Save the Date for Our Next Swap!

It’s that time again! Our next style swap has been officially set for Wednesday, August 23, at New Day Craft Cider & Mead.

SummerSwap17 promo image

If you’re on the fence about whether a clothing swap is your scene, check out Bethany’s previous post about why swaps are basically the best thing ever. Then head over to the registration page to sign up!

See you at SummerSwap17!

Challenge Yourself to Plastic Free July

Multicolored plastic cups

I recently joined the Facebook group Zero Waste Indy, a forum for sustainability-minded Indianapolis residents to share their ideas and strategies for reducing their personal waste. It’s been really interesting to see everyone’s solutions, and last week fellow group member and blogger Polly Barks posted about an initiative I hadn’t heard of before: Plastic Free July.

Plastic Free July is a month-long campaign being promoted by different sustainability organizations worldwide. The official Plastic Free July website is run by Earth Carers of Western Australia, and the challenge is also promoted by the Story of Stuff. The goal of Plastic Free July is to challenge yourself to refuse single-use plastic in your daily life.

Plastic Free July banner with turtle

Packaging is a major source of plastic waste, and as I started Plastic Free July, I realized it’s harder to totally avoid than I thought. I went to the farmers’ market on Saturday and got produce in my reusable bags as I’ve done for years, but then after I bought a loaf of bread, I was halfway home before it occurred to me that the bread was in a single-use plastic bag.

Obviously, packaging is only one facet of a product’s overall environmental footprint. I’m on the fence about how to handle bread, because there are other bakeries that sell their bread in paper bags, but I’ve found that those loaves of bread get stale more quickly. I don’t want to end up wasting food in the name of reducing packaging. One solution could be to buy a loaf in a paper bag and transfer it to a heavier-duty reusable plastic bag when I get home to help it stay fresh. Ultimately if I wanted the most sustainable, packaging-free bread, it would probably be best to bake it at home. I’m not that much of a Betty Crocker yet, but maybe one day!

Despite the fact that packaging should be considered alongside the other environmental factors of a product, Plastic Free July is still a worthwhile campaign to bring awareness to the myriad pieces of plastic we use unthinkingly throughout the day, which add up to a significant plastic waste problem. A recent article in the Guardian provides an in-depth look at the world’s plastic waste crisis. Growth in the use of disposable plastic has far outpaced the capacity of recycling programs to keep up, so curbing our use of plastic is just as necessary as recycling what we do use.

One thing I would like to do intentionally starting this month is to more actively refuse plastic straws at restaurants. Right now if the server hands them out, I leave mine on the table, but I don’t know if it gets picked up to be used by someone else or thrown away. When I order my drink I’d like to get in the habit of saying “No straw, please.” Other ideas I may try include carrying a fork in my purse to use when only plastic cutlery is available, and investigating buying olive oil in bulk to avoid the use of a plastic bottle.

Plastic Free July badge "Choose to Refuse"

What plastic do you notice yourself using on a regular basis? What can you cut out of your routine during Plastic Free July? Share your answers in the comments, and use hashtags #plasticfreejuly and #plasticfreeindy to share your progress on social media all month long.

Tips for Buying a Used Lawn Mower

Remember when I used to write about cute things like shoes and dresses and DIY projects? Now that I’m a fancy grown-up homeowner, my life revolves around glamorous subjects like ant control and backed-up drains. More than anything this summer, my life has revolved around learning how to maintain a lawn.

One of the things I really liked about my house when I was thinking about buying it was that both the front and back yards are very small. I’m deeply relieved that I went for a house with a small yard, because even the postage stamp-sized patches of grass I do have take more attention than I anticipated. (Did you know that in the spring, grass grows fast? This was news to me.)

Small front yard with two trees

My li’l front yard

Small back yard with large tree

My li’l back yard

From the start I wanted to choose an eco-friendly lawn mower, but I wasn’t sure exactly what kind I should get. I researched powerless reel mowers, which would be the ideal green option, but I read several reviews saying they tend to get stuck on sticks, and my trees drop a copious amount of twigs. I also read that they don’t work well if the grass gets too long, and I think we all know how frequently I was prepared to mow. (Not often.) I would definitely be interested in trying a reel mower at some point, but it seemed intimidating to try as a total lawn newbie.

I decided to pursue an electric solution instead. For me there were both practical and sustainable benefits to an electric mower over a gas mower: I didn’t want to have to keep gasoline on hand to power it, I didn’t want to smell like gas every time I mowed, and I didn’t want the mower to be noisy and produce air pollution. I’m also a member of the green power option with my local utility, so even though Indiana’s electricity is produced by polluting coal-fired power plants (boo), the electricity I use is matched by renewable energy certificates (RECs), which help offset conventional electricity generation by supporting wind farms. And of course I wanted to get a used mower if at all possible, to extend the life of still-useful equipment and eliminate the environmental impact of manufacturing a new one.

For the first couple of months of spring, I actually cut my grass with a hand-held electric trimmer (much to the chagrin of my neighbors). At first I was experimenting to see if my yard was small enough to even need a mower at all. While the trimmer solution technically worked, it did take about twice as long as mowing does, and the trimmer makes a loud, shrill drone that I didn’t think was fair to subject the neighborhood to for an hour every week. I decided it wasn’t a viable long-term solution and that my little lawn did in fact call for a real mower.

Mower #1: Lawn Hog = Fail Whale

My first lawn mower purchase was a fail but a valuable learning experience. I had noticed an electric lawn mower for sale at the pawn shop where I get most of my music equipment, and having always had good luck with pawn shop purchases in the past, I decided to give the mower a try. It was a corded electric Black & Decker Lawn Hog. I quickly turned it on next to the store to make sure it worked. Nothing seemed remiss, so I bought it (and thankfully the $2 warranty) and took it home.

I got about a third of the way through mowing my back yard when the mower suddenly stopped cutting—it continued to spin but was no longer cutting the grass. After some disassembling and Googling, I discovered that the fan blades were all broken off, the blade wasn’t securely fastened, a couple of key components were fused together, and the motor itself was completely unattached from the body except for a few thin wires. I learned a lot about small motors that day, and I also learned that there’s more to vetting a lawn mower than just making sure it turns on.

Mower #2: Crushing It with Craigslist

I kept up the search for a few more weeks with no luck. But over Memorial Day weekend I checked Craigslist again and lo and behold, the perfect mower was for sale! It was a cordless Neuton brand electric mower being sold by a local couple. The price was right ($55!) and the sellers turned out to be incredibly gracious and helpful. The mower itself is a dream—no cord, easy to push, quiet enough to talk over, and it can do both the front and back yards on a single charge. I actually enjoy cutting the grass now, because it’s just like taking a series of very short walks in my yard on a nice day.

Full image of Neuton electric lawn mower

Say hello to my little friend Neuton.

Close-up of Neuton electric lawn mower

I think Neuton kind of looks like a turtle.

Tips for Buying Secondhand Tools & Equipment

The seasoned homeowners among you (or people who have ever done lawn care in their lives) are probably scoffing at how long I took to choose a mower, and I admit that my learning curve about lawn care was probably steeper than it should have been. However, I learned a lot through the process, and for those of us who are beginners to home maintenance and want to avoid buying a lot of new gadgets and tools to take care of our homes, I have a few important tips to keep in mind:

  1. If you’re going to buy used tools or equipment, don’t expect to find exactly what you need right away. It may take days or weeks for the type of equipment you want to come onto the secondhand market, or the available items may be in poor condition or unfairly priced. Be prepared for the shopping process to take time.
  2. Always test used equipment for its intended purpose before buying. Just because a tool powers on doesn’t mean it works properly. If it’s a mower, cut some grass. If it’s a drill, drill a hole in something. Five minutes of testing will save you the grief of getting home and finding out your purchase was useless.
  3. It’s better to buy directly from a person if possible. What I learned from comparing my two lawn mower-buying experiences is that at the pawn shop, I had no sense of how well (or badly) the mower had been taken care of. I didn’t know how old it was, I didn’t have the manual, I didn’t know if it had any quirks; I was buying it pretty much blind. None of that occurred to me at the time, but when I bought the second lawn mower from Craigslist, the difference in the experience was like night and day. The sellers described the ways they took care of the mower and provided helpful background information about the battery and the attachments, plus they gave me the manual and an extra blade. They also suggested I test out the mower on their yard before I could even ask. Obviously not all Craigslist experiences are this stellar, but buying from a person at least gives you the opportunity to ask questions and get a sense for how well-maintained the equipment might be.

With what I’ve learned from this process, I think I’ll definitely feel more prepared when buying secondhand the next time I need a new tool for my house. Have you ever bought used tools or equipment for your home? How did it work out? What kind of lawn mower do you use?

Eco-Friendly Bedding: Organic Sheets & Mattress Protector

Organic Sheets & Mattress Protector

Check out part one to learn about my quest for a flame-retardant-free mattress.

Having recently upgraded my mattress from a full size to a queen, I found myself in need of new sheets. Like shopping for a mattress, this was new territory for me; the sheets I had been using were nearly as old as the mattress itself.

I looked exclusively for fair trade, organic cotton sheets. My primary reason for preferring organic cotton is that the growing process is less chemically-intensive, and therefore hopefully safer for farm workers. As far as I know there haven’t been any studies about the long-term health effects of organic cotton farming to definitively prove it’s safer, but there have been multiple studies linking pesticide exposure to negative health effects, and conventional cotton is one of the most world’s most chemical-intensive crops.

Sol Organix sheets on mattress

I found this sheet set offered by Sol Organix, and it turned out to be the least expensive organic and fair trade option I came across—other brands can be upwards of $200 for a queen set. Sol’s sheets are certified by the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which prohibits the use of various toxic inputs and sets social criteria for the entire production chain. The cotton used by Sol Organix is also certified by Fair Trade USA, indicating that the cotton was produced in accordance with fair trade principles including fair prices and credit, safe working conditions, and the absence of forced or child labor.

(One aspect of Sol Organix sheets I would have liked to see more clearly addressed on their website is the working conditions and wages for the workers who actually produce the sheets. Their website claims that the company believes in “total transparency, from farm to factory to fabric,” but they don’t provide much information about anything after the farm stage. However, social criteria for manufacturing can be found starting on page 28 of the GOTS documentation and is actually much more robust than I expected.)

Upon receiving the sheets in the mail, I was delighted by their packaging: instead of coming in a plastic zipper bag, the Sol Organix sheets came in a reusable fabric bag complete with a long strap, side pocket, and button flap.

Cotton bag used as Sol Organix sheets packaging

Granted, the bag is made of the same fabric as the sheets, so it’s not terribly sturdy, but props to Sol Organix for being super-intentional about the reusability of their packaging. I’ve actually already used the bag twice, once as a laundry sack for dirty clothes on a weekend trip and once to keep a fancy scarf segregated from dirty shoes that were sharing the same luggage. Versatile!

The sheets are incredibly soft and I love the ivory color. One minor downside is that the fitted sheet is designed to accommodate a very deep mattress, up to 17 inches. My mattress is only about 11–12 inches deep, but after washing there actually wasn’t that much excess sheet to deal with, and it all tucks away nicely under the mattress.

In addition to the sheets, I decided to cover my mattress with a waterproof mattress protector. Using a mattress protector was recommended by Holder, the company I bought my mattress from, and until then I didn’t even know waterproof mattress covers existed, other than full-on plastic sheets for children. However, in the mattress shopping process I read a lot about the dust mites and allergens and mold that can accumulate in mattresses over time. Since I intend my mattress to be a 20-year investment, I want to protect it and keep it as clean as possible. I had a brief ethical crisis about using a product that adheres polyurethane to fabric, which I assume negates any recyclability either of those materials might have had on their own, but ultimately I decided that using a small amount of eventual-trash-plastic was worth it to extend the life of a product with a much larger environment footprint (the mattress).

Naturepedic mattress protector in box

I went with Naturepedic’s organic waterproof mattress protector. As with the mattress, the major selling point for me was the absence of flame-retardant chemicals. I’m happy with it so far—it didn’t change the feel of my mattress, and I haven’t noticed it make the bed dramatically warmer (causing a bed to “sleep hot” is apparently a flaw of many mattress protectors, I learned in the shopping process).

As for the rest of my bedding, the fair trade Guatemalan quilt that I’ve written about previously was in fact queen-sized, so it still works with the new mattress just fine:

Bed with Guatemalan fair trade quilt

Have you gone organic with any of your bedding? What are your favorite sources? What’s the best reusable packing you’ve encountered, for bedding or any other type of product?

Eco-Friendly Bedding: Shopping for a Flame-Retardant-Free Mattress

Close-up of mattress quilting

I’ve been vaguely intending to get a new mattress for a couple of years. My old one was somewhere between 20 and 25 years old, first having served as a guest bed for a few years, then as my bed since I was about 10. She was trusty and sturdy but starting to get saggy. After moving into the house I decided it was finally time to do the upgrade from full to queen and treat myself to a more supportive night’s sleep.

Obviously for such a large purchase I wanted to make an ethical and sustainable choice, but I wasn’t totally sure what that meant for a mattress. The three factors I pondered were:

  • The presence of flame-retardant chemicals (I wanted a mattress without them)
  • Use of sustainable/renewable materials
  • How and where the mattress is made

Another caveat for my buying process was that I wanted to be able try out the mattress in the store before ordering. This requirement ruled out the many eco-friendly mattress brands available online. (If you’re less squeamish about picking a mattress without trying it, The Good Trade has an excellent rundown of sustainable online brands). My final requirement was staying within a budget of about $1,200 for a queen-sized mattress and box spring.

The mattress I ended up choosing is the Celebrity Soft Top from Holder Mattress:

Celebrity mattress from Holder Mattress

Ignore the bad lighting and focus on the pillowy quilted goodness.

Celebrity mattress label

Celebrity: No longer just *NSYNC’s mediocre final album.

If you haven’t heard of Holder Mattress, that’s because to my knowledge it isn’t a nationally-distributed brand. When I first heard about the company a few years ago, what intrigued me was that Holder has its factory and headquarters in Kokomo, Ind., about an hour north of Indianapolis. In terms of getting a locally-made mattress, you can’t get much closer than that.

Since mattresses are so large and heavy, I like that these finished products aren’t shipped all over the place before reaching their final destinations. Holder has a showroom in Kokomo and another in Carmel, which is the one I visited. I tried out one of the floor models, and then they made my mattress to order and delivered it to my house. Each mattress is handmade, and in addition to the minimal-shipping factor, I liked supporting a fairly small and family-owned business.

As with food, I assume the transportation footprint of a mattress is relatively small compared to the footprint of its production overall, so I don’t wave the local flag as a huge and definitive sustainability win. Rather, I consider it a positive factor that combines certain environmental and community benefits. Following my purchase, I learned that there are in fact many mattress brands that manufacture within the U.S. Holder still seems to be the closest to Indianapolis, but if you live elsewhere you likely have other local mattress options.

The other factor on which Holder Mattress won me over was the fact they don’t use flame-retardant chemicals in any of their mattresses. Why did I want to avoid flame-retardant chemicals? First of all, it’s not 1960; I don’t smoke in bed (or at all). Second, as our guest blogger Travis Nagle briefly touched on in his post about eco-friendly furniture, flame retardants have been questioned as ineffective precautions that are also linked to a variety of health problems. A new study out this month finds an association between certain flame retardant chemicals and thyroid cancer.

One of my early furniture-buying regrets is that I let the salesperson who sold me my sofa talk me into a stain-resistant chemical coating. I hate to think what invisible chemicals it’s been off-gassing for the last five years. I definitely wanted to avoid any unnecessarily chemicals in a mattress that I plan to sleep on every night for the next 10–20 years.

The sustainable characteristic I didn’t really get with this mattress was the use of natural materials. The Celebrity is one of Holder’s lowest models, so it contains less-expensive materials such as polyurethane padding and polyester fabric. I initially felt strongly about getting a petroleum-free mattress—people used to make mattresses before we turned liquid dinosaurs into fabric and foam; why can’t we now? But ultimately, cost is what deterred me from pursuing a more natural mattress. In its higher-end lines, Holder does produce mattresses using wool fabric and latex foam, but their most natural option was $3,600 for a queen set—three times my budget. Depending on the brand, queen sets using latex foam appear to start around $2,000 and go up from there.

I’m about 80% satisfied with the mattress choice I made, but If I were to do this process again, there are a couple of things I would do differently:

  1. Attempt to find a latex foam mattress to try in-store. One reason I was hesitant to order a natural mattress from an online brand is the fact that I haven’t encountered a latex foam mattress in person before. I don’t know if I would even like what it feels like to lay on one. However, this type of mattress is becoming more popular. I could have tried one in-store (such as the high-end Holder version), and then perhaps felt more secure ordering a less-expensive latex mattress brand online.
  2. Do more research about the benefits of natural materials in mattresses. Once I found a flame-retardant-free mattress I could try out in a store and that was within my budget, I didn’t really pursue any further research into natural materials. In hindsight, I wish I would have done more research about both the individual and systemic benefits of using renewable materials in mattresses, and used that information to decide how much I was willing to spend on it.

Responsibly Disposing of Old Mattresses

Another reason I initially wanted a mattress made of natural materials was to give consideration to the eventual end of the mattress’s useful life. When a mattress is no longer supportive or comfortable to sleep on, what can be done with it? Most mattresses today end up in a landfill, and my thought was that a mattress made of natural materials may be easier to recycle. However, after some light Googling, I’m not immediately finding any programs that claim latex mattresses are any easier to recycle than conventional mattresses. Latex mattresses are indeed recyclable, and so are the majority of components in a traditional mattress. The tricky part is actually finding a facility that will pick up and recycle your mattress.

The challenge of responsible mattress disposal is also one of the reasons I was hesitant to try an online-only mattress brand. Most of these brands offer some version of the “try for 100 nights” plan where you can return the mattress if you end up not liking it. However, I think “return” is a misleading word in these programs, because once a mattress has been in use for 3+ months, the company can’t turn around and re-sell it to someone else. I discussed this briefly with my salesperson at the Holder showroom. Holder also has a try-and-return program, and the salesperson said the company used to be able to reuse the inner components of a returned mattress, but now if a mattress is returned they throw the whole thing away. I’m not sure if this is due to a specific law, concerns about bedbugs, or both, but the fact remains that at a minimum, a significant portion (if not all) of a mattress goes to waste if you decide to return it after trying it.

After being unable to find a local charity that accepts mattress donations, I decided to keep my old mattress and box spring as a combination of lounge seating and a guest bed in my basement (which I affectionately refer to as “the tacky den”). After I set it up I actually got giddy about how awesome it is. Behold the majesty:

Mattress seating in basement den

*cue angelic choir*

I threw my old college bedding on it, and boom! A relaxing and decadent seating area only enhanced by its wood paneling backdrop. The height is perfect for seating but not too awkwardly low for a bed. My roommates John Cena and Frodo approve.

If you aren’t blessed with a room free-spirited enough to have a mattress couch, I did come across 1-800-GOT-JUNK in my research, a company that will pick up old mattresses and purportedly recycle them if possible. You can also check out this directory of mattress recycling locations; however, the facility in Indiana no longer appears to be in operation.

Stay tuned for part two of this post, in which I delight in the eco-friendly features of my new queen bedding.

Have you purchased an eco-friendly mattress, online or otherwise? What brand did you go with, and how did it work out?

Upstream or Downstream: How to Solve Microfiber Pollution

Large school of fish near coral reef

I’m far from a serious student of the philosophy of ethics, but I did pick up one principle a few years ago in passing that has stuck with me. The principle is from Immanuel Kant, and in simplified terms it states that an act is only moral if you would wish all other people to behave the same way (for it to become a “universal law,” in Kant’s words). I don’t apply this to every action in my daily life, but when I’m making a new decision I do often think about what the collective effects would be if everyone in XYZ group did the same thing I did. This is how I formed my general philosophy about waste—just me throwing away one bottle instead of recycling it isn’t a big deal, but if that’s what everyone did, we would have millions more bottles in the landfill. It’s also this philosophy that reminds me that our individual actions make a collective difference.

This week I was checking out a new campaign from the Story of Stuff Project, and I was intrigued by their philosophical approach, which seemed to turn mine on its ear but also made a lot of sense. The campaign is called the Story of Microfibers, and it aims to address the issue of microscopic plastic pollution from synthetic fabrics in oceans and other bodies of water. Here’s their video that provides a general overview of the issue:

While reading their page of proposed solutions to the microfiber crisis, I was caught by this explanation of their approach. After listing several consumer-end solutions like washing machine filters or mesh laundry bags, author Michael O’Heaney states:

…these interventions require universal adoption to work… As our founder Annie Leonard puts it, when it’s hard to figure out how to fix a problem on your own, or the fix is onerous or expensive, that should serve as a sort of metal detector for flaws in the system; it should encourage us to look further upstream for a solution.”

Basically, he’s saying that if the solution to a problem requires the universal adoption of a certain behavior by consumers, that typically indicates the presence of a flaw at a higher level of the system. To me, this makes a lot of sense and addresses the inherent flaw in my default moral structure, which is the fact that my action may be beneficial if multiplied by a hundred or a thousand or a million people, but in all likelihood the majority of other people are likely not willing or able to make the same choice.

For the Story of Stuff, this philosophy led them all the way upstream to clothing manufacturers. Their recommended action is for consumers to call upon apparel companies to invest in research and development for new fabric technologies that will prevent the release of microfibers into the environment.

In the long term, I think this is a fantastic solution. I’m a huge supporter of companies being held responsible for the environmental impacts of their products. However, as an avid secondhand shopper with a tendency to keep my clothes for as long as possible, I’m resistant to the idea of buying an all-new wardrobe made of microfiber-free fabric. (Kant urges me to think of the implications if everyone did this universally!) Plus, it could be years before these new technologies are developed, tested and released into the marketplace. We would be remiss to dismiss the solutions aimed at addressing the microfiber pollution caused by clothing already in circulation. (Side note: Someone please keep #RemissToDismiss in your back pocket as the hashtag for some future social justice campaign.)

These are the consumer-based solutions discussed on the Story of Stuff page:

  • Wear and wash synthetic fabrics less often
  • Choose clothing made of natural fibers like cotton, linen or hemp
  • Use a laundry accessory designed to minimize microfiber pollution, such as the Guppy Friend, soon to be available at Patagonia (I also found another microfiber catcher in development from the Rozalia Project)
  • Install a washing machine filter to capture microfibers (such as this one)

In my research I found surprisingly little information about opportunities to support ocean cleanup efforts to reduce the amount of plastic already in the water system. For now the conversation seems to be focused heavily on prevention.

I appreciate the Story of Stuff Project’s strategy for spotting red flags for systemic flaws, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you see me apply that line of thought to more topics in the future. But as I sit here in my cozy fleece jacket made of recycled bottles that will surely release hundreds of thousands of fibers the next time I wash it, unsure of the timeline of technological advancement in fabrics, some degree of consumer-based solution seems necessary to me alongside high-level systemic change. While consumer solutions may have a comparatively low adoption rate and not fully stem the tide of microfiber pollution, they can be a stepping stone that reduces pollution while we wait for more comprehensive industry action.

My final pondering about the microfibers issue is where it will end up ranking in priority with other critical apparel industry improvements, such as ensuring safety and living wages for factory workers. I haven’t seen these issues addressed jointly yet, but hopefully manufacturers will realize the need to take responsibility for the impacts of their products at both the start and end of the lifecycle, and not ignore one in favor of the other.

The Benefits of Eco-Friendly Furniture

Eco-friendly sofa with accent pillows

Pel Sofa by Stem

One of my goals for furnishing my house is to buy as few brand-new items as possible. I enjoy giving old items new life and the treasure hunt aspect of finding just the right thing in an unexpected place. However, secondhand furniture isn’t practical for every situation, which is why it’s important for manufacturers to start producing furniture in a more environmentally-friendly way. Travis Nagle is the co-founder of Stem, a furniture company that does just that. Stem specializes in high-quality furniture made from natural materials and no toxic glues or varnishes. Travis wrote the following post describing why the materials that go into our furniture matter for our health and the planet. — Julia


The idea of eco-friendly furniture has been around for a long time, though it hasn’t always been identified as such—think back to the days before particleboard and synthetic fillers. Big industry and economic pressures advanced society in many positive ways, but also created an atmosphere where a lot of home products are designed and built solely to maximize efficiency and profits. So where does that leave consumers today? For the most part, there has been a trend over the past 25 years towards building overseas, using lower quality materials, and prioritizing volume. On the other had, there are a handful of companies like the brand I founded called Stem that take the opposite approach: furniture built in the US using eco-friendly materials. While this can mean a higher price point, the pieces last a lifetime and help create a healthier home. Let’s take a look at some key benefits of eco-friendly materials.

No Unnecessary Toxins Added to Materials

For many years it was required by law to add fire retardants to upholstered goods like sofas and sectionals. After some hard fought battles, California finally revised their state law so that they are no longer required, which has led more manufacturers to produce furniture without them. This is great news because fire retardants, while actually not doing that much to add a level of safety, have been linked to a variety of health issues. Many companies have removed fire retardants, but you can confirm with each product you shop for by asking the manufacturer or referring to the label.

In addition, many companies layer stain repellants on top of fabrics. While these can help in the short term, they may also lead to serious health issues with consistent exposure. In short, it’s best to get your furniture free of the standard stain repellent products in the market. If you do, choose a fabric that is more forgiving or even a slipcover for the cushions to protect them from stains.

Modern eco-friendly chair next to window

Rondi Chair by Stem

Building Without Harsh Chemicals

A lot of furniture looks great in terms of style, but it’s hard to know what they are finished with. Eco brands typically will use 100% natural wood versus plywood. In addition to solid wood being better quality and more durable, plywood can contain harmful chemicals like formaldehyde. In terms of the outside of the pieces, eco-friendly sofas use clear coats, paints and glues that are all low- or zero-VOC. These final layers of material can potentially impact the air in your home and some may even be carcinogenic.

Natural Materials

A big part of furniture building that has gone out of fashion is focusing on natural materials like cotton, wool, and solid wood. These materials will not only offer a product with less toxins but also are biodegradable. It can be difficult to find materials that are certified organic, but there definitely are some fabrics out there that comply. In addition, some brands like Stem offer eco-friendly furniture that is made of 100% natural materials from the inside out including natural latex and jute instead of poly-based options.

Sustainable Resources

In addition to being better for your home, non-toxic furniture is also better for the environment. To be sustainable, solid wood should be from either FSC or SFI certified sources. The main focus here is on how the wood is harvested and replenished with use, and treating the forests for long term viability. There are also some great products out there that utilize reclaimed wood, many times taken from torn down buildings or old discarded lumber. Extending the lifespan of the natural resources does a lot for the environment. In addition, some synthetic materials are also repurposed like fabrics that are made from recycled materials. The longer the lifespan of a material for any type of product, the better off we all are.

Since the market is still relatively young for these type of products, the prices are sometimes higher than conventional furniture. As the demand grows the materials and practices should be more readily available, and hopefully all companies will do their best to incorporate sustainable and healthy practices. Until then, it might be worth taking a little extra time to ask brands about their products so you can make sure you get a quality item and know what you’re bringing into your home.


Thanks again to Travis Nagle of Stem! Want to check out some other eco-friendly furniture options? Our friends at The Good Trade have an additional list of 14 sustainable furniture brands.

The Three Blessings of the Swap Gods

Woman browsing dresses at clothing swap

In case you missed the very brief plug at the end of my last post, we’re having another clothing swap soon! If you’re on the fence about joining us, let Bethany convince you with her tales of three blessings from the clothing swap gods. – Julia

The Match Made In Heaven

“I’m wearing your pants!”

Amanda never fails to text me this statement and it never fails to make me smile. She picked up a pair of gray pants that I had brought to the first clothing swap. These pants were nice gray jeans, something that I really liked, but they just fit me strangely and I could never quite make them look right on me. I reluctantly brought them to the swap thinking that I would take them home after if no one took them.

Sisterhood of the traveling pants

Amanda modeling the sisterhood of the traveling pants

Fortunately, the swap gods had different plans in mind. Amanda snagged them quickly and went to try them on. She came out of the bathroom wearing this pair of pants that looked like they were made for her. These pants that I struggled to make work because I loved them so much looked exactly how I wanted them to when Amanda put them on, and it was wonderful! The only thing better than getting a match made in heaven is being able to provide one for someone else, so don’t hesitate to sacrifice those items on the cusp to the swap gods – they have a match in mind!

The Impulsive Grab

Towards the end of the swap, the items left on the table are often plain t-shirts or basic clothing that doesn’t have a lot of obvious pizzazz to it. A few times, I’ve impulsively picked up a plain shirt at the end thinking “well, it can’t hurt anything, if it doesn’t work I’ll just bring it to the next swap.” Somehow, those impulse grabs from the discards always end up being the items that I wear the most. One of them was a plain black t-shirt that is thin and long, and I wear it constantly. Another last minute grab was a tank top with a bold fern and red flower pattern on it – not something that I usually gravitate towards. However, it turned out to fit me perfectly and is an item that I’m really looking forward to wearing this summer. Trust the impulses that the swap gods send!

The Gift Of The Story

“Where did you get that shirt? I really like it!”
“Oh, I bought it at such and such a store”
– conversation ends –

“Where did you get that shirt? I really like it!”
“Oh, I got it at the Fair for All Clothing Swap!”
“What’s a clothing swap?”
– conversation flows, friendship is made, everything is lovely and wonderful –

Okay, maybe a bit exaggerated – but one of the biggest blessings bestowed by the swap gods is the story that your new favorite shirt has. There’s something special about having a one-of-a-kind shopping experience, and it’s really fun to tell people where you got your eco-friendly new duds.

I hope you enjoyed hearing about the three blessings of the swap gods, and that you’ll come experience them in person on Wednesday, March 15th, from 6 pm – 8 pm at New Day Craft. Click here for more info and to RSVP!

~ Bethany

Aaaand We’re Back!

Prairie dog peeking out of hole

As this prairie dog emerges from its hole, so do we emerge from our fortress of solitude.

Whoa, so that was a bit of an unexpected hiatus. But here we are! There were a handful of factors contributing to our recent break from posting, so before we dive back into our regularly scheduled programming I wanted to share a little bit about what’s been happening since our last post.

First of all, the world changed in a big way with Trump’s election to the presidency. I’ve personally been struggling with how to wrap my mind around the overall significance of his win as well as the specifics of particular actions he has taken. I try to be cautious against rhetoric that paints any groups or perspectives with a broad brush—X is the only moral option, Y is inexplicable and evil!—and since that seems to be the popular tone of our time, I’m feeling overwhelmed by the task of finding levelheaded analysis of current events. I’m also trying to be cognizant of the difference between “things any Republican president would do” and “unusual things Trump is doing”—and trying to determine whether that should make a difference in how I respond if I don’t think the thing being done is good for the country.

Many of the topics of current national discussion (such as American manufacturing, environmental deregulation, and the treatment of refugees) are related to the responsible and connected lifestyle we want to promote here at Fair for All, but so far I haven’t felt sure about how to make our content contribute to those conversations in a valuable way. We’re not a political blog, and I don’t want us to become one, but I do think we’re in a time now when average citizens are becoming more socially and politically active, and I want us to continue providing resources to help people channel their convictions into meaningful lifestyle choices.

Second, on a personal note, I bought one of these:

Julia in front of her house

I’m a homeowner! (Or a person indebted to a homeowning bank, but same diff.) The timing of my home purchase aligned eerily with the political cycle: My offer was accepted on election night and I moved in the weekend of the Inauguration. I’ve personally been spending a lot of time on move- and house-related stuff over the last three months, but I’m finally settled in and ready to get back to a routine that includes writing. I’ve been brainstorming green home topics to add to our mix, since I’ll now have all new realms of energy efficiency and sustainable furnishing to explore. I’m already on a mission to furnish the house with as few brand-new items as possible, and I’m excited to share my progress.

While the future is distinctly uncertain, one thing we can be sure of is that there will be a lot to discuss, and we’re glad to be back with you to do just that. (We’re also glad to get back to our fun events, like our next clothing swap on March 15!) Let us know what would be helpful content for us to cover over the coming months, and we’ll do our best to bring the goods.

Should the U.S. Try to Keep Up with Europe?

Empty plastic smoothie cup sitting on pavement in park

By 2020, all disposable dishware sold in France must be compostable.

This week I learned about two exciting sustainability updates from Europe:

  1. France passed legislation banning disposable dishware and cutlery. By 2020, all disposable dishes sold in France must be made of biologically-sourced materials and be compostable.
  2. Sweden introduced legislation dramatically cutting taxes on repair work to encourage people to fix rather than replace broken items.

When we see another nation pass groundbreaking legislation, our initial reaction is often to say, “The U.S. should do the same thing!” I don’t think most people who express this sentiment are saying the system that works in XYZ country should be applied to the U.S. exactly as-is with no adjustments. So when we say we want the U.S. to follow another country’s suit, what are we really asking for?

I think the main thing people yearn for the U.S. to emulate about these laws is a willingness to take clear and decisive action on waste and the environment. Requiring disposable dishware to be compostable is bold, concrete, and clear in its goal. It’s ambitious yet attainable. The only comparable legislation in the U.S. has been regional bans on plastic bags and styrofoam, but nothing as clear and concrete as France’s law has been gone into effect at a state or federal level.*

(The more I think about France’s new law, the more I love it. It doesn’t eliminate a product or industry, but rather modifies them, which could head off concerns about potential job loss. It also supports the creation of a more robust composting infrastructure, which should make composting of other materials more accessible as well, and it increases production of an agriculturally useful product. Is it possible to have a crush on a piece of legislation?)

Beyond the desire for the U.S. to take decisive action, I think people have a desire to know that the U.S. is even paying attention to these programs around the world, and is studying them to learn whether similar programs could work here. Our tax structure is different than Sweden’s, but how could we incentivize repairing over replacing within our system? What are the results of Sweden’s plan—does it actually yield a change in consumer behavior? In France, how will they educate consumers about the changes to familiar products? Sustainability-minded citizens in the U.S. would be heartened to know that someone here is at least taking advantage of the opportunity to learn from other nations’ programs.

The responsibility to learn from these programs and take decisive action on waste isn’t limited to the government, especially given how entwined the private sector is with policy in the U.S. Private businesses also have a responsibility to reject the status quo and pilot progressive solutions within their own operations. Arguably, a company like Apple taking a stand on a particular type of waste could have a greater impact than a small country doing the same. When corporations operate at a massive global scale, their responsibility is just as great as governments’.

And at the very minimum, we want the United States to not actively prohibit progressive action for the environment. Indiana’s recent ban on plastic bag bans comes to mind as an example of action whose spirit is the complete opposite of these two European laws. Arizona, Idaho and Missouri have similar laws. When you live in a world where your legislators take such big steps backward, a world of all compostable cups seems like an unattainable fantasy.

You may have noticed that the United States is not the most agile in terms of political or social change right now. While that’s certainly not an excuse for inaction, perhaps smaller countries are currently better positioned to be groundbreaking and take the dramatic steps forward the planet needs. If enough smaller players take those first steps, it may be easier for the U.S. to follow suit and create programs that are truly effective. We would have case studies to learn from, and systems would already be in place for us to take advantage of or emulate.

And because the U.S. is so much larger than most of the countries that implement progressive sustainability programs, individual states (or companies) within the U.S. may be better suited to learn from those programs and develop their own. The smaller the body, the more flexible and innovative it can be.

So, Indiana—now you know about the sustainable ground being broken in France and Sweden. What are you going to learn from it?

*Hawaii has a de facto plastic bag ban because all of its counties enacted bans, and California’s plastic bag ban is under a referendum on Nov. 8. The District of Columbia enacted a plastic bag ban in 2009.