Yesterday, I received word that an autobiographical piece I’d developed with the help of the team at Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy, (about my continuing relationship to and with the climate crisis), had gone live on their web site (Julie’s Climate Story).
With their kind permission, I’m sharing it directly, here on Junket’s blog, as well.
Have you thought about your own climate legacy? Consider getting involved with Climate Generation – they offer a whole host of ways to connect, engage, participate, and lead…
— Julie’s Climate Story —
Mine was a blue collar upbringing with a second-shift dad and a stay-at-home mom whose evangelical influence was stronger than his agnostic ways.
Their staunch support of the ‘zero population growth theory’ grew quiet as my younger sister and I were joined by a third, and then a fourth… putting me in high demand as a neighborhood babysitter by the time I’d reached the tender age of eleven.
This was fortuitous in hindsight: the doubling of our family’s kid quota (which would increase, yet again, when I was 16) had tightened the purse strings considerably, and as I approached junior high, the importance of wearing things that wouldn’t get me teased by some of my classmates had made me intensely brand conscious — something that mattered more to teenagers back then than it appears to now.
The pressure to fit in put my mother and I at odds over wardrobe budgets, and by the time I was 12, she had decided I was old enough to buy my own clothes with the babysitting money I had earned.
While I’d been a happy recipient of brand-name hand-me-downs, the idea of being seen at a Goodwill caused anxiety…I was fourteen when I finally followed my mother through thrift store doors, and when flipping dutifully through a round rack of denim, discovered Girbaud jeans priced at just $3 (and, quickly, two more pair). Shocked in the best way possible, my fear of not fitting in turned to hope and possibility.
Soon, I realized how much I enjoyed being unique, and thrift was great for that, too: I could find beautiful, well made pieces not available at the mall. I experimented with dyes, stitching, and scissors with enthusiasm.
Clothing became the focus of my creative process, and I became an avid thrifter throughout the rest of my educational journey. I thrifted through my twenties, filling downtown flats with retro furniture and embracing granny cardigans. At some point, it was no longer about cost-saving, but aesthetic.
Life was already good when I met my future spouse — but in stepping into pace with a partner, my thrifting slowed down while dining out and visiting the mall sped up. Besides: he found thrift stores distasteful, and we could afford to spend more.
We were still spending more when our daughter came into the world in 2008 — but that spending was curtailed abruptly when, a few months later, he and his half of the household income left me for another woman.
As I coped with loss and single parenthood the world felt suddenly ominous, and I felt a whole new level of responsibility for meeting the needs of a brand new baby girl.
I quickly found that nursing sans appetite had a compounding effect on what’s commonly known as the ‘divorce diet;’ a closet full of business casual quickly became office-inappropriate as I lost not 30, but 50 pounds over a few months. Financially strapped, I took my old clothes to consignment and then headed to the Goodwill Outlet to buy pre-teen khakis and blouses by the pound.
Life went on and healing ensued. I gradually outgrew the kids’ size 12 outfits, and continued the cycle of thrifting and consigning. The sale proceeds more than covered the costs of finding new duds, but it wasn’t until I picked up a check and saw that one of my tiny t-shirts had sold for $10 that I realized how much margin there was to be made in the post-consumer waste stream.
Motivated, I jumped into my first entrepreneurial venture.
By 2011, a small reuse business, Junket: Tossed & Found, was growing from the basement of our south Minneapolis home. While I’d achieved what I’d thought I wanted, I also felt increasingly isolated.
I remembered an Arkansas uncle crowing about how EASY it was to sell on eBay (“all I do is buy a hundert colorin’ books from China, list ‘em once, and ship ‘em!”). While buying new product would get me out of the basement, it would also make my business part of the waste problem I could no longer unsee.
Digging deep to find a reason why I should continue, I decided that if this work could be helpful in some way, then I’d be okay doing it. I landed on helping people reduce their carbon footprints as a means to offset my own.
I wanted to look my daughter in the eye with no regrets when it came time to take ownership for my life’s choices.
The mission that emerged became the basis for my life’s work: to improve social access to high quality used goods and markedly reduce demand for new manufacturing and related emissions.
I had no idea how massive a challenge I’d chosen to accept.
I began mapping Environmental Protection Agency emissions data to Junket’s products. Where most companies started with a top down assessment and a ‘do less bad’ objective, we flipped the equation: how many emissions — and how much new manufacturing — could we help people avoid through a more robust secondhand market? I wanted to quantify the impact of doing more good.
I’d been told I’d never succeed unless I sold furniture, which made me all the more committed to cracking the nut on small products that were rampant in our waste stream. The most vexing of “smalls” since opening the shop in 2012 had been paper clips. I realized that if I could figure out how to profitably aggregate and redistribute paper clips at scale, we could apply the same solution to just about any commoditized small product.
And so, our analysis began with paper clips.
Early data was shocking: Americans buy 11 billion paper clips each year. Making that many paper clips requires 5500 tons of virgin steel. Producing them generates 16,000 tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions. Every year. For our country’s paper clip consumption.
When I factored in transit emissions, I was even more perplexed: it appeared that an equal volume of existing paper clips could make multiple trips across the country. Five one-way trips between New York and L.A. on an 18-wheeler — and thirty by train — before approaching equivalent manufacturing emissions of making new paper clips, even with the most virtuous manufacturing method possible using 100% recycled steel. Even on a plane, those clips could travel halfway across the United States before generating equivalent emissions to those produced using only recycled materials.
Digesting the relative emissions of planes vs. trains led me to stop flying the following year. But also, I became curious about whether this applied to products made using materials other than steel.
Turns out, you can ship just about anything across the country for fewer CO2 emissions than it takes to make that same new thing, no matter HOW locally or sustainably it’s made, when you choose to ship via ground.
Now, shopping local isn’t a bad thing. Community-scale shops are important for a host of other reasons, but the products they offer are only better when all other factors are at least equal. Sustainable manufacturing is clearly better than unsustainable manufacturing — but they both pale in comparison to preserving the energy that’s already embodied in existing goods.
When all was said and done, there was nothing accidental or haphazard about my decision to embrace abandoned things. While scrounging for office-wear had been done out of necessity, I had come to appreciate the correlation between my own abandonment and that of so many cast-off goods — to find healing in recognizing that something seemingly damaged could be reclaimed and reinvented into something new.
Doing this work openly: embracing the things that so many others found shameful, second-class, beneath them, dirty…would be a platform to confront social baggage from a place of relative privilege.
I was a well-educated, highly intelligent, professionally successful white woman: I was different from so many who scraped by in the secondhand market. I would give people reasons to think differently about these thrown-away things. In hindsight, by choosing to take on that social baggage, I was also choosing to confront and conquer my own.
As the business grew, so did its parallels with life: finding damage meant doing the crucial work of repair.
Tired pieces got reworked and in transforming them into something fresh and high-demand, I found a metaphor for the massive shift that I, too, was experiencing. I was fashioning a new, more vibrant life, leveraging beauty from those well-worn trappings to create a richer, deeper, more textured, and nuanced iteration.
More value. Not less. More good. Not less. Alchemy. Kintsugi. Reworking of energy and matter.
As an entity, Junket is the expression of seeking to create these alchemical transformations in communion with others. To live wholehearted lives, we must all confront and embrace our own imperfection from within a culture that shames us for being, simply, ourselves.
It was in choosing to see potential, again and again, in each imperfect once-rejected thing that I learned to see value and beauty — but also, unlimited potential — in my own imperfect, once-abandoned self.