You don't have to sacrifice your personal decorating taste to be green. Here's what to look for, how to find it, and why you can keep your promise to the earth while dressing your home fabulously.
Cotton fiber can be USDA certified organic, but processing the fiber into a textile is not covered. Select organic cotton products that have been dyed with "low-impact fiber reactive dyes" and finished without formaldehyde. Product labels should mention voluntary third-party standards or certifications such as Eko (certified by Skal), Oeko-Tex, or the Global Organic Textile Standards. These are meant to ensure that production and/or processing is eco-friendly.
Also, find textiles that can be machine washed so you can avoid dry-cleaning chemicals. If an item is a blend, check whether it's blended with another sustainable fiber like hemp or linen, rather than conventional cotton or a synthetic fiber.
A grass that grows extremely quickly, bamboo can be harvested in just 3 to 5 years compared with many species of trees, which can take 10 to 20 years or more to mature. Bamboo can be grown without pesticides and fertilizers, and it never requires replanting because of its extensive root system.
Check manufacturer's information on the product to make sure that a formaldehyde-free glue was used to bind the strips of bamboo together and that the product's finish is food-safe and nontoxic.
Recycled glass, metal, paper, plastic, and textiles are incorporated in all kinds of housewares. You'll find recycled glass dinnerware, decorative bowls made from recycled paper, duvets sewn from vintage bed linens, vases made from recycled copper, and rugs made from old wool sweaters. Wood that's reclaimed from old buildings, boats, or wine barrels is used for picture frames, cutting boards, or baskets.
Seek out items that contain materials you can recycle in your community. If a product is made from more than one type of material, see if you can take it apart for recycling. Metal is particularly recyclable. Scrap metal recycling centers will pay for even small amounts of copper, brass, bronze, aluminum, and stainless steel. You can bring old flatware or candlesticks to these centers (and they're also accepted in many curbside recycling programs).
When you decide to go green, there's no need to break the bank replacing everything in your home. It's best to avoid buying new products until you really need them (even the greenest new items have an impact on the environment -- most bamboo is shipped all the way from China).
First, consider shopping for secondhand items at flea markets and thrift stores, and refurbish or find creative new uses for items you already own.
Second, when you do decide to invest, look for products that incorporate recycled content (since it reduces the use of raw materials), renewable fibers like organic cotton and hemp that can be grown without most pesticides, and wood that comes from forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.
Green goods may cost more than housewares made from conventional materials because they're not manufactured on the same scale (many are more labor- and management intensive). Selection, however, is flourishing. If you don't see these green products at your favorite retailer, please let them know you're looking -- it's good to show retailers there's a demand!