Recently I contributed to a publication's earth day article about introducing sustainability into the home through design, and wanted to share the whole enchilada here. This topic is a big one. There's everything from the materials used in the building envelope to the efficiencies of the water, energy, and HVAC systems running through it. As for the interior design world, there's also a lot to think about, and wade through. As an eco-friendly designer, I look at both sustainability and toxicity depending on my clients' concerns and passions in the everyday products and materials from the countertops to the curtains and everything in between.
There are tons of articles out there trying to give you top tips on how to green a home or your interior design, and it can be confusing, overwhelming, and well-meaning but misseducational. I figure a good way to break down part of my approach is to share the strategies I think about:
So first thing first - I called my company Eco Method Interiors because my methodology is to look at what the goals of the project are, what kind of sustainable or non-toxic products are available to meet the project's aesthetic, timeline, budget and other priorities. The method is to weave in these alternative products in the way that makes sense for each project.
Now when I'm onto the sourcing approach I use which revolves around the "good, better, best" model.
For instance, take a table:
A table that says it's made from reclaimed or salvaged wood is good (no old growth rainforest is being harmed.)
A table that has a responsibly-sourced wood certification and coated in water-based, low-VOC stains & adhesive is better (no old growth rainforest is being harmed and is less toxic to the end-user and the makers).
A table that has a responsibly-sourced certification for responsibly sourced wood, a Greenguard Gold certification for VOC emissions, and was made in the USA is best (no old growth rainforest is being harmed, is less toxic to the end-user and the makers, and released less CO2 emissions to get to you, assembled with US labor standards.)
Here is just a sample of some of the pillars of sustainability I think about in sourcing eco-friendly and non-toxic interior design products:
Closing the loop
While most of us have been taught to recycle, it's important to think about circularity and buy products that close the loop - for instance, why buy a conventional rug pad from virgin materials and synthetic materials when you could buy one made from recycled felt and natural rubber? This applies to more and more products these days. Recycled content rugs, throw pillows, table napkins, leather upholstery, coffee ground-based products, agricultural byproduct -based materials, countertops, tiles, plates and more!
Reducing CO2 travel emissions - if you're looking for something as generic and functional as a bookcase, why not add in the term "Made in the USA" to your google search and get something that's traveled a lot less to get to you.
Health and wellness
If like many of us, you're concerned with the health impacts the materials of a product can have on you (and the people that make them!) then it's worth learning about what better alternatives are out there and how to find them. This depends on the kind of thing you're in need of. Some things have become super well-known and popular, like a low or no VOC paint. That's widely available and while it's slightly more than conventional paint costs, not going to break the bank. However, I would like to point out that almost everything we buy has potentially dangerous chemicals in them. I like to refer to www.sixclasses.org to explain the main chemical groups, the types of products they infiltrate, and then you're armed with what to avoid. For instance, that reclining chair that's going in your nursery is made up of solid wood, composite wood (has high levels of formaldehyde), foams (may have fire retardants, phthalates and heavy metals), fabric (may have fire retardants, VOCs, and toxic dyeing agents).
Human well-being and environmental wellbeing are inextricably linked. Additionally, most people put a large value on the ethics that apply to humans behind the production. If you're in the market for some new accessories and throw pillows, there's a burgeoning market of products made with fair-trade certifications, fair working condition certifications, and by people in marginalized communities like BIPOC or women - owned.
Buying things on the secondary markets is a super easy way to reduce your demand of virgin materials taken from natural habitats. There's so many sites selling all styles and qualities of pre-loved pieces. I aim to get 10% or more of the projects products from existing secondary markets locally and on the internet/apps.
This topic is fraught with issues for me. On the one hand, this is the number one quality furniture makers cite when claiming their product is sustainable. The idea is that: if their product is made with high quality and care, it can last for a much longer time than mass-produced, flimsy pieces from big-box stores. Inherently, this is totally true and should be considered. BUT on the other hand, millenials and likely gen z (from what I make of the kids these days) are not interested in most of granny's pieces. Styles change, spaces are smaller, people move more, and so on. So all to say - it will last a long time cannot be the only sustainability contribution a product has as it might get tossed out anyway.
Furthermore, areas and items that should be getting note for being long-lasting are being green-washed out of fashion; primarily leather products. There's been a brilliant marketing scheme to start calling synthetic materials "vegan" leather. This used to be called faux leather, or patent leather, or pleather. Unless it's some unique company making fabrics from pineapple or mycelium fibers, the "vegan" leather is petroleum based, lasts years or even decades less than real animal leathers, and falsely makes people think they are doing something environmentally and ethically good.
The problem? In fact leather is actually a sustainable by-product from the agriculture industry - globally, meat sales are INCREASING, and greenwashing for "vegan leather" is reducing the demand for the hides that come as a by product, which are now getting burned (creating CO2) or or burried (unused and disturbing ecosystems or making ch4.)
So overall for this section - quality and longevity is key for anything you want to use more than 5 years. Like in the section above, buying pre-loved pieces is HUGELY sustainable. The waste in the ID industry is tremendous and this goes back to the circularity issue. Lastly, watch out for greenwashing - ask questions!