Archive for the 'Sustainability' category

Lessons from the world’s weirdest grandma

Apr 22 2013 Published by under Sustainability

Grandma GladysMy maternal grandmother, Gladys, born on this day in 1902.

“Grandma, don’t! That’s stealing!” I whispered from across the table.

Every time we went out to eat with my grandparents, my grandma would sneak all the jelly and sugar packets from the table and put them in her purse. I was mortified, convinced I had the weirdest grandmother on the planet.

My Grandma Gladys, my mother’s mother, was always doing things I found strange, and often embarrassing. She washed and reused plastic baggies and utensils, saved jars and jars full of extra buttons, kept a can of used bacon grease under the kitchen sink, and ate parts of the animal I didn’t even know existed. (Gizzards, anyone?)

She also canned her own jam, cooked meals from scratch, walked to the store instead of driving, crocheted beautiful afghans without using a pattern, and knitted hats, mittens, and slippers for my siblings and me—skills I now admire but once saw as a waste of time.

Many of the “strange” things my grandmother did, I now know had a lot to do with her life circumstances. Born in 1902, she was a married with three children when the U.S. was in the grips of the Great Depression. Like many who lived through that era, she learned to save all the items she had and find ways to reuse them, rather than throw things away.

I, on the other hand, was a privileged child of the ‘80s who had everything I needed and more. I learned about the Great Depression in school, but it seemed more like a story than real life. Poverty, hunger, and desperation were simply words to me. I didn’t understand why my grandma couldn’t just get with the times and live like “normal” people.

Now the tables are somewhat turned. As the economy struggles to recover from the Great Recession, many Americans (me included) are looking for ways to cut back and live on less. I’m learning that accumulating lots of stuff doesn’t make me happy, nor does working in a boring cubicle job whose main purpose is to generate money so I can buy more stuff.

And I’m not alone. There’s a growing trend toward living simply and sustainably, not only as a way to save money, but for better health, greater happiness, and a cleaner environment. When I think about her now, I see my grandma wasn’t weird at all, she was saving the earth!

Today, I’m the one with the reusable bags, cooking meals from scratch, and fixing things that break rather than throwing them away. My other sustainability ventures include going vegan, growing my own vegetables, and buying more things secondhand. I think Grandma would be proud.

Now that I’m older, I see how much I take after my grandmother. My ear for music, my positive attitude, my love of word games and puzzles, and my passion for animals are all traits I inherited from her.

My Grandma Gladys died when I was 19. I loved her so much, but I hadn’t yet learned to appreciate her because of, not in spite of, her peculiarities. If she were alive today, I bet we’d have some amazing talks. And I’d be able to tell her what a cool grandma she turned out to be.

Please, leave a comment with your thoughts. If you enjoyed this post, you can subscribe to Peculiar Girl or share it on Twitter or Facebook.

Adapted from a guest post I originally wrote in November 2011 for

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9 tips for building a thrift store wardrobe

Sep 28 2012 Published by under Nonconformity, Sustainability

My closetMore than 60 percent of my wardrobe comes from thrift and consignment stores. Would you be able to tell if you saw me on the street?

Minus what I’m wearing now, the photo above shows my entire fall and winter wardrobe. It’s not quite as pared down as when I was participating in the Project 333 challenge, but I still like to keep my wardrobe simple.

I buy most of my clothes at thrift stores such as Savers and Goodwill, and sometimes consignment stores such as Simply Savvy. I do have some items that were purchased new, but buying new is a last resort for me for several reasons: 1) I like to save money. 2) It’s difficult to find ethically produced clothing. 3) Buying secondhand keeps perfectly good clothing from ending up in a landfill. 4) The production and manufacture of textiles and clothing (bleaching, dyeing, finishing) uses enormous amounts of energy and contributes to pollution. 5) I can buy my favorite brands for pennies on the dollar. 6) It’s fun.

Though the perception is changing, some people still feel there is a stigma attached to shopping at thrift stores. It used to be a source of shame, and I think there are people who still worry what people will think if their friends/family/whomever find out they are buying secondhand clothes. But my regular readers know that I don’t give a flying fig about what other people think. If someone compliments me on my outfit, I have no qualms about telling them where I got it and how little I paid. I’m proud of my thrift store prowess!

Here’s what’s currently in my closet:

  1. a.n.a knee-length denim shorts, $3.99 at Goodwill
  2. Gap boot-leg jeans, $14.99 (I think) at Simply Savvy
  3. Talbot’s straight-leg jeans, $6.99 at Goodwill
  4. White House | Black Market cream-colored long hooded sweater, $27 at Simply Savvy
  5. Banana Republic lavender V-neck sweater, $3.99 at Goodwill
  6. Gap teal V-neck sweater, $3.99 at Goodwill
  7. Plum corduroy blazer, around $10 on clearance from Bass outlet store
  8. Light green Ann Taylor blazer, $6.99 at Goodwill
  9. Boden polka-dot cocktail dress, $48 at Simply Savvy consignment store
  10. Black lace mod cocktail dress, $30-ish at Simply Savvy consignment store
  11. Bold floral sheer Ann Taylor Loft blouse, $3.99 at Goodwill
  12. Purple cotton Gap dress, $6.99 at Goodwill
  13. Wisconsin Badgers sweatshirt, purchased new at the University Book Store
  14. Black and gray drawstring-waist sweater, purchased new at Kohl’s
  15. Cream lightweight cardigan with ruffles, purchased new at The Limited
  16. Navy blue wrap sweater, purchased new at H&M
  17. Ellen Tracy flowy gray cardigan, $3.99 at Goodwill
  18. Black button-up cardigan, $3.99 at Goodwill
  19. Calvin Klein gray checked blouse, purchased new at Marshall’s
  20. Ann Taylor navy ruffled wrap blouse, $3.99 at Goodwill
  21. Blue drape-neck knit top, purchased new at Marshall’s
  22. Blue patterned mock turtleneck top, purchased on clearance at Macy’s
  23. Black turtleneck with gray stripes, purchased new at Target
  24. Blue long-sleeve T-shirt with white strips, $3.99 at Goodwill
  25. Ann Taylor Loft rose-colored shawl-neck short-sleeved sweater, $3.99 at Goodwill
  26. Black short-sleeved sweater with attached white ruffled blouse, purchased new at Macy’s
  27. White graphic T-shirt, $1.99 at Goodwill
  28. Red fitted T-shirt, $3.99 at Goodwill
  29. Ann Taylor Loft gray sleeveless top with ruffles, $3.99 at Goodwill
  30. Scarlet cami with lace inset, purchased new at Banana Republic
  31. Coral satin shell, purchased on clearance at Ann Taylor Loft
  32. Dockers curvy khakis in gray, $6.99 at Goodwill
  33. Ann Taylor Loft black slacks, $6.99 at Goodwill
  34. Black casual pants, purchased new at The Limited

There you have it. Out of 34 items, only 13 were purchased new. Other than the turtleneck, which I purchased in a moment of weakness last year to prevent myself from freezing to death in this old, drafty house during the winter, the other “new” items are several years old, from before I started making a consistent effort to live more simply and sustainably.

Finding clothing at thrift and consignment stores can be frustrating at times. I can’t tell you how often I’ve found a killer pair of designer jeans or a really cute top—but the size, color, or style is wrong for me. It can be difficult to let these items go, but it doesn’t make sense to buy things I can’t wear.

When building a secondhand wardrobe, here are a few tips to keep in mind.

1. Look for good-quality, classic pieces that you can mix and match.

These are some examples from my wardrobe:

Ann Taylor jacket

A nicely tailored jacket in a neutral color is a wardrobe staple.
Ann Taylor Loft slacks

My last pair of black Ann Taylor slacks lasted me more than 10 years and never looked dated. I only had to replace them because I gained some weight and they no longer fit. These are almost the exact same style in a size larger.

2. Try everything on.

This is critical, since the item may have been altered by the previous owner, shrunk in the wash, etc. Most thrift stores have very limited return policies, and some don’t allow returns at all. It’s not a bargain if it doesn’t fit and flatter.

3. Try different stores.

Some thrift stores are nicer than others. Shop around until you find one (or several) you like. For clothing, I have the best luck at Goodwill, but I find the best home decor and textiles at Savers.

4. Examine each item closely.

Are there any rips or tears? Stains? Is the zipper broken? Are you willing to put in the time and effort to repair it? If not, put it back.

5. Watch for sales.

Yes, thrift stores have sales. At Goodwill in Madison, for example, all clothing with a particular color tag will be 50 percent off on Fridays and Saturdays.

6. Wash clothing before you wear it.

Unless it’s a fabulous item you are willing to pay to dry clean, stick to machine washable clothing. My thrift store purchases go directly into the hamper when I get home.

7. Don’t buy it just because it’s cheap.

Buying more than you need or can use is wasteful, no matter the price tag. If you won’t wear it or don’t need it, leave it behind for someone else.

8. Take your time.

Many thrift stores aren’t as organized as department and retail stores. Sizes are often mis-filed, and clothes can be grouped in odd ways. Our Goodwill stores, for example, sort tops by color, so you’re likely to find a ribbed cotton tank top on the same rack as a silk designer blouse.

9. Shop on weekdays.

If you have a flexible schedule, try shopping during the week instead of on weekends. The weekends are busy shopping days and it can be difficult to browse without getting bumped into every few minutes.

So what do you think of my thrift store wardrobe? If I hadn’t told you, would you have guessed that most of the items in my closet cost less than $10 each?

Maybe for a future post I will take an inventory of all the things we own (not just clothing) that have come from thrift stores, consignment shops, garage sales, and the like. I think it make for quite an impressive list.

Are you a thrift store shopper or no? Either way, I’d love to hear about it.

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As seen on TV: thrifty DIY projects

Jun 18 2012 Published by under Sustainability

I finally got around to finishing a couple of DIY home decorating projects I’ve had on my list for many months. Both of these are projects anyone can do. You’ve probably seen similar projects on home decorating programs like Design on a Dime and the The Nate Berkus Show. I love watching those shows, but sometimes they make projects look far easier than they really are. These two, the ones I did this weekend, are every bit as easy as they look on TV.

My first project was to re-cover the seat of a wood chair, which you may recognize from my post A few of my favorite (secondhand) things. I bought it last year to use as a desk chair, but it wasn’t comfortable to sit on all day, so I moved the chair into the master bedroom, where it occupies an awkward space created by a dormer window. I paid $1.99 for the chair at Goodwill. Last weekend I spied some pretty fabric at the local St. Vincent de Paul store and decided it would be perfect for re-covering the chair seat. The fabric was $1.

Here’s what the chair looked like when I bought it:

I contemplated painting the chair, but decided the faded whitewash finish will work well with the breezy coastal look I’m trying to achieve in the master bedroom. To re-cover the seat, I unscrewed the seat from the base of the chair and wrapped it in the “new” fabric, being careful to keep the pattern centered on the seat. I secured the new fabric using a staple gun, starting with one staple at the center point of each side of the seat, and then securing the corners. Next, I stapled all around the seat to keep the fabric taut, and trimmed off the excess. I reattached the seat and the chair is finished. The whole project took about 20 minutes.

Here’s a close-up of the new fabric:

My second project was to spray paint a small table we have in the hallway. The table came with the house. It fit the little hallway space so perfectly, we asked the previous owner if he would leave it behind when he moved, and he agreed. I’ve been seeing a lot of brightly painted accent furniture on the design shows lately, and wanted to give it a try. If it were a valuable antique I wouldn’t paint it, but it isn’t. It does have nice lines, though, and I had a feeling it would look great in a bold color such as green, orange, or yellow.

Here’s what the table looked like before:

I prepped the table by sanding it with a fine sanding sponge, just to remove the shine and to buff out some of the scratches on the top surface. Next, I wiped off the dust and sprayed the table with a coat of primer, which I had left over from another project. I turned the table upside-down first and sprayed the legs and base, and when that was dry flipped the table right side up and sprayed the top.

When the primer was dry, I applied the yellow paint. It took three coats to get the look I wanted, so I used up the entire can of spray paint. This color is Sun Yellow by Rustoleum. The can was around $3. Here’s how the table looks now:

I plan to change the wall color in this hallway to a light gray, so the table will look better once that is done. I chose to paint the table yellow because we have a lot of citrus-colored accents in the adjacent living room — artwork in bright greens, oranges, and yellows.

I’m happy with the way these projects turned out, and I’d definitely do similar projects again.

Have you ever attempted a DIY project you saw on TV? What was your result?

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The sentimental side of decluttering

Jun 01 2012 Published by under Sustainability

John Pawson - House

I feel anxious in rooms with too much stuff in them. If I can’t freely move around without shimmying around or walking into something, I get all itchy and twitchy. I like more color than in the photo featured above, but I love how open and airy the room looks.

Perhaps it’s because I’m allergic to dust. Maybe my brain knows that cluttered spaces are more likely to be dusty, so it starts bombarding me with the heebie-jeebies to make me want to run far, far away. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know I don’t always succeed in keeping the clutter at bay, but I try.

My design aesthetic leans toward minimalist. I like a lot of floor space in a room, with little more than the essential pieces of furniture (though I will never embrace the minimalist practice of sleeping on a mattress on the floor. One, I don’t like the way it looks. Two, we live in an old, drafty house, and just thinking about lying that close to the floor makes me shiver. Plus, easier access for spiders…eek!

Somehow, though, my aversion to clutter dissipates when I step into a thrift store. It seems the prospect of finding something amazing for very little money among the stacks and stacks of dusty junk is the ultimate antihistamine. But I still want to come home to a relaxing, uncluttered space. So as much as I love thrifting, I try to stay conscious of how much stuff I bring into our home. If I don’t have a place for it, I don’t buy it.

Similarly, I like to remain aware of the stuff that’s already in our home. If something no longer has a purpose and is not adding value to our lives, it’s time to say good-bye. In general, I’m not attached to “stuff.” I can usually part with things I no longer need without a second thought.

Lately, though, I realized I’ve been holding on to several items out of emotional attachment or a sense of obligation. One example is my red 1950s chrome and Formica dinette set. It’s the real deal, not a reproduction. I had wanted one for years. The gray ones were everywhere, but I wanted red. I scoured local garage sales and auctions, and watched eBay like a hawk. When I finally found this set at an antiques store in 1998, I was happy to plunk down the $265 asking price.

I proudly used the vintage set as my dining room table for the next decade. Then, when I decided to downsize and move into a 1-bedroom condo, I no longer had the space for it, but I couldn’t bear to let it go.

Two years later, when Tom and I got married and bought our current home, the red dinette set came along, and found a new home in our basement, disassembled and wrapped in old bed sheets to protect it from dust and scratches.

I still love the table, but it just doesn’t fit with the décor and layout of our home. Since we plan to live here for at least several more years, I decided it wasn’t fair to the dinette set to keep it hidden away in the basement for potentially another decade. Perhaps there is someone else out there who can give it a proper home.

This afternoon I’m taking what was once my most prized possession to a furniture consignment shop, along with a few other things I’ve been holding onto for similar reasons. It’s a little sad, but it also feels good to let go and focus on the present.

Do you have trouble letting go of things, even if they no longer serve you?

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Feature photo by Ndecam on Flickr.





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12 sustainability goals for 2012

Feb 15 2012 Published by under Sustainability


This is not a typical Wisconsin winter. It’s 44 degrees today. Yesterday was in the high-30s. We haven’t had any below-zero weather yet, and have almost no snow on the ground. Usually by February my seasonal affective disorder gets the best of me, and I just want to curl up in a ball and sleep until April. This year I’m feeling much more energized, and ready to get a jump on my spring plans.

Last March I wrote It’s time for spring sustainability-ing, listing several goals for living more sustainably in 2011. I accomplished most of them. Here’s a recap:

We did start a vegetable garden, and although Griffin ate most of the tomatoes, we did manage to harvest some peppers, beans, and lettuce. We need to do a better job of spacing out the plants this year, and plan to add another small garden plot for additional vegetables.

I made progress on the landscaping, and got many of the plants for free from friends and neighbors. I did break down and buy a few plants from a local nursery in the fall, when perennials were 50 percent off.

I started making homemade laundry detergent, and I swear our clothes are cleaner. It’s so easy to make, extremely cost-effective, and much safer for the environment than most commercial detergents. Plus, there is less waste because I’m re-using the same container rather than recycling a big plastic jug every few weeks.

Though I am no longer an active Project 333 participant, I have kept my wardrobe simple. I avoid buying clothes unless I really need them, and always try to find the item secondhand before buying new.

Where I fell short in 2011 is with my goal to bike more. I didn’t bike to the grocery store at all. I vow to do better this year.

Blogs like The Non-Consumer Advocate and The Zero Waste Home inspire me to live even more sustainably than we already do. I came up with 12 sustainability goals for 2012.

  1. Work toward eliminating plastic bags. Even though I use re-usable shopping bags for grocery shopping 80 percent of the time (sometimes I forget to bring them), I’m still shocked at how many plastic bags end up in our recycling bin. Produce bags and plastic bags for bulk foods make up the majority of our plastic waste. I want to start bringing my own containers to the store and reduce or eliminate the need for plastic bags.
  2. Add more insulation in our home to increase energy efficiency. When we bought the house in 2010, the inspector pointed out how little insulation there is in the attic. It’s on our project list for 2012 to remedy this problem.
  3. Further reduce the amount of packaged foods we buy. I enjoy cooking, and make most of our meals from scratch, but there are a number of packaged foods we rely on for quick meals that I think we can eliminate or significantly reduce with a little extra planning. I’ve also been hearing more about potentially harmful chemicals in canned foods, which I use almost daily (especially beans
  4. Reduce dependence on paper towels. We use a lot of paper towels because they are convenient, but they create a lot of waste. I want to switch to rags as much as possible.
  5. Replace all light bulbs with compact fluorescents. We’ve already started doing this. As our “regular” light bulbs burn out, we are replacing them with energy-efficient CFLs.
  6. Dry clothes on a line rather than use the dryer, as much as possible.
  7. Install a rain barrel. We can use the collected rainwater for the garden and landscape.
  8. Bike to the grocery store. It will require planning on my part, because the bike trailer can only hold two grocery bags, but I really want to do this at least some of the time.
  9. Produce less garbage. This is related to 1 and 3, but not all of our garbage is a result of grocery shopping and/or food packaging. One example is the makeup sponges I use for application and blending. Perhaps this is something I can do without.
  10. Join a CSA. We’ve done this in the past, but did not join last year because we started our own garden. We weren’t able to produce nearly enough veggies to sustain us all spring and summer, so we’re buying a share this year. The vegetables are locally grown and organic, which are two sustainability pluses.
  11. Install faucet aerators to reduce water usage.
  12. Make natural beauty products. I want to try making my own shampoo and lotion to start, to further reduce the amount of plastic bottles we are using, and reduce the number of chemicals we are exposed to.

Have you thought about ways to live more sustainably this year? I’d love to hear about them. Share your spring sustainability goals in the comments below.

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Photo by Erix! on Flickr


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