Sustainability in Interior Design
Sustainability can mean different things to different people. But the question 'how sustainable is this item?' can be met with the response 'how long is a piece of string?'...helpful I know! But there are lots of things to take into account; the materials, the process, the wastage, the miles, the social sustainability, the end of life. Nothing can be 100% sustainable, however there will almost always be a more sustainable option. This post will hopefully help to clarify a few things and choice which elements of sustainability you want to focus on when making your choices for your interiors.
Image Studio Lawson
When choosing materials for any project, they are traditionally evaluated against performance (is it appropriate for the project?), aesthetics (how does it look?) and cost (is it in budget?). But it is also important to evaluate materials against their health and environmental impacts too.
What is the item made from? How are the raw materials gathered? How long do those materials take to grow? How many processes do the materials have to go through to create the product? Are they durable? What is the end of life? Can they be dissembled easily for reuse? Can they be recycled? Are they compostable? These are all important questions when determining a materials sustainability.
However, It is often more complicated to evaluate than you first think. For example, Bamboo is seen as a sustainable choice because Bamboo grows really quickly, it provides 35% more oxygen than the same about of hardwood forest, it is naturally anti-bacterial and biodegradable. These factors do make it sustainable however, Bamboo is grown in the tropical and subtropical regions of Africa, Asia and Latin America, central China and also northern Australia. In fact, it's grown on all continents except Antartica and Europe. This obviously means that anything made from Bamboo will have to travel long distances to get to us in the UK. So if you are personally focusing on your products having travelled a minimum distance, anything made from Bamboo would not fit the bill.
Just like the Bamboo example above, as a society we are so used to getting things from all over the world in a matter of days! We can enjoy Bananas all year round that are flown in from Indonesia or the Philippines. But anything that has to travel to get to you effects the planet. How far are your items travelling before they get to your homes? How are they being transported to you? Plane? Boat? Lorry? Can you walk to pick it up or do you have to drive? Each of these things effects the Embodied Energy of each product.
Embodied Energy refers to the amount of energy used to grow, produce and transport each item. Ideally, you want to keep the Embodied Energy of each item as low as possible, so limiting the miles it has to travel is a great way to do this. Buying local is the perfect way to lessen miles travelled, plus is helps support potentially smaller companies and local communities which is a win win.
Image Connor Jalbert
Along with the miles travelled, the amount of energy used to produce an item adds to the Embodied Energy. How much energy is needed to produce each item? Is it resource hungry? Where does this waste end up? How much material is wasted during production?
Let's use Linen and Cotton as an example. Typically people assume Cotton is the more sustainable option because they link organic certification to sustainability however, just because something is organic doesn't mean it's sustainable. When growing the Flax plant for Linen, fewer pesticides are used which is better for the soil, the plant and the people caring for the plant. You also use less chemicals to process Linen than you do to process Cotton, less water and therefore less water waste. Overall Linen is less resource hungry and therefore the more sustainable option.
Image Katsia Jazwinska
Every item we have in our homes emits chemicals into the air known as VOC's (volatile organic compounds), this is called 'Off Gassing'. Off Gassing can come from the paint on your walls, the furniture in your home, your carpets or the cleaning products you use. The phrase 'new car smell' or 'new carpet smell' perfectly identifies Off Gassing, although it can be orderless too. Over 80,000 chemicals have been introduced in the last 50 years and the majority of them haven't been tested for their effects on humans and animals.
This is section isn't supposed to scare you but it is something you should be aware of as it can affect your health and wellbeing. Now I've made you want to throw out everything in your home (please don't do that) here are some tips to limit your exposure to Off Gassing.
Buy Second Hand
Second hand products have already undergone some of their highest rates of Off Gassing. For example, rugs can emit VOC's for at least five years (although Off Gassing is worst in the first few months) so buying a rug that is five years old is not only limiting your contact to Off Gassing, it's also saving the rug going to land fill!
No Or Low VOC
If you are buying something new, read the label before you purchase. You are ideally looking for Low or No VOC whenever you can. If the label is unclear you can look out for GREENGUARD, Scientific Certification Systems, or SGS Group certifications.
Circulate Fresh Air
Make sure you open your windows at least once a day to allow fresh air into your spaces. You can also invest in an air purifier, although they can be expensive they are effective and can be really helpful for those of you who live in major cities where you are concerned about pollution levels or the air isn't as fresh.
Air Things Out
If you can open your new items outside and let them air out for a number of days (ideally) before it's brought into your home. Now I know that this is not an option for everyone but if you can I would recommend it. That way the immediate Off Gassing happens outside the home so you have less contact.
A companies social sustainability refers to many things. It's about understanding the impact a company has on people and society. How do they treat their staff? Do they give back to their community? The diversity of the company and its suppliers. Social sustainability is growing increasingly important with consumers demanding transparency from companies.
An example of companies practicing bad social sustainability is pretty much all of the fast fashion industry. They overwork and underpay the staff making their clothes, they use unsustainable fabrics, they are not transparent with their practices, their products are made in other countries and shipped all over the world contributing to a high embodied energy.
An example of a company practicing good social sustainability is Stay Wild Swim. They are a slow fashion company who design and make their swimwear in London, in a small factory who has a zero waste approach to production, who abides by ethical standard and pays their staff higher wages. They use sustainable fabric, biodegradable and eco friendly packaging and carbon neutral shipping! They are a fantastic company doing great things, plus they make flipping great swimwear!
Image Stay Wild Swim
END OF LIFE
Every item you have in your home has a life cycle. The Life Cycle starts with the growth of the materials it's made up of and it ends with how to product is disposed of, or if it's disposed of at all. The End of Life refers the end of an items use. If the item breaks, can it be repaired? Can it be reused? Can it be repurposed? Can it be recycled? Can it be composted? This End of Life is something that every maker should be considering when designing their products.
Let's look at a disposable coffee cup. To meet hygiene requirements most coffee cups are made out of virgin materials (new wood rather than recycled paper). They are also lined with plastic to prevent leaks but this means that once you've finished your take out coffee your cup can't be recycled. It can't be reused and it can't be recycled, the used coffee cup has no choice but to go to landfill. The coffee cup has a terrible end of life.
Now let's take a glass jam jar as an example. Once you've eaten all of the jam and cleaned the jar you have an empty jar. This jar can be reused endlessly to become a pen pot, a tea light holder, a snow globe, a light fitting, or simple to hold more jam. The glass can also be recycled and repurposed as something else. A glass jam jar has a great end of life.
I know this was a lot of information and a bit of a meaty post, so congrats if you've made it this far! I hope this has given you some food for thought and broken up the sea of information that is available out there, trust me I know it's over whelming.
Now I'm not going to sit on my high horse and pretend that everything we design is 100% sustainable because it's not, but 1% sustainable is better then 0% sustainable and if we can get you to think about making more conscious choices when it comes to your home and spaces then that's a win in our book!
Want some more advice on sustainable interiors then please email email@example.com