What is sustainable design and how can I tell if something is sustainable?

When researching for interior design, it’s not easy to source sustainable options for fabrics, flooring, furniture, lighting etc. They do exist but they are difficult to find and you have to wade through a lot of weird stuff to get to the gems.

I’m using this blog to share my sustainable discoveries, and to show that there are plenty of stylish options for interiors, if you know where to look.

The  Masaya Lounge Chair  is handmade using sustainably harvested tropical hardwood. The barley leather is cut, dyed and hand-wrapped by local artisans and 100 trees are planted for every chair sold. 1055 Euros from  Yume .

The Masaya Lounge Chair is handmade using sustainably harvested tropical hardwood. The barley leather is cut, dyed and hand-wrapped by local artisans and 100 trees are planted for every chair sold. 1055 Euros from Yume.

Most of us are feeling worried and helpless about climate change. We’d like to live more sustainably but it’s almost impossible because our economy has been designed to do the opposite – to grow wealth by taking more and more of the earths resources, without replacing them or repairing the damage caused.

Things are gradually changing, for example - re-cycling is becoming part of everyday life, and now the spotlight is strong on plastic waste, so hopefully progress will be made to clean up our oceans. But these seem like small gestures while we still need to buy so much new stuff every week.

Wouldn’t it be great if there were shops, supermarkets, furniture stores etc, where everything in them was sustainable, stylish, and the same price as normal products. Surely most of us would shop at these places if we had the option. That day will have to come, and the sooner the better. Climate change is not going away, and sustainability is the only answer. One day, sustainable goods will be considered the new ‘quality’ - made to last or be recycled, and responsibly produced. We are a long way off from this, but we can bring it nearer by trying, where possible, to buy sustainable products.

There is a general feeling that if you can’t live by example, then you’re better off keeping quiet and trying to ignore it – to avoid being labelled a hypocrite. But doing something is much better than doing nothing, and there are more and more companies now who are introducing sustainable working methods and making beautiful products in a more responsible way. If we can support these companies and makers by choosing to buy their products rather than non-sustainable options, then we are helping to make a difference.

IKEA’s sustainable KUNGSBACKA kitchen fronts  made from recycled plastic bottles

IKEA’s sustainable KUNGSBACKA kitchen fronts made from recycled plastic bottles

For example, organic cotton production creates much lower soil erosion, less water use and uses less energy, as opposed to conventional cotton growers. We all have so much cotton in our lives – not only clothes, but bed linen, towels etc (around 30% of global textile production is cotton) – so the more people that choose sustainable fabrics the better.

Beautiful organic cotton bed linen is available from  West Elm

Beautiful organic cotton bed linen is available from West Elm

Sustainable checklist

Sustainability is a complex subject which is hard to get to grips with. It’s not so much a matter of whether a product is sustainable or not, but whether it is more sustainable than other options. The more consumers that opt for sustainable products, the more companies will want to compete in this market, and standards will rise. 

Here is a list of things that make a product more sustainable and less damaging to the planet. It will be hard to find a company that is doing all of these things, but if they are doing one, two or more, then they deserve credit and support:-

- recycled materials / can it be re-cycled?

The ‘Cradle to Cradle’ concept, explained by author William McDonough, encourages not only using recycled materials, but to make products that are able to be re-cycled again at the end of their use. This will create a circular economy where resources can be used again and again, as opposed to the current linear economy where resources are used then discarded, causing them to deplete.

The textiles industry is successfully developing fabrics made from fruit peel, fishing nets, plastic bottles and coffee fibre, to name just a few.

IKEA have developed bioplastic bags ISTAD, that are now made mostly of a renewable material from the sugarcane industry, which they say is expected to save about 75,000 barrels of oil yearly, will significantly reduce CO2 emissions, and contribute to a transformation of the plastic industry.

- biodegradable?

Natural materials can be composted, avoiding more landfill which releases toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases

 

- organic / non toxic production?

Using natural resources and minimizing chemical usage

dyeworks.co.uk  source and use antique french hemp and English and Irish linen and dye with natural dyes

dyeworks.co.uk source and use antique french hemp and English and Irish linen and dye with natural dyes

- locally sourced / transportation by ship rather than plane?

Transporting goods uses a vast amount of energy, so the less distance travelled the better, particularly if the product is heavy, as this means more fuel use. Planes use considerably more energy than any other form of transportation.

 

- low energy use?

Some methods of production are much lower in energy use eg natural fibres (organic cotton, wool, organic silk) – compared to standard production methods

 

- low wastage?

Many companies are now finding ways to minimise the waste produced, and are also using the waste product to make a new product, for example, there are new textiles being developed using cotton scraps and sustainable wood scraps. Vegan leather – which is surprisingly tactile, is now available made from mushroom skin.

And fruit skin (eg orange peel) is also being used to make leather and silk.

Orange Fiber  produce fabrics from orange peel

Orange Fiber produce fabrics from orange peel

- social responsibility and animal welfare?

Last but not least, an important issue for sustainable practice is ensuring all workers receive a fair wage and safe working conditions, and that all animals are humanely treated