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What makes a material sustainable?

Identifying sustainable interior design materials for your next project starts here. Oh, and we have some recommendations!

Beautiful. sustainable. mexico. home. interior design. green. eco.
Design by Mexican atelier CO-LAB Design Office
What makes a material sustainable?
Clara Carlino de Paz
October 31, 2022

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This article was originally posted on Making Space, a Substack penned by our Cofounder, Matteo Grand. Subscribe below to receive more content just like this.

Interior design, architecture and construction materials come in all shapes and sizes, but only some of them can be considered truly sustainable. Exploring the terminology and science behind some of these sustainability issues can be a total minefield, so to help you understand what you need to know a bit better, we’ve put together some things you should look out for when searching for sustainable materials.

Defining sustainability in interior design products

In a general sense, for a product to be sustainable it must be sourced, produced, distributed and sold in a way that is not harmful to the environment. This process must be crafted for it to potentially happen for an extended period of time – without consequences in the economic, cultural, social and environmental fabric of the place in which it was created.

Sustainable products may not be 100% sustainable in every single way, and that is normal. No brand can be perfect in every single field, but it is important for them to disclose where it is that they are not complying with their own ethos. Progress is always better than perfection, but good to know what you’re purchasing!

In regards to interior design products in particular, these are a few questions you should have in mind when sourcing materials. As mentioned before, your material doesn’t have to check every single box to be considered sustainable; these are guidelines for you to make your own considerations too.

Is the material renewable? For a product to be sustainable, it must be possible for the material to be reharvested or created and not simply consumed. 

Is the material actively regenerated? Just because a material is renewable, doesn’t mean it’s harvested in a sustainable manner. For example, if you buy wood because it is renewable without checking whether those trees are replanted, the effect is similar to you purchasing any other material. Sustainable companies must be involved in the process of regenerating the resources they consume, whether by themselves or through other companies. 

Is the material low-VOC? Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are a class of compounds that emit gases and other byproduct molecules into their surroundings. The volatility of such substances rises with time, heat, and humidity, and can be incredibly damaging to the atmosphere and the health of those living around these materials. Finding low-VOC materials should be part of your discovery process, especially with products such as paint or wallpaper.

Is the material recyclable? After use in your interior design, materials should be able to live second lives as recycled materials. This cannot be done to all products, so make sure to check whether the materials are listed as recyclable.

Is the material made locally? When you purchase your materials from local companies, you’re supporting people over corporations, and cutting down on unnecessary transportation.

Is the material produced with green electricity? Sustainability extends to the production of the materials, so it’s worth asking what resources were used to enable the production of a product.

Is it made with recycled materials? When brands use recycled materials to make their own, they’re saving materials from the landfill. Win win!

Is the material responsibly sourced? For a product to be responsibly sourced, it mustn't deplete natural, nonrenewable resources or harm the environment or society it comes from.

Now… You have a lot of questions and considerations to make. But how do you actually find out the answers to these questions, and how can you be sure to trust them? Let’s go through some of the ways to detective your way into real sustainable products!

01. Check brands’ own PR – and news around them

We start with the basics! Start by looking at your chosen supplier’s webpage, especially in the ethics, sustainability or about us section. If you can’t find any information about sustainability on their page, chances are they are not too invested in the topic – or they’re not prepared to disclose the relevant information. This isn’t a great sign, but we keep moving!

Go on Google, type in the supplier name in quotation marks, add a “+” and the word sustainability or sustainable in quotation marks (e.g. “supplier name”+”sustainability”). This will help you get to the information you need. Or make the certified statement that the information you’re looking for does not exist in their page or anywhere else.

02. Don’t be fooled by gorgeous branding and half-baked claims

Some companies will slap on some sage green colours on their ads, and claim they are “eco”, “bio” or “better for the environment than other alternatives”... Without being backed with any real facts. You might consider yourself an expert in seeing through these marketing tactics, but they are harder and harder to spot. If in doubt, go to step number three just below…

03. Look for official certifications

You found some claims, yay! Now it’s time to see if those claims are accredited by official, independent bodies. There are hundreds of sustainability accreditations going around, but these are the tried and true of the bunch:

  • Companies certified by Climate Neutral measure their emissions, reduce value chain carbon emissions, and c​​ompensate for all of last year's emissions.
  • Fairtrade International improves trade by providing better prices and working conditions, and a more equitable profit margin for farmers and employees in less developed nations.
  • B-Corp certified companies must meet stringent criteria for verified performance, accountability, and transparency in areas ranging from employee benefits and philanthropic contributions to supply chain processes and input materials. They measure a 360 vision of a company’s sustainability.
  • The Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC) is a member-led independent NGO that works with wood, paper, and other forest products. The FSC Certification guarantees that products are derived from responsibly managed forests that deliver environmental, social, and economic benefits.
  • The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is the world's top accreditation for sustainable textile businesses. It's most commonly encountered on mattress and clothing labels. The self-funded nonprofit's goal is to establish a global standard for organic textile and natural fibre production, from harvesting to product distribution.

If you do find accreditations from an organisation that is not listed here but appears to be verified, trust your gut and browse online just in case.

And if you can’t find anything, chances are no one is backing their claims, which can be a bit sketchy, especially if the company has been around for a while. If they did have their sustainability claims substantiated by an accredited and well-respected organisation, it is likely they would have shared that information widely.

04. When in doubt, ask for specifics

If a brand is truly committed to sustainability, they will be more than willing to give you more information on the questions you need answered. Write them a message with an open point of view and see where it guides you! As stated before, have your incredulous hat on and pose questions when your gut tells you.

Our recommendations

You can read more about sustainable suppliers in our article: “7 sustainable icons in the interior design industry: Meet the suppliers making a better tomorrow” or check out some of our own trusted suppliers, such as COAT Paints or Clayworks.

If you know any interior design brands committed to sustainability, let us know! And for more interior design content, join our weekly newsletter.