Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Finding Sustainable Household Items While Staying Within Your Means

By Melinda Briana Epler,
One Green Generation

As many of you know, Matt and I moved into a new home in downtown Seattle. With moving, of course, comes some amount of redesigning your home based on the new space, and replacing items that don't quite work with your new lifestyle.

We don't have much money, and we are trying to keep to a very low impact on the earth - in fact our goal is to have a net positive impact on the earth, rather than a negative one. Certainly there are a lot of things you can make, if you have the time. Nevertheless, there are some things that you just have to buy - because they are too difficult to make, or because you do not have enough hours in the day to make them. But one of the biggest barriers to buying sustainability is the inability to pay for a more expensive price tag on a sustainable item, right? Going into unsustainable debt to buy more sustainable furniture... is not really what we look for in life, is it?

Well, it has been a while since I have gone out and purchased household furniture, bedding, and so on. And what I discovered over the past two weeks is that fortunately, it's getting easier to find necessities that have a lower impact on the planet. For whatever reason - corporate social responsibility plans, consumer pressure, or a desire to have a lower planetary impact - mainstream retailers are beginning to carry ecologically- and sociologically- sound products. Sometimes you have to search the store for them - often they are tucked away in their own little section, or hidden between the less sound options - but they are there.

Now let me make clear right now that I am not advocating a sustainable lifestyle based solely on the idea of conscious consumerism. We can't save the world by buying things (and I highly encourage you to spend a year trying not to buy anything, as it will give you an interesting perspective). Most of the time, it is better for the earth if you can do without, make something yourself, trade via Freecycle or Craigslist or neighbors, or at least buy something used from a local thrift store. But there are times where buying is a more appropriate option, and when that happens, it is important to buy conscientiously and as sustainably as absolutely possible. It is these times that I am discussing now.

Yesterday my husband and I went to purchase pillows. We haven't bought pillows in several years and it was time. For years, I've searched online for sustainably-made pillows, but consistently they have been just plain prohibitively expensive. Much as I would love them, we cannot afford $100 for one organic cotton pillow. It's not an option for us. For that reason, I've waited too long to replace our old, old, old pillows. But with my asthma, it is necessary - and it was time to bite the bullet. So with a fair amount of guilt, we went to Bed, Bath, and Beyond resolved to buy a non-sustainable option that we could afford.

We made a beeline past the miscellaneous "as seen on tv" odds and ends, through the millions of cookware, the table cloths, the towels, and finally to the pillow bins. "Ah, ok, we said: $16.99. I guess those are our pillows." And I paused, uneasily. Biding time toward the inevitable unsustainable purchase, I browsed around a bit, and ... low and behold, there they were: hypo-allergenic, non-bleached cotton pillows, with recycled polyester fill, in a biodegradable bag. ... For $14.99!! Ah ha!

They're the most comfortable pillows we have had in a very long time. Sure, they're not organic cotton-filled pillows, but until we have the $100 to spend, $14.99 for near-sustainability is pretty darn good.

If you spend just a little extra time in any store, chances are you will find a more sustainable option. We moved from a very small apartment to a place that is literally twice the size - but with zero storage space - so we did buy a few pieces of furniture. And we found that by looking hard enough, we found low-cost sustainable options in Ikea, Cost Plus, Target, and Pier 1 - in addition to our local thrift stores.

Bamboo is becoming a popular low-cost, sustainable option when looking for furniture and other things normally made of wood (including our new bamboo coasters for under $5). Cleaning materials are easy - vinegar, soap, and water will clean 90% of what you need to clean. Moving materials - there are now several good eco options. Plus pens, paper, light bulbs, shower curtains, pots and pans, rugs, lamps, napkins, .... you name it, and generally you can find a more-sustainable option that is still low in cost. While not every one of our household items are made from sustainable materials, given our low budget, we do a pretty darn good job.

Oh, and getting rid of things we no longer needed? We gave EVERYTHING to neighbors, friends, and our local thrift store benefitting neighbors with HIV/AIDS.

So, if you have to buy a household item, take a bit of extra time to find that more sustainable option - you might just find it's even cheaper!