Creating an ethical eco-based business

Masterpiece Maker/Colleen Attara

I am an eco-artist and a treasure hunter.  I see “yes” where others see “no”. * I see possibility where others see trash.

I paint vibrant cities on glass, plant colorful window box gardens in vacant cities and I hand-script affirming words as wall art.  Salvaged plastic is used in all my work.

31 million tons of plastic waste was generated in the U.S in 2010. Only 8 percent was recycled.

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

I love knowing my artwork will keep plastic out of our landfills and blue oceans. While most of what I reuse is reclaimed plastic signage, some is scrap plastic packing material and I can often be found picking pieces out of huge recycling bins.  I have a fondness for rejected wall paint and old windows, which is the beginning of my story and still a part of what I do.

All of these materials have a past with imperfections.  I find them, have them cut into the shapes I need to work with, then I take them back to my cottage studio where I sand and shine them all up with love. When you reuse, there is an element of unpredictability in the process. You have to find it first.   Sometimes I meet people at shows and they ask me, “How did you come up with all this?”

The answer is I trusted the process. Part of the color and joy that comes out of my work is because the materials are imperfect. I have to work a bit harder to make it all shine.  It takes me places and I follow.

There are more obstacles to jump over so I learned to jump a little bit higher.  And I learned a few other things along the way too.

bridge by Colleen Attara

 The easy way is probably not the way for you, although it would be nice

A few years ago, I installed a 70 foot-long installation in a new hospital made from all reclaimed materials.  It was a huge project.  It was created out of all scrap plastic signage.  Part of the installation included a bridge that had five sections.  When we went to cut the last section, there was not enough scrap to cut it.  I had two choices; cut it using new material or take that one section of the bridge home with no legs, find more scrap  and have the legs cut later, then reattach them.  I picked option #2.

Standing true to your values becomes part of your story

That little section of the bridge was what I talked about in press interviews because it described the whole project perfectly.

I could show where the legs of the bridge were attached on that one section. I didn’t have to talk about my values.  I could point to them.

piles of recycled words/colleen attara

 Partner with people who know your values and will honor them

Let’s go back to the bridge. The company that did the cutting could have just cut that bridge and not told me we had run out of materials.  But they were completely aligned with my values. They let me know my choices, which is their job.  They point out the easier path, not expecting me to take it.  Standing by my values has strengthened our working relationship.  People like to work with people who are what they say they are, even when it is not convenient.

Figure out how it is a win-win for everyone

Because I use salvaged materials, I rarely pay for the materials.  Instead I pay for each cut. And I have lots of material cut. So materials with no value now have value for everyone.  And companies have a reason to save materials for me.

Ask the right people the right questions.  Then listen carefully

Making a commitment to just use recycled materials can seem limiting when you come up with new ideas.  The easiest way for me to work through this has been to talk it over with the businesses I partner with for materials.  They point me in the right direction and put me on a straighter path. They understand the materials I am working with much better than I do because they use them every day on a larger scale. They take my idea and make it doable.

calm in the flowers/colleen attara

You have to be true to your values all the time but know there will be compromises

About 75% of what I wear comes from thrift and consignment stores.   I find ways to reuse and redistribute clothing and items we have out grown. All of my cleaning products are earth friendly.  I buy local as often as possible.  I carry plastics and recycles home to dispose of properly.  I find creative ways to reuse everything. My latest discovery:  that a used dryer sheet is an amazing dust cloth-dust just sticks to it.

But sometimes you will have to choose between green and practicality. As much as I would love to drive an electric car that gets 50 miles per gallon, I pick up huge sheets of reused plastic signage often. And I drive it from point A to point B. It has to be in a big sheet for it to work for me. Looking for and picking the right piece of plastic signage is part of my business.  And I need a big enough vehicle to do it in.  So I drive a Jeep Wrangler. They are all made in the U.S. and I love that-and I just love driving a Jeep.

Come up with plan “B” and “C”. No wasting allowed.

Sometimes the words I get cut are just too scratched and dented to sell. Or a recycled flower has marks left over from the sign it was cut from. Their past has really caught up with them.   So I came up with plan B, which is a little drawer of my “seconds” to sell at shows.  And I have a plan C too.  I prime the dented words and include them as extras in orders, all ready to be collaged or painted.  There is opportunity in everything. Any flower that has any extra marks will be growing beautifully outside my studio this spring.

 Scrap has scrap.  There is opportunity here.

All the words that I cut are hand-scripted. The little loops in my cursive have little bits of teardrop shaped plastic that I pop out.  I save theses pieces in jars on the highest shelf of my studio cabinet.  I trust the process.  Ideas are forming.  They will become earrings, pieces of a chandelier, or part of a mobile.  Put this scrap aside and let your subconscious go to work.  Trust me on this.  Ideas will come.

 *A big thank-you to Dyana Valentine for knowing what my gift is.  I see “yes” where others see “no”. 

Are you running a green business?  What lessons have you learned along the way? Are you considering making your business green or greener?  I would love to hear from you.


  1. Geri says:

    Colleen, this is beautiful! I try to keep my business as eco-friendly as I can… I use 100% recycled stock for my invitations + stationery, I use recycled or reused paper for my delightfuls + decorations, I reuse packing boxes as my stabilizers & I make my own packing shreds from brown paper that I gleep from a local business owner who gets a lot of it in the packages he receives! I know I could more and am constantly looking for printing solutions that are green. Your work is lovely and your commitment is inspiring! Thanks so much 😉

    • Geri…I love your business even more now. All of what you mention takes time and thought. It is much easier to just purchase than reuse thoughtfully. I love your commitment and your dedication to beauty, visually and imaginatively. I ADORE your word choice. “Delightfuls”….conjures the very best images.

  2. ‘So materials with no value now have value for everyone.’ That really resonates with me. It really is about making the ‘trash’ something useful, not forgotten in a heap. Really loved this post, thank you!

    • Thank you Anna. That is one of the things I like best about running a green art business…looking for the beauty and showing it to others. There is hope all around us. We have to train out eyes to see it. I am going to talk to an elementary school this month in honor of Earth Day. I work with the graduating 5th grade class to add onto a green installation we started when my daughter was in in school. I will display my materials how they look when I find them in front of a garbage can and ask the students what they see. Then I will show them what I see. I love this…

      • Working with kids like that is fantastic! They might be better equipped to see the magic than us old trash-trained adults. 😉 Sounds like such a cool Earth Day project. Have been reading your blog, will you be posting pics of your work with the elementary school?

        • Yes. This is the third year I have done this project. The first year was with my daughter’s class. Then the art teacher applied for a grant to have me come back the next year. This year, there is no grant, but they are paying me to come in and work with the children and install….and I donate some of my time as well in honor of Earth Day and spreading the message. We are working towards an artist in residency. It has been a magical experience for us all. I learn so much from them. ps. Thank you for reading my blog. I try to write a post or two weekly, but only write when I am super inspired. luckily, that is often….

  3. It most certainly is not always the easiest route. I know for myself, the commitment to use 100% reclaimed materials has limited the different ways I can expand my business, TrashN2Tees. While it would be so much easier to order bulk shirts at wholesale prices: saving me time and money. I relish in the opportunity to rummage through piles and racks of materials- hand picking the highest quality, best prints, and items that have a story to share. Instead of capitalizing on mass produced designs and selling them in all sizes, I choose to create one of kind shirts and designs. This commitment to changing the way we create and consume has been a barrier for wholesale opportunities and I’m often told “if you change your business model” we’d love to carry your designs.

    It kinda sounds like a bummer, right? But no- It’s allowed me to really add to the experience that I can provide my customers, whether you’re supporting TN2T by a purchase, playing along at a creative workshop, or utilizing our recycling program. This is what sets me apart from other brands- the fact that those values aren’t only a part of the story… they ARE the story.

    I believe all waste has value. Naturally I love that you mention having a “B” plan and a “C” plan. This is one of the easiest ways to greening your business- and its applicable both in creative business and corporate. What are you throwing away? Always think reuse before recycling. Scrap material in my studio becomes earrings, different applique designs, stuffing for ginormous sweater bean bag chairs (and so much more!) Whatever is left over is then processed for recycling where it can be transformed into anything from rags to insulation or turned into new fibers.

    Great Post Colleen, I’m looking forward to the conversations that begin.

    • Jenelle, not the easiest path but a path made by walking full of hope and opportunity. And that path lead me right to you. All of your good energy and vision. I know how hard you work…both at making eco designs and spreading the word to others. You make the path a little clearer for us all. Big hugs and admiration….

  4. April Heather Art says:

    GREAT article Colleen. I’ve learned so much from you. Seriously. For me, when I started making prints of my artwork I sought out 100% pcw paper products. I had to eventually order it but I’m so glad I did. I too love shopping vintage & used– at the Salvation Army I’ve gotten quite a few steals & deals (like that Vera skirt)! Estate sales, garage sales, and trash picking-I’ve done it all! I love decorating my house with treasures that others have cast off–they have a story and a great memory attached! I often have visions of how to remake something-sometimes my hubby doesn’t see it at first, but eventually he comes around. One of my favs is the telephone table that I converted to a vanity for my 14 year old. Painted it bright orange! Now she uses it every morning with her little make-up mirror. So fun! Thank you Colleen–you are fierce, girl.

    • Heather, your home is full of found, re-invented goodness! All that creative energy embraces me the minute I walk in. There are so many items we can reuse and rethink in our homes, in our business and in our studio. All the extra effort you put in is so worth it. Thank you for always being part of my green journey…and including me on yours.

  5. Compromise. This one word has so much emotion. It’s hard to see a compromise as a positive sometimes – especially when you feel very passionate about something. It can sometimes feel (if we let it) like giving up / giving in. Your compromises sound like personal celebrations. I love that.

    Over Easter I had a chat with a dear friend + mentor and she reminded me to take stock of the good I do on a daily basis when I start feeling guilty about not following my own rules on occasion. We truly are our own worst critics and harshest judge. Thank you for spreading the message so beautifully.

    Here’s to a bountiful spring! 🙂

    • Darice….I think we all have to step back and adjust. And at times compromise. I wish I had a little manual I could refer to. But things come up I cannot anticipate….so I adjust. And in that adjustment I try to always stay true to my own ethics and the values of my business. A gentle dance to be sure. I so agree…we have to see our own goodness daily.

  6. Naomi says:

    I think most of us could do with being more ‘Greener’, I use recylced packaging for my natural skincare products and material that can be recycled. I also use 100% Natural ingredients in all my products. I think that as small businesses we should be looking at how we can improve the ‘greener’ side of things. I enjoyed reading your post and admire your commitment to upcycling and recylcling.

    • Naomi…it feels good to think “greener” and reuse. My shipper recycles as well and tries to use all salvaged materials in my shipping. Just sharing your vision with the people who help your business often leads to ways to be greener. People have materials that they save too and are happy to put to reuse. Your products sound wonderful…

  7. Jus Shar says:

    Love this article!
    I have been using reclaimed/recycled more and more in my creation process. I have a big aversion to using new when “gently used” will work just as well. This goes for the fabrics I choose, the notions (like buttons and zippers) I use, in addition to the fibers I knit and crochet with.
    Not as easy as going out and buying new, but I feel oh so much better for not contributing to the over-indulgence of our society.

  8. I loved this Colleen! I have always admired your art, and seeing the process makes me love it even more. I also work with a lot of materials that are destined to a landfill, and it feels so good when you are able to take this “waste” and give it a new life. Thanks for all you do!! Hugs!

  9. Lori-Ann Claerhout says:

    I love that you have made a successful and creative business that sticks so close to your values. You know that I love your style–and I love how your art perks up what might otherwise be dark or uninspiring spaces. Thanks for sharing more of how the process works for you!

  10. Lovely Colleen, you have such a clarity of vision. I feel you as a presence in everything you make and do, and I love that. Your post comes at a really useful time for me – I am looking at how we develop story of mum in a way that aligns with who we are and what we want to achieve but somehow creates money to pay for my time so I can do all that beautiful connecting and inspiring – I’m not sure yet where this will take, but your words will blow me in the right direction.

    … and your approach to recycling reminds me of how I approach cooking – what’s left in the veggie box? what’s about to go mouldy? what fits the needs of my family right now (usually fast and healthy with limited mess)? Seeing the opportunities in those ingredients defines what I create. And it works very well for me (right now, the veggie box is on holiday for a month and I have absolutely no idea what to make any more…!) Love to you xx

    • Pippa…you are making your way on your path and I can feel all of your good energy and progress as you go forward. I think it is simply putting one foot in front of the other and thinking as you take each step. Making sure it is in line with the previous one…and making a path for the next step. xoxoox

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