10 steps to a joyful, more sustainable home

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

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Little known fact: before that fateful design school review where I began to get curious about joy, my primary passion was sustainable design. I read books on cradle-to-cradle manufacturing methods and researched low-impact plastics. I studied ways to minimize packaging waste and read up on biomimicry. So while sustainability is not a topic I often write about, it’s one that’s always in the back of my mind.

I’m occasionally asked if joyful design is at odds with sustainability. This question sometimes comes from people concerned that when I emphasize the power of material things to create joy, I’m advocating consumerism, and sometimes from people who are trying to lower their impact and worry that any sort of joyful embellishment is a kind of wasteful indulgence. But the truth is that joyful design and sustainable design should be not just compatible, but mutually reinforcing, and when they’re not, it’s a warning sign to look deeper.

After all, the roots of all our joy come from the planet we live on. We may inhabit small boxes built on individual swatches of land, but this swirling blue marble is our broader home, and when it is not healthy, it is very hard for us to be healthy.

In an essay called The Body and the Earth, writer Wendell Berry observes:

“…the concept of health is rooted in the concept of wholeness. To be healthy is to be whole. The word health belongs to a family of words, a listing of which will suggest how far the consideration of health must carry us: heal, whole, wholesome, hale, hallow, holy. And so it is possible to give a definition to health that is positive and far more elaborate than that given to it by most medical doctors and the officers of public health. If the body is healthy, then it is whole. But how can it be whole and yet be dependent, as it obviously is, upon other bodies and upon the earth, upon all the rest of Creation, in fact?”

What Berry’s etymological journey suggests is that our wellbeing is integrally connected to the wellbeing of the earth we live on. And I think it’s no different with our joy. As beings hardwired for empathy, how can we not feel an inner conflict when the misery of other creatures is increasing around us? The closer our surroundings are to their natural homeostatic balance, the greater a sense of harmony, abundance, and renewal we are able to find in them.

Biomimicry proponent and author Janine Benyus has a notion I find powerful. She calls it being a welcome species. Humans have not been a welcome species in our ecosystems for a long time. But what if we were? What would it mean to leave our habitats better than we found them, to not just strive not to do damage, but to have our presence be conducive to life, and regenerative for the earth? Perhaps the only time I’ve felt this is in my garden, watching pollinators luxuriate in the native vegetation. In my few square feet of land, my interference is not unwelcome. I know this idea feels lofty, but so much better than desperately striving all the time to mitigate the negatives. It may be a distant goal, but it’s a worthwhile one to consider.

And at the same time, joy has a role to play in cultivating sustainable spaces and behaviors. Do you remember the early eco-design movement of the 90s? All that pressed bamboo and unbleached hemp? When we strip design back to the bone, we end up with joyless products that people purchase only out of obligation. One of the challenges of conservation movements on the whole is that in urging us to cut back our unfettered use of resources, they can feel a lot like deprivation. Given what we know about the human attraction to freedom and abundance, it’s no surprise that such initiatives can be a hard sell. Using the aesthetics of joy to infuse behavior change with moments of delight can help motivate and sustain these changes over the long haul.

The challenge is that we live in a highly interconnected, systemic, complex world. So even if we all have the best intentions around sustainability, it’s hard to know how to follow these intentions in real life. So in this post, I want to explore the intersection between joy and sustainability, and give you clear strategies that will help you create a happy, healthy home — for you and your family, and for all the other creatures who live here. And if you’re interested in creating more joy at home, I hope you’ll join me for a free live workshop coming soon called The 5 Secrets to Designing a Joyful Home. You can sign up for the waitlist here.

Take your time

An estimated 8.8 million tons of furniture ended up in landfills in the US in 2005. Given this, the very best way to make an impact in your home is to only buy what you need, and ideally, only buy things you’re likely to keep for the long haul. When we rush to decorate, we’re more likely to make mistakes, ending up with something that doesn’t quite fit our space, or something we grow tired of and quickly want to replace.

When I was just moving out on my own for the first time, I planned out a whole decorating scheme based on the IKEA catalog. A wiser elder gently observed that while the things I had chosen were nice, wouldn’t I want to upgrade when I started making a bit of money? And then wouldn’t it be better to buy a few more expensive things I really loved, and furnish the rest with hand-me-downs that I wouldn’t feel bad about saying goodbye to in a few years?

This had a profound effect on me. I used my decorating budget to purchase a few chef’s quality pots for the kitchen, a couple of solid knives, and a set of silver from the flea market. And guess what? We still use all of these in our kitchen today, 18 years later.

It’s also important to avoid the temporary trap. Sometimes a bare spot in the home just begs to be filled with a cheap solution from a chain store as a holdover until you can find something you really love. But if you’re clever, you can find an appealing workaround that doesn’t involve buying new. I’ve covered cardboard boxes in vintage linens to make a nightstand, or used a steamer trunk as a coffee table at various points in time, and while neither was perfect, it meant that not only did I avoid buying something for the short-term, but I was able to save that budget for something I truly did love.

Understand your style

There’s nothing worse — for your sanity or for the environment — than furnishing a home only to discover a few years later that you hate what you bought and want to redo it. The problem is that we’re often so bombarded by inspirational images on Pinterest and Instagram, it’s easy to decorate with someone else’s vision in mind, or based on a fleeting trend, rather than what we truly love. So the sooner we get in touch with our own style, the easier it is to create a home we’re so in love with that we can’t bear to part with anything in it.

This is one of the reasons why I devote a whole week to defining your style in my course, Design a Joyful Home. Most of us have never learned how to translate our intuition for aesthetics into our homes. But this kind of self-knowledge is like any other emotional skill — something we gain through reflection and practice. When you deeply understand what brings you joy, you can trust yourself to make decisions you’ll be happy with for the long haul. For a quick way to get started exploring your own personal style, try answering this question: If I had to move, and could only take five things from my current home with me, which ones would I choose? (For the purposes of this exercise, assume you can bring unlimited photos and memorabilia, so think more about furnishings, decorative objects, etc.)

Shop your home

This one sounds obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt the urge to buy something new, then looked around and realized that I have something already that can do the job perfectly well. What can you move, repurpose, bring out of storage, or otherwise press into service to do what you need?

This strategy works especially well for storage items. There are lots of stores out there ready to sell you all kinds of bins, boxes, and vessels, but often you have what you need in another room. I’ve used extra glassware from the kitchen to hold makeup brushes in the bathroom, and trays from my desk as coasters for the coffee table. And it’s extra-satisfying to give an old thing new purpose, while also saving yourself a trip to the store!

Buy (and sell) vintage

Buying vintage is the ultimate win-win when it comes to sustainability. Not only are you saving a piece from the landfill, but you also get the thrill of discovery and the personality of an artifact that didn’t come off an assembly line with hundreds just like it. Not to mention, vintage pieces are often better-crafted and more durable than new ones, and you can often get them for a fraction of what a similar piece might cost new.

When Albert and I were furnishing the cottage, I was insistent that we do as much as possible with vintage furniture. So we rented a U-Haul and drove up to Brimfield, a week-long flea market that takes place three times a year and includes more than 26 football fields of antiques! We came prepared with a wishlist and dimensions, and came away with nearly everything we needed for the house. For example, our dining table, a vintage Danish teak table that had recently been refinished, cost us one-tenth of what our new dining table in the city cost. We also scored three midcentury Paul McCobb chairs (which I painted green, with stripes!) for $80. These chairs can go for $400 or more — each! As someone with a strong bargain-loving streak, the ability to furnish a home sustainably on a shoestring was a true joy.

Another surprising benefit of buying vintage? Minimal VOCs. VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, are chemicals found in various materials involved in the manufacture of furniture, from stains and finishes to plastics and foams. VOCs release into the air over time through a process called offgassing. This contributes to unhealthy indoor air quality in our homes, which is particularly an issue given that we spend more than 87% of our lives indoors.

Products offgas more at the beginning of their lifespan, and less as time goes on. So vintage products tend to offgas less than newer ones. (On this note: If you decide to refinish an older piece, make sure to choose a low VOC stain or paint to do so.)

Finally, one of the best features of vintage furnishings is that they hold their value better than new ones. So, if you do change your mind and decide you don’t want them down the road, you can be almost certain that you’ll be able to resell or donate them rather than sending them to landfill.

Choose things that wear in, rather than wear out

This has a lot to do with materials. One crack in a glass table, and the whole thing is useless. But scratches in a wood table deepen the character of the piece. Brass and weathered copper become more beautiful with use, but shiny chrome looks dingy and smudgy when handled. Silks and satins are easily stained and not-so-easily cleaned. Linens, cottons, and velvets develop a soft, worn-in look that makes them feel more welcoming with time. 

When you choose materials that wear out, you’re tacitly accepting the idea that the object’s moment of highest value is in the showroom. Like a new car, the moment you drive it off the lot, it begins to depreciate. But when you choose objects that wear in, you’re saying that the things in your surroundings can be like fine wine or a good friendship: better with each passing day, more meaningful even in the face of flaws.

Tend to your things

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I don’t always agree with many of the tenets of minimalism. But one that I really do embrace is the idea that everything you buy has a time investment attached to it, not just a monetary one. If you buy a wood cutting board, you need to periodically oil it. If you buy a Moroccan carpet, you need to have it regularly cleaned to keep it in good shape. Buying something isn’t just a one-time transaction. You’re accepting stewardship of that artifact. And the better you care for what you have, the longer you can postpone having to replace it with a new one.

So knowing this, it’s worth thinking before you purchase something: Do I have the time and resources to maintain this? Is this going to feel like a burden?

I confess I’m not always the best at finding time to take care of my things, so often these questions provide a helpful pause that prompts me to reconsider. I’d rather have fewer things in better shape, than to feel overwhelmed by things that are wearing out because of my neglect.

Match trendiness with lifespan

Home decor trends can be fun, but how do we indulge in these short-term nature of these aesthetic choices without being wasteful?

A simple answer is to match the trendiness of a piece with the lifespan. Create a foundation of timeless pieces for things that have the potential to be long-lasting. For example, a dining table or a bed frame could last twenty years, so choose styles with this timeframe in mind. Then, when it comes to things like towels, table linens, cushion covers, sheets, and so on, feel free to incorporate trends that might pass in the next 2-5 years, since these things will likely have worn out and need replacing anyway by that time.

Beware of blends

This is an idea that comes from the cradle-to-cradle approach to sustainability. The premise behind cradle-to-cradle is that nature builds in a way that all things created eventually cycle through an ecosystem to become fodder for new life. Traditional manufacturing, on the other hand, is what’s called cradle-to-grave, because at the end of its life, it has nowhere to go but landfill.

The essence of cradle-to-cradle design is that materials have different cycles of reuse that they can be a part of. Organic materials such as wood, wool, or cotton are part of a biological cycle. They decompose and can be fed back into the earth — they become nutrients for other organisms.

But synthetic materials, such as many plastics, can be a part of a cycle too. These materials are part of a technical cycle. Yes, they are made of petroleum and don’t decompose, but they can be melted down and recycled so that they can be reused in a different form. There are also materials that are extracted from nature, like glass or metal, but are not organic. These materials also participate in technical cycles which allow them to be reused.

Why does this matter? Because if you know which kind of cycle an object’s materials are a part of, then you know how it can be disposed of sustainably.

The problem is when an object is made of two kinds of materials, fused together, that are part of different cycles. This is what cradle-to-cradle calls a noxious hybrid — and it can’t be disposed of in any way other than landfill. Examples of noxious hybrids include: a carpet made of 50% polyester and 50% wool, or a baby stool made of co-molded rubber and plastic (which can’t be separated).

To solve this problem, look for objects that either are made of materials that go into a single stream (a wood chair with a natural cane seat is fine, because both are biodegradable; same goes for a polyester carpet with a polyester backing) or look for objects that have been designed to be easily disassembled so that the parts can be placed back into their respective cycles.

Look for “better” materials

Figuring out which materials to choose can sometimes feel like an impossible task, but there are some that are clearly better, and others that are clearly more damaging.

On the list of materials to avoid? Cotton, one of the most water-intensive and worst-polluting crops, and animal-derived materials, which have the same high carbon footprint as eating meat. Disposable plastics and polyester fleece should also be minimized — fleece is particularly damaging as it’s made of microfibers which shed in the wash, polluting water supplies and ending up in the bodies of fish.

Better choices include quick-growing plant-based materials, such as hemp, jute, flax, and nettle, as well as cellulose derived materials like tencel. Rattan (currently trendy!) is a good alternative to wood because it’s exceptionally fast-growing, though there are also sustainably harvested woods that can be good choices as well.

It’s also worth looking for alternatives to materials often used in joyful decor. Glitter, for example, has the same microplastics issue as fleece, but several companies make biodegradable glitter, or you can avoid it entirely with a more durable reflective object like a disco ball. Similarly, though balloons do biodegrade over time, often they don’t do so fast enough to prevent them getting into waterways and being accidentally eaten by animals. Instead, try paper lanterns or honeycomb decorations, which can be recycled or saved for future use.

Ultimately, the most important thing here is to ask the questions when you are shopping. Most manufacturers will only prioritize sustainability when customers start asking. Put store associates on the spot to tell you what their company is doing, and if they don’t have answers, make sure someone from the company gets back to you, or move on.

Create change through motion

Lastly, I want to talk a little bit about hedonic adaptation, which is our brain’s natural tendency to adjust to our surroundings, reducing the pleasure we find in something over time. This is the mechanism that often makes us crave novelty, sending us out in search of a new little something that will refresh our joy.

Hedonic adaptation is a powerful force, but we can outsmart it! One of my favorite ways to do this is by moving things around in your home. Switch pieces of art, move the sofa to a different wall, play musical chairs. Take a throw from the bedroom and put it in the living room, or swap the cushions in the den with the ones in the guest room. You can also build this kind of dynamism into your design by buying reversible objects. Many Moroccan rugs are naturally reversible, for example. When buying (or making) cushion covers, look for two-sided ones that can be flipped around for a different look.

This is an evolving space, and I’m hoping in a year’s time, I’ll be able to update this post with even more info. I’d love to hear from you: What are your favorite sustainability tips for a joyful home?

Reminder: Sign ups for the 5 Secrets to Designing a Feelgood Home are now open! Check the schedule for this year’s free live workshop here.

Images: Scott Webb via Unsplash, Johnny Miller

February 1st, 2020


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    Discussion (6 Comments)

  1. Dominique Mazeaud on February 1, 2020

    Dear Ingrid,

    I have been a fan of yours for years and I am deeply grateful that you continue spreading your beautiful spirit beyond your earlier blog and book. At some point in my own writing endeavors, I quote you in my manuscript “heartist: when life and art become one.” You certainly are a very unique kind of ‘heartist.’
    With kind regards, dominique

  2. Mary Lou Zeek on February 1, 2020

    Love, Love this. Spot on and truly inspirational. Your joy pops out in every word. Thank you Ingrid! Mary Lou

  3. sandy on February 3, 2020

    This is a WONDERFUL article. Thank you so much for discussing sustainability in design and aesthetics, and what we can do to avoid trashing our world in our quest for joy in our homes. It is such a headache to figure out what to do with things at the end of their life cycle. I’ve tried taking apart things as much as possible in order to recycle what I can but it’s hard if not impossible sometimes, and there aren’t enough recycling programs that will take things whole and free. When we buy things, we need to take into account the literal cost and burden of getting rid of them when they are broken, used up, or we no longer need them. I have begun to think about this before I purchase something, preferring to buy from manufacturers that have a take-back recycling program, even if I have to pay to ship the item back.

  4. annoesjka on February 3, 2020

    Thank you again for yet another great blog article. I wrote down several ideas and eyeopeners in my little (pretty, happy-making) notebook. Last week’s post led to a fridge full of flower pictures and drawings with washi tape as well; so I’m sure this post will also have an impact on my footprint. 😉

  5. Cindi on February 7, 2020

    Great post. But you should know that a lot of used furniture is moldy. I am very sensitive, can’t even walk into an antique store without getting sick. That smell of old antiques? Mold. And porous items pick up whatever is in the house they are in. A few years back I bought a gorgeous used Mitchell Gold sofa at an estate sale, and it made me sick until I got rid of it. Finally learned my lesson.

  6. Jessica on May 26, 2020

    Thanks for making the point about used furniture. I frequently tell people that one of the only places you can pick up decent solid wood furniture for cheap is Craigslist….’fine furniture’ stores are usually selling veneered stuff that falls apart quickly. I have gotten magnificent Danish modern pieces not at West Elm, but from estate sales, relatives, and Craigslist, and they’re still in beautiful condition.


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