Fair Trade Shopping, Thrifting, Upcycling, Trash Picking

I’m Trashy: Decorating with secondhand junk

Why am I so trashy?  Why do I corral clutter with old glass jars, and used cardboard boxes covered with fabric?  Why do I scour thrift stores and flea markets for used goods?  Why do I long to build furniture out of wood reclaimed from trashed shipping pallets?

I do it because it’s free.  I do it because it’s easy.

I do it because it beats sitting in DC traffic to go to The Container Store any day.

But most of all, I do it because it’s better for our planet, and the people who inhabit it.

Most of the furniture, decor items, and organizing goodies in stores (from WalMart to Target to The Container Store to West Elm) are made overseas in third-party factories that aren’t eco-friendly, and do not provide fair working conditions or a living wage.

In our society, where more for less is better,  we’ve been trained to shop without questioning how the items we purchase were made.  We want cheaper prices so we can buy more, and big box retailers give them to us so that sales can soar and stockholders can grow richer.

I didn’t used to think about how we got “always low prices” at Wal-mart when I lived one block away in college.   I loved to buy the cute new candle holders at Target, fun decor items, and every organizing bin on earth.

In 2007 and 2008 I read a ton of news reports that kids in China were being kidnapped into basically sweatshop slavery. . . and their local government turned a blind eye to it.  I didn’t change all my shopping habits immediately, but I started to think more about the products being sold.    Are we really so desperate for a cute and cheap little desk caddy that we will ignore the conditions in which it’s been produced?  Do we really believe that cheaply decorating our home is more important than the way human beings are treated?

Today, two years after that realization, I do think long and hard before purchasing a clothes or decor items.  Like a rug for my living room. In the end, if I decide to buy something – like the little dish soap caddy from Target – it’s only after a long time spent thinking about if it’s really worth it.

I get it:  This may not be a battle you can afford to wage right now.  I do not judge. The economy’s in the tank, and chances are you’re just as worried about saving money as the next family. We’re all doing different things to leave our mark on this world.  Heck, you’re probably doing more than I am, whether through volunteering, through your work, at your church, or by trying your hardest to raise good kids in this crazy world.

In case you’re curious, I’ve saved a ton of money.  I haven’t been to Target in over a month, and haven’t been to the mall since April. I’ve investigated labor conditions in factories used by companies like Anthropologie.  These are the choices that I make, and they are the right choices for me.

Here’s a few recycling/upcycling/simplifying/repurposing examples from fellow bloggers:

Mikalah at Posy the Porcelain Pig

Jennifer at 1 Bella Stager

And of course Sunny at Life in Rehab, is overflowing with examples.  (That’s why there’s a recycling box at her home that her kids named “crap mom can make stuff out of.”)

Sidenote: if you’re curious to see how I negotiate even better deals when buying used furniture, you can hop over here.

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  • Reply Melissa - Life on Prairie Creek at 10:56 am

    Great post. When my husband and I started to change our habits a few years ago we received quite a bit of negative of feedback from friends and family. Somehow they thought we were judging there choices when in reality we just wanted to what was best for our family. My husband owns his own business and I work on commission and we were hit quite hard by the economic downturn. Instead of fighting it we took a cue from our grandparents and “Made Do” with what we had. There are times that I really want to buy those cute pillows and Target but then I look around my house and realize that I do not want to have to store those cute pillows. So instead I pick up some cute napkins or fabric from my stash and make some pillow covers. Ironically those homemade items garner more attention than the off the shelf items. The longer we make do with less the more we realize how little we really need.

  • Reply Julia at 10:58 am

    Cheers for the trashy girls!

  • Reply Anna at 11:28 am

    Thanks, Jane! I really appreciate that other people are thinking about these issues too. Hopefully as websites such as free2work increase their information and become more mainstream, more people will learn about issues of unfair labor and when we do shop, seek to do so only from companies that do have ethical standards. Random note – about a week and a half ago we had a conference on human trafficking at my school and for one of the sessions I was on a panel with several other students. We were talking beforehand and one of them mentioned that sites such as free2work who look in to companies to find out if they have ethical working conditions, fair wages, etc, are working to create an app so that eventually you can enter the bar code of items that you’re looking at buying and it will give you a rating on how ethical all of the companies and factories are that have had a hand in making it. Which, for me, would be enough to finally convince me to buy a smartphone. =)

  • Reply Jenn at 11:43 am

    LOL! The title just took me back to college. I found a little neon t-shirt that said “Don’t be trashy – Recycle!” and that is just what I did – recycle recycle recycle. But the whole Reduce & Reuse thing… I think is just as, if not more important =) You go girl! I loved reading this =) I haven’t been able to get to the point you’re at yet but if there’s a will there’s a way! Keep tossing out tips (haha you know i’ll be doing the same!) and we just might make a difference <3

    Jenn L @ Peas & Crayons

  • Reply Mikalah at 3:12 pm

    Thanks for the link!

    It’s interesting, I got a comment on my post about the recycled bouquet asking HOW the flowers were grown. The anonymous commenter obviously didn’t read the entire post to see that the bouquet was from someone’s wedding, and obviously I didn’t ask the couple how their flowers were grown.

    It made me think about how important it is to respect other people’s decisions when it comes to living a “greener” life. It’s not Black and White, and people all have to choose how they are going to change their buying habits (or not change them) when faced with that kind of information.

    I really appreciate how you approach this subject on your blog! It’s done in a kind, respectful, non judgmental way that makes me want to learn more instead of making me feel like a big turd for shopping at Target and not harassing brides about buying flowers locally. =)

    In short, you are awesome! keep up the good work, I absolutely love your blog!

  • Reply Sunny's Life in Rehab at 4:21 pm

    Thanks for the blog love, Jane, I was really blown away when I got to the end of the post and saw us mentioned so extensively!

    This was an excellent post, and you’re very right: we do tend to over-consume as opposed to seeing what we can easily create with our own two (or ten) hands. Why replace if you can upcycle?

    I’m not as good as you when it comes to researching the source of my consumables, and maybe that should be a New Year’s Resolution over at Rehab.

  • Reply Jen at 9:28 am

    I loved this post, girl…need to have you on 1 Bella Stager soon:) Keep being trashy, girl! LOL!!!

  • Reply clickclackgorilla at 3:32 am

    Hello Jane! Just found your blog recently, and have been intrigued by a lot of the things you write about. I don’t rent, but live in a very small, out-of-the-ordinary space that requires a lot of clever organizing ideas to manage. It’s six meters by two meters, something called a bauwagen where I live (Germany), which is a wooden caravan/trailer that looks a lot like a boxcar in shape. The most amazing thing is that someone gave me my hosue! For free! They just didn’t feel like doing the work of taking it with them when they moved. What luck for me, and the beginning of a year of learning a lot about building projects.

    When I read this post I had to leave a comment, as I completely redid my living space over the last year (including re-siding, insulating, and filling and decorating the inside) for under 1000 Euros, including the cost of the house/trailer itself and moving it!) because almost all of my materials were things that I scavenged from the trash (it is really incredible what people throw away–I am grateful for all the things I find but so often ask myself why more people don’t donate stuff instead of tossing it). I just really, really finished the whole projected and moved into the space, and posted a bunch of before and after pictures on my blog this morning. Check it out, might intrigue you: http://www.clickclackgorilla.com/2010/12/01/were-not-in-russelsheim-anymore-toto/

    Inspired by you, I think that I’m going to have to do a post about some of my organizing tricks in such a small space sometime soon. (Hanging things, hidden compartments under the floor, various storage boxes, etc)

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