Green By Design Episode 201: Principles of Eco-Design with Brittanie Elms

In the first episode season 2, Brittanie Elms of My Design Assistant flips the script and interviews our host, Erica Reiner. Learn how you can design greener by looking for certain certifications, brands, and more.





Brittanie Elms, Virtual Assistant Coach at My Design Assistant

Erica Reiner (00:06):

Hi, Britney. Thank you so much for being here today, everyone. Thank you for tuning into green by design. I am Erica Reiner, your host from eco method interiors. And we have today Brittany Elms from my design assistant, which is her business and her little one is joining us today. Do you have an extra guest?

Brittanie Elms (00:32):

Yes. Hopefully she'll be quiet. I tried to have reinforcements, but she's just busting through those today. So

Erica Reiner (00:40):

The way of the world these days. That's quite all right. So this episode is going to be a little bit different and be a fun way to kick this season off Brittany's idea all her own. And she developed the questions, the really intelligent questions herself was to ask me some questions this time as sort of like a layman, but an experienced person in the design world because her whole businesses helping interior designers with the various tasks. Oh, and I, as I'm speaking and realized, I didn't read your bio. So let me quickly tell you about, about Brittanie. So, as I mentioned, she is the owner and founder of my design assistant business, and it's a virtual assistant agency and she helps me has been so helpful and guided me through some of the processes. And basically she provides support to interior designers, everything from CAD render, sourcing, product procurement, tracking, admin, Pinterest marketing services, and more. And she lives in central Oregon with her husband two kiddos and swarm of pets. Is it three kiddos now?

Brittanie Elms (01:59):

No just 2 god help us

Erica Reiner (02:00):

Okay, cool. So I first found you for some like through some sort of like document in the Ivy software, like file sharing. I don't know what I was looking at, but I was like, oh, that's so interesting. I wonder what she does. And we've been in touch since then. And then this year you started helping me with some of my projects and that's been really fun and so helpful. And then you have this. Yeah. As I was seeing this really good idea that even though you and your team are so experienced in the design world, but you still had some questions about like, what is green interior design? And you have the really smart idea to be the person, to like reverse roles and ask me the questions from your point of view. And so that's what we're going to do today and I'm ready for ya.

Brittanie Elms (02:52):

Awesome. I'm excited. Yeah, I know that's one of the challenges I think with interior design and, you know, the whole eco-friendly aspect of it is we're just not as a society really set up for that. And so the design industry itself, there's a lot of kind of refresh and redo and renew and make everything nice and pretty, again, a, not necessarily a lot of focus on how to do that in an eco-friendly manner. So I'm excited to hear your answers. So to start, how would you describe eco-friendly interior design?

Erica Reiner (03:32):

Good question. So for me, I chose the word eco-friendly and there's a lot of words, right? There's eco-friendly green, sustainable, all that kind of stuff. And I went with it, I took out sustainable and non-toxic for a couple of reasons that I'll explain, and then it was down to a green and eco-friendly and I guess I decided not to go with green because even though that's like all encompassing, it's also a color design. I was like, I'll go. I need the runway. That's really clear. I don't really design in the color green. So eco-friendly encompasses is like my umbrella term. And then under which I've talked about in season one before in quite a few episodes is sustainable and nontoxic and I separate them out because they're not one in the same. And sometimes there's a lot of overlap and maybe more often than not, but sometimes there's not.

Erica Reiner (04:28):

And the example I always use is you could have a wooden table and that table could be made with forestry stewardship, certified wood, which has responsible sourcing and tracking through the supply train or reclaimed woods. So it was, you know, made from an old barn door or whatever, and a new trees were used, but if the pieces adhesives and the stains aren't you know, low VOC, non-toxic that kind of thing, then it's sustainable, but it's not non-toxic. And so you, sometimes there are, and there's what we're looking for is the best of both worlds. So that's why I chose that word. Eco-Friendly it kind of is the overarching term in my opinion.

Brittanie Elms (05:11):

Awesome. And I feel like that kind of leads into one of our later questions that we have, as you mentioned, there's those terms that are thrown out there sometimes just in marketing, because they're eye catching and if you're not looking for the right information, then, you know, just like when they put a green leaf on something and you're like, oh, it's eco-friendly, but it's not anyhow. So we have, you know, where people are looking for organic, that's a buzzword and that's also not necessarily sustainable or eco-friendly. So how do we know as somebody who's trying to get more information and be more responsible in this way, what are terms that we can look for? What are things that we can identify them with? Yeah.

Erica Reiner (05:55):

So, so the word organic three meanings that I'm aware of one is that the agricultural term grown organically, and that is a little bit more sus or usually more sustainable inherently more sustainable when things are grown organically, there's less synthetic fertilizers, there's less pesticides and herbicides and things like that. And like organic chicken has to inherently have some access to the like outdoors and the sunshine and stuff like that. So it kind of, you know, so in the implying to interior design things that are grown organically, like cotton or hemp or maybe even, I dunno, can you get an organic wool certification maybe based on what they're eating? And I don't, I'm not sure about that, but anything that would apply to a natural material that would then be used in a product for a home. Good. so there's that aspect.

Erica Reiner (07:03):

And then to me it really nerdy organic can also return refer to anything that has carbon in it. So like we are organic beings because we're made of carbon as opposed to like a rock. So that can apply in like super science-y terms, but I don't think we're dealing much with that. And then there's where I think that actually now that I think about it, that that might get convoluted is just in reference to something that's like alive or nature. I think that that term can get like thrown around in that way. Kind of like what, why you brought up this question and then the third thing I can think of would be form and shape. So think people, designers for certain HomeGoods will look for two things as organic in terms again, like in reference to movement, that's maybe more like raw or alive or having to do with something natural in their shape and tone.

Erica Reiner (08:07):

So yeah, lots of different ways we can interpret, but as far as eco-friendly what I'm looking for, and I'll bring this up again later in some of your other questions is a certification from whatever government. So USDA grown organic, or are they European version of that. So if it's grown organically, then that's great. And as I think you were mentioning there's things that can happen to that product down the line that might be not sustainable or toxic, but it's usually a step in the right direction there, if something is grown organically, but always look for that certification, especially in this country, you can have words that are similar, like organics with an ax or, or organics with an S or Organica or something like that. And it might mean that some of the ingredients or are organic or it might mean maybe it even means according to the people making it, that it was grown organically, but if it's not certified, then we're not going to know. So it has to have that feel

Brittanie Elms (09:19):

In something that I'm trying to thinking about on that end, does he know you're talking about the growth process and them using organic processes at that stage, but then in the making, like you said later down the road, the making of the product, and you know, when you look at jeans, for example, and you think I read somewhere, it's just like an absurd amount of water that is used to create one pair of jeans. And so there's things like that. And I don't know that there's even, I know there's a lot of eco-friendly clothing brands. I don't know so much about like bedding and fabrics and things like that. And if there's even any options there right now to help reduce that and what those kinds of impacts look like. Yeah.

Erica Reiner (10:05):

Great point. So, or cotton is a really water-intensive crop. And so I can, and then let alone like the processing and I'm not so familiar with like how genes or like, in our case in designs take, we use denim too. So say like a denim seat cushion cover. I'm not familiar with exactly like what that manufacturing process is, but there's like the, so there's the growing of the cotton. And then it has to be like cleaned and then it has to be made into thread and then that thread or yarn or whatever, and then that thread has to be woven and then it has to be dyed and then maybe it has to be cleaned again. Or, and then in some non eco-friendly circumstances, it has to be applied with chemicals and, you know, so yeah, I can certainly envision and understand that it takes a lot of water and resources.

Erica Reiner (11:07):

And so I'm really interested in both like the backend and the front end of green design. So on season one, I interviewed the, one of the owners of Surnow group lighting and they focus more on the manufacturing greening up that process. And so it's different. They have like a lot of like wood based lighting and stuff. And we're talking about a textile right now, but I think it's a really good point that you bring up. We can't just look at the front end of the end product and be like, oh cool. It's certified. Like OCO Kotex, whatever. Even though they pay attention to sustainability too, we really want to look at like, who's making it, what are their or do they use solar on their warehouses? Do they do water recapture and some certifications? Do you look for those things as well? So I want to do a little bit more explaining on this season and moving forward about what all the different certifications are and the criteria they look for. So yeah.

Brittanie Elms (12:15):

Yeah. I'm so excited to hear it. I, so some barriers that designers have in using eco-friendly products, if we know there's one, is it versatile enough? So a lot of times when you're looking at eco-friendly brands, if you Google it, you're going to see a lot of really contemporary furniture options. What are your suggestions for people with maybe a little bit more traditional style?

Erica Reiner (12:41):

Yes. I love this question. This is one of the biggest perceived and potentially real barriers to interest I think, to injury. And so it's, so when I, when I heard this question, it's so interesting that you said like a lot of things are super modern. Now my concern some years ago was that everything was going to be way too traditional or too country like cabin style, because it was like a lot of like the Quaker furniture, which is like, made really sustainably a non-toxic way when using my traditional methods and a lot of like, you know, down home, like mom and pop Vermont kinda like again with that old American vibe. And it's only been recently that like more and more really interesting modern makers with eco-friendly elements are coming to the market. So I actually love that you interpreted it the other way.

Erica Reiner (13:40):

Cause that means that we've grown a lot over the past few years. Hey, sorry, my dogs making it. And and so I, all I can say is that I've seen progress with a lot more options becoming available and the more we can get consumer demand for all different kinds of styles the better we'll be, because that's my biggest concern and my biggest push. And it's something I spend a lot of time researching is finding products that are more eco-friendly that are really high style. So whether that is in a particular like style genre, like farmhouse or mid century modern or contemporary, whatever it might be, I want to see all styles and aesthetics, but it has to be like beautiful, right? Like it has to be eye catching and high styles and, and aesthetically forward, because I just like every other product, like we're not going to be able to sell it. If it's doesn't meet the consumers criteria first, like no one's going to buy like an ugly shoe just because it's, eco-friendly has to be given first and the benefit of that after

Brittanie Elms (14:53):

For sure. So then to continue on that, another concern is it seems that there's not a whole lot of difference in price point. So if there's somebody who's looking at more on the lower end of the scale, then it might be more challenging to meet their budget. What do you have to say to that?

Erica Reiner (15:12):

Yes. I think, you know, the quick answer might be just, yes. I think it is a higher price point because like everything, when goods are made to order, it's not mass manufacturing or it's made with higher quality ingredients or in this case materials you pay you for that and you're getting what you pay for in that instance. And again, I've talked about this so many times people are probably nauseated, but like I'm obsessed with the intersection of, of economics and sustainability. And basically again, like the more we can vote with our money, the more that price point will drop, just let and I use this stupid example over and over again, like the day I found organic spaghetti for a dollar cheaper than the regular at trader Joe's, it's just like that. So we will see prices drop somewhat and somewhat ubiquitously, but again, I think you're always going to be paying more for a high quality item.

Erica Reiner (16:15):

That's going to last longer than what you're going to get on Wayfair, overstock. I mean, no, no shame in that game. I get it, but you have to own what I do. And while I call it ego method is my methodology is like weaving in the, the pieces that are sustainable or eco-friendly to the whole project. And where am I going to do that? And why am I going to choose that product? And how much of that product, if I have to buy 10 tables or 10 cushions, like, am I going to a lot, like a percentage like that kind of thing. So at this point it's about being realistic and finding that methodology and that approach to weave in things as, as, as reasonable and as you can, and just doing the best you can.

Brittanie Elms (17:03):

Yeah. How do you determine that? I mean, I know that's probably a pretty lengthy process, but when you're looking at a project and you're trying to say, you know, I'm trying to make this as healthy as I can for my client, or as eco-friendly like, what's your approach to kind of, these are the items that I'm going to really focus on versus, you know, is it the big ticket items like flooring or paint or what is it

Erica Reiner (17:30):

The short answer is that every project is very different, so there's no one rhyme or reason. And so what I do for all my clients is I have a custom green guide and that is where I break down to them after I've looked at their scope and their needs. And like, you know, they're itemized. I do like an itemization, everything that we are probably going to need to purchase. So once I it's like part art, part science, and it's really looking at the project holistically and then having all of my knowledge about what I need to look out for, or what resources and alternatives to green or healthier products are out there. And then switching those things together. And I give them a green guide that says, this is the goals that I have, and I'm going to try to achieve during sourcing. So it might be like depending on their concerns, if it's toxicity or just having lighter footprint, what, what rooms, what products and you know, how much can I go green and, you know, in considering their budget too, like at the top level. So I kind of just look at the project holistically and break things down into steps and goals that I think we can achieve.

Brittanie Elms (18:47):

Okay. So then finally, how can you confirm the quality of materials? So a lot of these eco-friendly or more green brands, you know, some of the bigger manufacturers are leaning that way and at least introducing lines, but some of them seem to be relatively new. So how, when we're expecting for a client, how do we make sure that that's something that's going to hold up?

Erica Reiner (19:10):

Great question. And I think the short answer to be followed by Napoli is just time. It takes, it takes time to do research and it takes time to bug the vendor rep and it takes time for them to reach out to the manufacturer. And then I keep a database of all the vendors I use and I have like a column of green, and then we spent time going in there and doing clear explanation. So if it's so big, say like eco-friendly, or non-toxic on a product or on their website in general, then I'll go in and look at what'd you mean by that? And I have to like dig further and I'm looking for explanations because they're, so first of all, there's so many chemicals or unsustainable processes. So if they're making a claim, okay, what do you mean? What's your, what's your process?

Erica Reiner (20:06):

And like, what, what things are you doing better? And so I try and tease those out and I put that in that list. So when I'm looking or sourcing for a certain thing, that will help me cross-reference with the concern I have or the product I have. So I'm, I'm trying to develop my database as big and bulky as I can get it always interested in talking to new vendors. And that's a part of the, the, the benefit of hiring a green designer, because they're going to take all of that time and research off of your plate. That is part of what we're paid to do.

Brittanie Elms (20:45):

Awesome. So one of the, that has always made me really interested in your feed and why send me stock to you before you started your podcast, is that you always have these really interesting materials when you're doing your back splashes and things like that. I remember there was a title, I think that was made of paper products. I can't remember. I can see it in my head, but I can't remember the name of it, but prowl, do you find these, is there, I mean, I'm sure there's networking, but are you searching for these any particular way? Yeah. And to answer quickly wrap up here a little bit. I am doing a lot of Googling. I'm finding a lot of green design organizations. I'm looking for outside databases. I'm looking for people who have written an article. And so it's a combination of just a lot of research that I'm looking to grow my own database and then find out more.

Brittanie Elms (21:42):

So I can't wait for things to go back to normal and I can go to the design conferences and check out more vendors that it's just a long haul process. And I gather any which way that I can, and then investigate a little bit more. So this has been so fun. Thank you for doing this role reversal with me. I so appreciate it and your thoughtful questions and this amazing idea, and just getting to see you and chat to you today. So for everyone listening here, yeah. I hope that this was really interesting and you got to learn something and reach tell us Brittany was one place. People can find you if they need your help or want to ask you some I've told you the most accessible is my website, which has my design assistant.com. Awesome. Well thank you so much and we'll chat soon. Thank you.



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