Sustainable Interior Design

Greenwashing. We all hear about how ‘green’ products are and shop and confidently purchase because we’ve been told, read, and truly believe we are doing something good. Oh, if only greenwashing was against the law. I see it as false advertising.

Products frequently advertised as “green” that are in no way sustainable products include (and there are wayyyy more): LVT (Luxury Vinyl Tiles), Mattresses, honestly most Ikea items, natural stone, anti-microbials, concrete, and some bamboo.

So, before we jump into these materials, what is ‘sustainable’? Sustainable products have a low-to-no impact on the environment. They are long-lasting, so that frequent replacement does not have to happen. They are healthy products and will not damage the health of those interacting with them. Based on those requirements, let’s review the products I listed above.

LVT

Ooh, just look at this plastic kitchen! It’s so pretty isn’t it? It’s also so toxic…

Ooh, just look at this plastic kitchen! It’s so pretty isn’t it? It’s also so toxic…

The name alone will throw this out the door. Luxury Vinyl Tile. I laughed while typing out those words. There is nothing luxurious about vinyl. It will last, they have that… it will last in landfills for thousands of years. Bra.vo. folks. First of all, I don’t care what it keeps in or out, vinyl is NEVER sustainable. There simply are no sustainable plastic products. Not only is it a plastic product that will never disintegrate, it has incredibly unhealthy properties. A part of sustainability is the way a product affects the air we breathe, and LVT is made of PVC. PVC releases toxins, dioxins (one of the most highly carcinogenic toxins!). Additionally, the process of recycling plastic products releases more of these toxins into the air. So, do we just waste plastic products? Kind of. At this point, we can work toward solutions, but the best thing to do is avoid plastic products altogether (even recycled and recyclable plastics).

Read more about LVT here.

Mattresses

This is a tough one because mattresses have to be flame retardant by law. However, most flame retardants contain chemicals. One way to avoid the chemical flame retardants is to use a naturally flame-retardant substance- wool. Of course, there lies the dilemma of the mass-farming of animals and how that impacts our environment and the washing of wool using pesticides and chemicals. Replace the wool with cotton and we have one of the world’s most pesticide-intensive crop products as well as the need for heavy irrigation. There absolutely are solutions though, and a great place to start is here, with products where the process has been heavily scrutinized and certified.

Ikea

This one makes me nuts. Everyone shops Ikea. I shop Ikea from time to time. What are good products to get from Ikea: flatware, dishes, sinks (make sure they include the drain that you bought but wasn’t with your pick up items… sigh), essentially metal items that last and do not take part in the delivery of water or energy. See, they advertise their faucets as sustainable with low water usage, but without a single certification. So, while they may be sustainable... there is nothing backing it up or holding it to standards of any kind.

Ikea recently got a lot of recognition for their window treatments that reduce air pollution. I have to provide the disclaimer that I have not yet experienced this product personally, but what I DO know about Ikea products is that they are created cheaply and quickly. The upholstery falls apart (just look at the fabric falling off the pieces on the showroom floor), and the fabric stitches come apart and fray. If it is being thrown out or was purchased as a “temporary” product- as most Ikea products are, it is not sustainable. It’s just another item in the landfill.

Natural Stone

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This one is iffy, but I lean toward NOT sustainable. Natural stone comes from the Earth, right? So, that makes it sustainable right? Wrong. Remember the qualification that it must be low impact on the environment? Natural stone is quarried. Quarrying creates vibrations that cause landslides, water pollution, noise pollution (buh-bye animals running from the sound) and a loss of biodiversity. Not all quarries do this though, and that is why this is an iffy one. We have developed improved processes to quarry that reduce our impact, and because quarries are located all over the world, we can access locally quarried slabs that reduce the carbon footprint of shipping. I will let you be the judge and I won’t judge you! However, I do think there are more environmentally friendly alternatives.

The quote that pulled me over to the “not-sustainable” side was found here and reads: “harvesting a resource that takes many thousands if not millions of years to be created is in NO WAY GREEN. The fossil fuels burned in the quarrying and transporting, as well as many of the coatings stone often requires for commercial or institutional use also work against using it unless absolutely necessary. It is terrifically difficult to remove and reclaim, so unless the project needs a forever material and a special feature, there are few reasons to recommend natural stone.”

Anti-Microbial

This one is one of the first items on The Red List. For those who have not heard about The Red List, it is a list of products that worst materials in the building industry. I cannot begin to tell you how many times carpet has been toted to me as anti-microbial in the commercial design world because it’s a great option for schools (my design previous life). Are we so afraid of natural bacteria that builds up our immune systems that we will douse ourselves in chemicals?? Avoid this label!

Concrete

We all love it- it feels so raw and natural. It’s industrial and edgy. It is also responsible for 4-8% of the world’s CO2, with half of these emissions happening in the manufacturing process. It sucks up the world’s water (almost 1/10th of our water consumption goes to concrete!). The wind-blown dusts contribute to respiratory problems.

Read more on the dangers of concrete here.

Bamboo

I want to touch on bamboo because this rapidly renewable material has been touted as one of the most environmentally friendly materials that may be used in interiors. And, sometimes it is! However, bamboo fabrics have been synthesized so much that they often should no longer be sold as bamboo, but as rayon! Bamboo as a fabric is a highly processed and greenwashed product.

But, what about bamboo floors? For the most part, bamboo flooring is a great option! But, as with all products, some research is needed on the manufacturer. Where was the bamboo grown? How did it get here? What kinds of adhesives and binders are used to hold it together? So, is bamboo green? Sure… if you live in Asia…


Sustainability is a real challenge is that it just is not cut and dry. Remember those three basic R’s we were taught as kids? Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. We tend to jump to product purchasing based on the fact that it has been recycled or is recyclable. But, do we have to buy the product at all?

I have a table in my office that is beautiful. I get compliments on it daily. Yet, each compliment is a bit of a guilt pang because the tabletop is synthetic resin (plastic). I bought it many years ago, and have been tempted to replace it with a product that is GreenGuard certified. In the end, I finally reminded myself of the first “R”- REDUCE. The table functions. It is beautiful. It does not represent my ideals in that it was not a sustainable purchase but keeping it does represent my ideals. I wil use that table until it dies a very permanent and unfixable death.

This can be challenging when trends change, and it is important as a designer to keep up on the trends. However, I am devoted to our environment and its preservation. So, when the day comes that my table is horribly outdated but still able to be used, I will work to embrace its retro features, and make it work with the items that surround it. Design is more than trend, it is quality, consideration, and thoughtfulness.

So, how do we design sustainably? Before we head in to gut the kitchen… let’s look at whether it is still functioning. How can it be updated without adding to the landfill? Are those dated laminate counters able to be appreciated for their retro qualities? I will not always jump for the job if it is not necessary or functional. When new products are needed, spend some time researching the manufacturing process, the impact of the material itself, the air quality impact, and think about its longevity.