An Interview with Karen Lee of EcoKaren

EcoKaren's bottle cap birds' nests

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Lee, Co-Team Leader of the EcoEtsy Street Team (a group of Etsy crafters who are dedicated to earth-friendly practices), and owner of EcoKaren, a company offering eco-friendly, green, and reusable products for you and your home.

Karen also writes a very thoughtful and timely blog on the green living, including environmental issues and eco-friendly products.

Please tell me about your company! What do you make? What types of materials do you use? And what is your focus/mission?

Ecokaren carries one-of-a-kind, handmade, eco-friendly items. No two items are exactly alike as I only use materials (resources) I already have. When I do buy any new supplies, I buy sustainable materials like organic fabric and yarn. I also use freecycle and thrift stores to repurpose items that people want to throw out. My latest project is handmade journals that incorporate leftover paper from my kids’ end-of-the-year notebooks. The journals are handmade using coptic stitching and Japanese binding methods.

Upcycled journal by EcoKaren

My mission is to use existing resources for functional and practical eco-creations instead of buying new materials. If I look around, I can always find things to make with them. So, my shop’s focus may not be “home decor” or “jewelry” or “fashion” but it’s whatever I find that’s available that I can make something with, at that moment. I have fun being spontaneous and coming up with things to make by looking at a heap of fabric scrap and notions. And to take it one step further, I try to make items that will help reduce waste, contribute to being green, and also save money… like reusable utensil holders that allow you to carry your own utensils instead of using disposable plastic ones. It cuts down on plastic usage, reduces waste and saves money since you don’t have to throw away utensils!

portable utensil holder by EcoKaren

What inspired you to start your company?

I am a “retired” chiropractor. I sold my practice to support my family full time. So, while waiting on the sidelines for my two active teenagers to finish their after school activities, I picked up knitting and crocheting again, after stopping for fifteen years. I gave away numerous finished goodies as Christmas and birthday gifts to family and friends and they suggested that I sell them. That’s when I found Etsy. I sold my organic knitted washcloths and repurposed plastic bottle cap birds nest magnets when I first opened my first shop, ‘ecogeneration’.

So you are a chiropractor! How has this background influenced your choices as a green mom/blogger and eco-crafter?

Chiropractic philosophy is very much in line with taking care of the planet – our mother Earth. The chiropractic tenet is based on the belief that power that made the body heals the body. If we screw up our body, only the body can heal itself. We can use external interventions to help the process sometimes but in the end, the body has to do the healing. The life force in our body has the power to heal itself. Well, I believe the earth is like the human body. Given a chance, the Earth has its own life force to heal itself too. However, we are constantly abusing the Earth that we are making it impossible to do that on its own. So, like the way our body needs external interventions, the Earth needs us to help it heal. I want it to have the best possible chances for it to do its magic and get better. Being a chiropractor, I see myself as a healer, or as a helper in its healing process, and not the destruction process.

Becoming a green mom, a blogger, and eco-crafter all stem from the same philosophy. I don’t consider myself an environmentalist by any means. But practically speaking, I have been living an environmentally responsible life because of my mother. She lived a very frugal life as an immigrant and she taught me how to save and reuse. She was being green even before it was a trend. So I learned from her how not to waste our valuable resources. In addition, as a Chiropractic Doctor (doctor means ‘to teach’ in Latin), I used to teach my patients on how to stay healthy. Actually, I used to talk about many of the issues I currently write about on my blog. I used to relate nutrition, industrial chemicals, farming practices, pesticides and herbicide to health. Environmental issues weren’t really labeled as such, but I was addressing them when I spoke to my patients about how their environment affects them. Now, I carry the same torch when I blog about these issues. Spreading the word and ‘teaching’ my readers on how to be green is my way of helping to heal the planet.

As co-leader of the EcoEtsy Team and an eco-crafter, what is your advice for new (and experienced) crafters who want to make their businesses more eco-friendly?

When I joined EcoEtsy team as a new seller on Etsy, I was so inspired by the members’ creativity and their passion on being eco-friendly. I learned so much from reading the team’s blog, forum discussions, and team events. I was humbled by so many great sellers who cared about their eco-friendly crafts, business practices and educating others how to be green. So when the opportunity came along to become a co-leader, I took the challenge. I knew I couldn’t do it alone but I also knew that the members will be very supportive so I dove in head first. And guess what? I was right. The team is full of energetic, smart, and earth-caring members. We have a new blog, we had our first Earth Day Auction and raised over $450 (after expenses) to donate to the World Wildlife Fund, and I am planning our Fall event (already!). Being a member of EcoEtsy (and becoming a co-leader to give back to the team) was the smartest decision I ever made. And that is best advice I can give crafters who want to be eco-friendly – surround yourself with others who have the same mission. You need the support of others who think like you. You need to ask questions on what is more green, bamboo or organic, paper or plastic, reuse or buy new, etc. There are so many resources available on being green now that it’s almost impossible NOT to be green. And what’s better. It saves you money!! Imagine, never having to buy shipping supplies and being green at the same time!

One easy practical tip I want to share is to utilize your computer to the maximum. I save everything as pdf files and don’t keep any paper copy (saves paper). Do online banking and forget about paper statement (safer for identity theft too). Use e-mails and save them in a separate folder on your hard drive. Use internet shipping service and have the mailman pick up your goods to be shipped (no need to drive to the post office). There are so many things you can do online now that you don’t need to keep any physical files or papers or statements.

Once you realize the financial benefit of being eco-friendly, you’ll never go back to your old habits. Pretty soon, you will find yourself making the same changes at home too.

We recently celebrated the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day. What are your plans (both professional and personal) for the 50th Anniversary?

Professionally, I hope to continue to be blogging and sharing eco living tips, but also shouting about the discovery of smart alternative energy that does not involve destroying the environment. I hope we will be celebrating the discovery renewable and sustainable energy sources. I hope we won’t ever have to deal with the disaster that is going on in the Gulf again. I hope I’ll be blogging about that happy news.

Personally, I hope to be living off the land and getting off the grid. My hubby is not a farmer, but he’s so fed up with the current state of the environment that he’s willing and ready to learn to be one. We talk about moving up state NY and buying some land and not worrying about where our food is coming from or relying on unreliable utility companies for energy (we had two black outs this past winter). As I get older, I yearn for a simpler life. And in ten years, who knows? Maybe I will be able to.

Thank you, Karen! You can find Karen on Twitter, Facebook and Etsy. And I highly recommend you check out the EcoKaren blog.

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