and French.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up (in your younger years)?

I was born in Boston and lived there until I was ten years old. Growing up in a Boston Irish family shaped my identity so much that when I applied to high schools, and they asked for my nationality, I put Irish on the application. I still hold American and Irish citizenship as do my children. It was common in our Boston neighborhood to ask the new kid on the block what nationality they were. They usually said Irish or Italian. When we moved to Vermont, I met kids in the neighborhood who thought my question was odd and I thought their answer, “I’m American” or “I don’t know” was strange. Having a heavy Boston accent meant that kids in school would ask me if I was from London which would have caused consternation at home given “the troubles” in Ireland. The great thing about living in a rural area in those days was that I spent every moment I could outside in the woods. I rode horses in the summer and skied in the winter, two things I still love to do whenever I can!

Was there an “aha moment” or a specific trigger that made you decide you wanted to become a scientist or environmental leader? Can you share that story with us?

I don’t think there was one moment but it was really a journey living in parts of the world where everyday life was interrupted by the realities of the impact we had on the environment. When you live in a part of the world where you were not worried about how much water was available or how the land was able to support life, it was easy to ignore the signs that something was very wrong. When I lived in the city of Fes, Morocco, I spent a good deal of time filling buckets of water every morning so that I would have water for the day. We only had access to water 2 hours a day. In living in Yemen years later, access to, and use of, water was a constant source of civil strife. The destruction of fruit trees to plant Qat trees which consumed massive amounts of water and provided no nutritional value astounded me. The economic value of those trees far outweighed the value of the environment even if it led to inability of people to stay alive. Years later, living in Jerusalem and traveling down to the Dead Sea was a lesson in how fragile life is and it brought into focus how much wildlife was lost.

Is there a lesson you can take out of your own story that can exemplify what can inspire a young person to become an environmental leader?

You don’t need to overwhelm yourself with saving the world. Inspiration can come from saving a small part of your own world. There is beauty everywhere you look if you take the time to look. Plant a flower that bees like to visit and feel good about yourself for doing it. Don’t feel silly about touching a tree and wondering how it lives. Read, and learn something every day.

Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?

Our organization is now fifty years old and throughout its history, we focused more specifically on the lives of animals. I believe that there was a disconnect between the need to save the life of an individual animal and securing a protected space for that animal, once rescued, in which to live. There was also a notion that our only focus should be animals and that environmental issues were beyond our scope. I disagree and so the work that we have done over the past years has increasingly focused on animals and people thriving together in the place that we call home. Climate change has already shown how it is changing our own work. Warming oceans have caused marine life to move further north in some parts of the world.

If you look at the East Coast of the United States, where there is marine mammal protection legislation in place, whales are moving north into Canadian waters where there is not the same level of protection in place. To adapt to climate change, new legislation needs to be put in place that acknowledges that climate change has already affected life on the planet, and so, that is one area where we focus.

The bushfires in Australia have also highlighted the loss of wildlife habitat and highlights for us the need to restore forests. These forests will give the Koalas saved during the bushfires a place to live, while at the same time saving the environment itself through reforestation.

In climate change mitigation strategies, there is a great deal of focus on carbon emissions, but our strategy is to focus more on carbon sequestration in the soil. Protecting wildlife habitat, and the thriving wildlife populations that live in it, helps keep carbon in the soil. In essence, saving wildlife can help save ourselves.

Can you share 3 lifestyle tweaks that the general public can do to be more sustainable or help address the climate change challenge?

What you buy can have a huge impact on the environment. You needn’t be extreme in all that you do. Start small and think about how you view your own purchases. Do you shop as a form of entertainment or from a true need for something?

Buy fewer clothes just because they are cheap. The impact on the environment is not just about what you bought, it’s about what you and everyone else didn’t buy, that winds up in landfills or is burned.

Buy local food products whenever you can. Local produce doesn’t require high transportation costs, carbon emissions, or the same level of chemicals as factory farming.

Read the labels on food products that you buy. The more chemicals you see listed, the worse it is for you and for the environment.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious?

Most companies are driven by profit alone, rarely by a real mission to improve the environment. The companies that are founded with an environmental mission, or by people who have a desire to do something good and make a living by doing it, face the challenge of growing the business. With growth of an enterprise, it becomes more difficult to maintain a corporate mission-driven culture amongst all employees. Growth may also attract investment that is not well aligned with an environmentally conscious company. My advice to socially responsible business leaders is to not strive to be a billion-dollar industry; you will be lost. For consumers, buy from small business owners who share your passion.

Can you share a story or example?

I don’t want to be overly critical of any one business, but look at the example of Whole Foods being bought by Amazon and the impact that it has had on the original mission. I am not sure mega corporate structures can sustain the ethos of a small mission-driven business.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I think the best career advice I ever got came from Ambassador Robert Dillion, now 92 years old, who sat me down for a quick chat before I left for my new post in Jerusalem. There was no formal agenda to the chat and we covered a number of work-related issues, but the one piece of advice he gave me that has always stuck in my mind was, “don’t feel like you have to solve every problem the moment you arrive, spend time to listen first.” That piece of advice has stayed with me over many years. I have tried to practice it when dealing with very difficult issues across cultures and languages. It costs you nothing to be respectful and listen. I learned later, when witnessing a marine snap to attention, that Ambassador Dillon survived the 1983 embassy bombing in Lebanon and, despite his own harrowing experience, dug through the bombing rubble to save the lives of marines. This was a person to be listened to and his advice has served me well in diffusing heated arguments over policies, strategies and personal relationships in the world of conservation.

You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Plant a garden, however small, and watch life unfold before you. Learn to share the planet with every life form that you see in your garden, even it’s a box-sized garden. You may be angry when a rabbit eats your flowers, but think about the people that you ask that share their space with a lion who could eat them.

Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?

Khalil Gibran, “You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.” The problems we face will outlive us. There is so much to learn from children if you believe that you are not, alone, the teacher.

What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?

I share personal and professional stories on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Twitter: @AzzedineTDownes

Instagram: @azzedinedownes

Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

You might also like...

Community//

FemmeQ on Feminine Intelligence & Wisdom in Action

by Nathalie Virem
Community//

“Education.” With Sameer Malhotra

by Chef Vicky Colas
Community//

Jeffrey Beri of No Dogs Left Behind: “Education ”

by Penny Bauder, Founder of Green Kid Crafts
We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.