Recycled homegoods aren't just for crafters anymore. Sure, they still have the "crafty gift" market pretty well cornered, but in today's economy, with the growing popularity of eco-friendly and fair trade products, consumers have a variety of ethical - and yes, quirky - goods to choose from for their children, their homes and themselves.
"Sustainable goods today can be high style," says Cynthia Glensgard, owner of Global Handmade Hope.
Repurposing old materials into new goods offers the cutting-edge Chicago family an array of options-and the power to make a statement when spending a dollar.
Best of all, you don't have to go far for a selection of these products with "past lives."
121 N. Marion St.
Additional locations in Evanston and Glen Ellyn
Walk into Ten Thousand Villages in downtown Oak Park, and you might be greeted by volunteers Elizabeth Bach or Jan Colliton, who can show you the latest items from one of the 36 nations with artisan work in the store.
"Two years ago I made a goal for myself: I would volunteer for individuals, for my community, and for the world," Bach says. "This is how I volunteer for the world."
The 55 store volunteers and three staff members offer fair trade merchandise to the western suburbs, much of which is made from recycled materials.
"Part of the philosophy of fair trade is that the artists use abundant materials - that they do not strip their land of resources," store manager Clare Leavitt says. As a result, many items in the store are made from repurposed materials. And because Ten Thousand Villages is a nationwide organization with a 65-year history, there is always a lot to choose from.
If your home needs a decorative fix, you can choose from large mirrors framed with recycled newsprint or old washers, or select from a series of wall art made from old oil drums.
Those with an activist heart won't want to miss the candle holders made from shell casings and formed into the shape of peace doves. Baskets woven from candy wrappers easily store dolls or blocks, and thumb pianos crafted from discarded tomato and sardine cans make great gifts for the young and young at heart.
1911 W. Division St.
Take a global perspective and a focus on education and culture exchange, and add in some designer-worthy fashions and you get Greenheart, a Wicker Park store that challenges you to "change the world by shopping."
In 1985, the nonprofit Center for Cultural Interchange formed to promote cultural understanding, academic development, environmental consciousness and world peace. It offers international students in the states and U.S. students abroad opportunities to volunteer with various environmental and social projects. CCI opened the Greenheart Shop in 2007.
This store offers a great selection of fair trade goods for parents of young children, from rattles to blankets to storybooks about the environment. An adorable pink elephant caught our eye, stuffed with vetiver root and made with recycled synthetic fibers. If a can of Coke gets you through your morning playgroup, look for purses and wallets made of soda tabs-named Best Green Handbag of 2010 at the Independent Handbag Designer Awards at Parsons New School of Design in New York. And stationery isn't old hat when it's made from recycled elephant dung-that display is a must for parents with a sense of humor!
Families looking for eco-friendly fun can check out the Greenheart Earth Olympics on Saturday, May 12 in Wicker Park. Events will include a bike tire change race, a trash scavenger hunt, and a competition to see who can catch an "organic free-range Chicago chicken." Visit greenheart.us for information.
5357 N. Ashland Ave.
Nadeen Kieren laughs when she answers why she decided to open her quirky Andersonville shop. She and her architect husband bought the Victorian building, but had a hard time finding a tenant who could add something novel to the neighborhood. The area needed more "walkable retail," and eventually Kieren decided she would "give it a whirl" herself. GreenSky brings fun, functional and affordable goods to Chicagoans, while doing something good for regional artists.
"Most of our products are sourced within a 250-mile radius of Chicago, so you're buying local," Kieren says. "Our suppliers are people who have a vision for something on its way to the landfill."
While the store boasts plenty of housewares that would make any room brighter, particular consumers will be drawn to the beer and soda bottles that have been converted to drinking glasses, lawn décor sculpted out of spoons, or the light switch covers made from vintage wallpaper.
If you're proud of your Midwestern roots, nab the large state-shaped maps made out of regional license plates. Not to be missed are the old storybooks that have been converted to journals and the toothbrushes made from recycled yogurt cups.
428 W. Touhy Ave.
Glensgard opened her Park Ridge fair trade store in 2009 after a mission trip to Rwanda. Today her business serves as a wholesaler to companies around the country, connecting African and South American artisans to U.S. vendors and customers.
"We want to be a voice for fair trade," Glensgard says. "Our goal is to show how people can impact others' lives through their purchases."
In addition to selling goods, the store also serves as an educational voice in the community. Those interested in sustainable living can book the store for private parties for scout troops, community organizations and more; the store recently hosted a young teen's birthday party and themed it around all-natural bath and skincare products.
For new products made from old junk, look to the jewelry section, where rings are made from tagua nuts and necklaces with orange peel rosettes sit front and center. In housewares, an expanse of telephone wire masquerades as a decorative bowl, while discarded slabs of wood become wall hangings.
And the youngsters in the family can try their hand at checkers on a handmade cloth-scrap board complete with two sets of bottlecaps.
Allison Martin is a freelance writer living in Oak Park.