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What Makes A Product Sustainable?

Demystifying how to source materials that do less harm, whether they’re natural, locally made or recyclable at the end of their life.
Inspo
May 6, 2022

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Words by Emily Brooks

People get tangled up simply defining the word ‘sustainability’ so it’s no wonder that designers and specifiers are eager for help demystifying how they can do their jobs in a way that will lay as light a hand as possible on the planet.

 

Actually, the word isn’t so hard to define after all: Unesco’s definition of sustainable development is “development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” – and you only have to substitute ‘development’ for ‘design’ and you’ve got the beginnings of a framework that can guide decision-making when sourcing.

 

“The choice of materials continues to grow, and the way existing producers are manufacturing materials is also being revisited,” says architect and interior designer Joanna Simpson of Simpson Studio. “I think for every business, sustainability is now very much part of the conversation.” She is passionate about designing sustainably, but says that for “a really successful sustainability strategy to be delivered, you do need a client who is interested and engaged” – and she notes that, thankfully, clients are becoming more interested in the subject.

 

Local manufacture

Sourcing locally made materials where possible cuts down on the ‘design miles’ it takes to transport it to its final destination; if you’re buying European products then you’ll have the additional peace of mind of its rigorous environmental and labour laws, too. for JoannaSimpson, buying locally (that is, within the UK) as well as organically are the sustainability measures that carry the greatest weight: she favours native timber, uses leather from Scotland’s Muirhead (which converts waste into heat to run the tannery) and recently launched a range of accessories highlighting the beauty of British-quarried marble.

 

Sourcing locally has another advantage, making interiors that are inherently grounded, believes Simpson. “It allows us to create a building or piece of furniture that celebrates and invests in local produce and craft while supporting local communities and business; something that responds to sustainability on so many levels, from reduced design miles and embodied energy, but also to community and heritage.”

Simpson Studio’s own workshop made the furniture in this London home, specifiying native timber such as Ash

Sustainable farming

A product might be natural, but that doesn’t make it sustainable. Take cotton, which is a water-intensive crop that – unless it is organic – uses pesticides. Linen and hemp are kinder alternatives (hemp, the most ancient textile of all, uses no pesticides), while abaca – a close relative of the banana – is considered a ‘future fibre’ by the UN for its low-intensity farming (see Tatiana Tarfur’s products on Portaire for examples). Look for textiles made from ‘mono materials’ – that is, a single crop rather than a blend – as they are much easier to recycle at the end of their life. When buying wool, ask whether mulesing (a controversial procedure that removes wool-bearing skin from a sheep to prevent blowfly) has been used in the production.

Hodsoll McKenzie’s sustainable Utopia fabric collection includes textiles made from linen, hemp and recycled polyester

Champaca sunshade, Tatiana Tarfur

Recycled materials

Many manufacturers are finding ways to make products from waste materials that do not sacrifice on style. Econyl is a trade marked material made from plastic fishing nets that can be spun into a soft thread used to make rugs, for example, while Italian fabric house Rubelli recently found a way to spin the fine threads that fall from the edge of the textile while it’s being woven into new yarn, so it’s no longer thrown away. Polyester may be made with crude oil initially, but it’s one of the most easily recyclable materials, so if you have to specify it, make sure it’s recycled. Finally, reclaimed timber is a great option for adding character to newly designed spaces while breathing new life into an existing material.

Oak chevron flooring, The Reclaimed Flooring Co

The 360-degree view

Sustainability isn’t just about the product itself but everything surrounding it, too. “We introduced peel - and - stick swatches, which use 95% less waste than a conventional 200ml tester pot, our packaging is entirely recyclable, and our 360 - degree recycling programme means people buying COAT paint can recycle their old tins,” says Rob Green, co-founder of paint brand COAT, which was created with sustainable principles in mind (the whole company is carbon positive, in fact). Its recycling programme means that the firm will take back any unused paint to re-process and recycle it, so it doesn’t end up in landfill (or in the ocean, where paint is said to be the biggest source of microplastics).

Well Grounded and Humble paints by COAT Paints x Luke Arthur Wells

Look for the label

Certification schemes are a great way to help guide your choices. For timber, look for FSC-certified wood to ensure forests are well managed, while GOTS guarantees a product to be organic – and not just the crop itself but all the manufacturing processes along the way. The Good Weave mark on carpets and rugs ensures that products are made without child labour, a good example of how sustainability is as much about being accountable for people as it is products. Want to know more? Read Portaire’s guide to understanding its identification system for sustainable products.

 

Conflicting concerns

No product is perfect, and conflicts may arise when something might be sustainable in one way but not another: it might be made from recycled materials, yet shipped from China, or locally made, but full of VOCs that will off-gas chemicals into the atmosphere. In the end it’s up to individual designers to decide what carries the most weight for them.

 

Then, of course, there’s the dilemma of what to do when a client wants to go down a route that’s not as sustainable as it could be. “In these situations, we look at our source book and the client’s brief to see if there is an alternative we can put forward,” says Joanna Simpson.“This is not always possible or preferred by the client, so we try and be pragmatic and accept everything in life is a balance!” It’s easy to get bogged down in an all-or-nothing approach, so it’s helpful to remind yourself that anything is better than nothing ­– and that everyone’s taking the same journey together. The very best thing designers can do is create high-quality interiors that will last as long as possible, extending the lifecycle of the materials used within it.  

 

Want to go deeper into this subject? The British Institute of Interior Design’s Sustainable Specifying Guide, aimed at design professionals, offers a useful overview.