What Climate Emergency Means For Interior Design
As someone who has always been pretty resourceful, diligently recycling, upcycling and not buying every shiny new thing that catches my eye, the declaration of climate emergency has taken me rather by surprise this year. I obviously hadn’t been paying quite as much attention as I thought. It is simultaneously a relief and a burden to know (thanks to school-age strikers and Extinction Rebellion protestors) just how urgent things have ‘suddenly’ become. The future of our planet looks bleak right now with some scientists claiming it is already too late, but we absolutely cannot go down without a fight.
The main contributors to greenhouse gas emissions are our energy needs, transportation, agriculture and of course the plastic disaster. Although the scale of these problems will need resolving at government level internationally, there are certainly steps we as interior design industry professionals and consumers can and must also take to immediately reduce our environmental impact.
Consumers are often the first to be criticised for behaviour that damages the planet which is convenient for unscrupulous manufacturers as they can lay everything at the door of ‘customer demand’. It is worth pointing out that most people are so far removed from the manufacturing process, particularly as so much is made cheaply in far flung lands, that through no fault of their own they often don't have the foggiest idea about how things are constructed, materials sourced or waste and by-products disposed of. The responsibility to be responsible should be shared by consumers and designers and manufacturers alike.
Here are a few ways we can all become part of the solution.
Most interior fabric houses and furnishings retailers, just like those in the fashion world, produce two seasonal collections of new designs every year. While it is wonderful to have an abundance of choice, the reality is we already have a style history back catalogue stretching back two millennia, so its arguable we don't really need any new patterns or shapes.
The development of smart textiles and materials that are less damaging to the environment will almost certainly bring a new, wholly justifiable, aesthetic. Fabrics don’t last forever so we will always need and want them, but as the planet is already starting to feel very full of both finished product and mountains of reusable material I would wager we can get by without new designs being produced almost constantly. Manufacturers will not want to reduce production and the idea might cause existential crises among artists and designers who are innately compelled to create and make. Typically there is a suitable William Morris quote just for this occasion:
“Artists cannot help themselves; they are driven to create by their nature, but for that nature to truly thrive, we need to preserve the precious habitat in which that beauty can flourish.”
One artist-designer who is already ahead of the curve and has been able to control her creative urges for the greater good is Bryony Benge-Abbott of Bryony & Bloom, deciding to halt production of her fabulous textiles two years ago. Bryony now focusses on painting bespoke murals for community engagement projects instead.
Keeping up with the Joneses on Instagram is a truly terrible phenomenon. As a child my mother took me shopping with a heavy emphasis on the phrase “it’s nice to look”, and as a result I have always been content to look and appreciate but not always buy - quite useful mindset during leaner times! There is a constant flow of house envy inducing images on insta, full of brand new interior accessories that are all too often ditched in favour of the next best thing the following season or year. It’s time to stem that.
All the retailers who jumped on the hygge bandwagon a few years ago will almost certainly find a way to profit from the newest intangible Scandinavian concept on the block, Lagom. Meaning approximately ‘just the right amount’ or in-balance, in moderation, these are great words to live by - just don’t get caught up in buying all the lagom branded tat that will inevitably be coming to a shop shelf near you very soon!
BUY FOR LOVE
Like it or not, magazines and instagram influencers really can shape our opinions of what we think we ought to put in our homes, which also puts them in a position of huge responsibility. Collectively we need to adjust our focus away from trends, what’s new and what’s hot. I mean really who cares? Do YOU like it? That's all that matters when it comes to furnishing your home. I’ve written before about the trouble with trends. A huge mindset shift is required. Fall in love with everything you buy for your home so you can keep it for the longest possible time. Simply put, if you are not sure, it means you don't love it so don't buy it. Say goodbye planned obsolescence and hello to lifetime guarantees with this excellent website Buy Me Once.
Lugging home hand crafted treasures found during exotic travels is one of life’s great pleasures and it is always good to support local economies when abroad. That’s quite different from buying mass produced items that have been shipped from the far east for your convenience though. Reducing transportation (of goods as well as people!) is a key part of fighting climate change. Supporting your own local artists and artisans, crafters and designer-makers is vital, and they can and should be held to account about their own environmental efforts just as readily as a multinational company.
QUALITY NOT QUANTITY
When sourcing for a recent bathroom project I noticed a certain nordic furniture giant selling drawer cabinets for a fraction of the price of the more specialist bathroom brands and yet offering twice the length of guarantee. Upon closer inspection there was an unsurprising disparity of quality and simply no way such a flimsy cabinet would survive ten years in a family bathroom or busy house share. What I think this kind of warranty really means is that the product won’t actually last for a decade, but will be endlessly replaced by customer services for up to a decade. Not exactly sustainable, despite any lofty company claims.
Invest in the best you can afford, whether its antique, vintage or new and look after it well. Good quality items will always last longer and be easier to repair. The wartime mantra ‘make do and mend’ springs to mind, but this approach doesn’t necessarily have to mean a compromise on appearances or putting up with rickety old things. There are plenty of highly skilled upcyclers, luxe-cyclers and upholsterers on hand to help with both a keen creative eye perfect for updating and the requisite handicraft.
When it comes to design classics, like the now ubiquitous Eames DSW chairs, don’t be tempted to buy cheap fakes. The plastic used is not of the same calibre as in the originals so of course it will not be as durable. Not all plastic can easily be recycled afterwards, so it will likely have been a wasteful purchase. It is always better to seek out a vintage one or buy from a trusted source like Bristol’s own Oskar Furniture
While it is marvellous and progressive that iconic 20th Century pieces like the Componibili unit by Kartell are now being manufactured from bioplastic (sugar beet and waste cooking oil) instead of virgin petrochemical plastic the uncomfortable truth is that not even bioplastics are by default more sustainable. Not all are biodegradable, some biodegrade more easily but are water polluting in the process, so really plastic of any kind is best avoided and confined to a part of human history when we thought we were cleverer than we actually are.
Cradle to cradle design needs to become resolutely mainstream and not patronisingly thought of as a nice or novel concept for companies to occasionally adhere to in order to tick their Corporate Social Responsibility box. What this means in reality is designers and manufacturers using natural materials that can easily be reused, repurposed or recycled when the lifetime of the product is over.
Be aware too that sometimes plastic does not look like plastic. Wallcoverings with textures and sheen are often plastic based, and cheaper upholstery fabrics will contain plastic based micro fibres, just like half of your wardrobe (click here for advice on how to curb that from Bristol finest personal stylist Becky Barnes).
Although sofas and chairs don't go in the washing machine the production of their coverings will inevitably mean that fish in the far east are now filling up on the leftovers.
Packaged food labels are increasingly clear about the raw ingredients within, but when it comes to clothing and home accessories since most of us are not well educated about textiles and other materials, composition descriptions are fairly meaningless. Material lists also do not describe the source of said material, the health and safety of factory workers or our health using the goods at home, so we need more information and to understand it. As a very fast growing grass bamboo is a fantastically sustainable material, strong enough to use as flooring and soft enough once processed to make blankets.
The potential danger here is that when multiple large companies wanting to become more sustainable it may lead to epic scale plantations of bamboo (or indeed any other eco cash crop) which can become a problem if they are replacing essential naturally biodiverse forests. So if the bamboo, for example, does not itself come from a sustainable source, it still isn't sustainable. We do not want to be creating more palm oil situations in the misguided pursuit of sustainability. So we need to be proactive in asking our retailers and manufacturers very direct questions about their materials, supply chains and ethical processes. Don’t expect most assistants on the shop floor to know too much, but by creating discomfort (politely!) the big brands will start to get the message that their customers are switched on and want to buy well.
Literally slow down. The hideous disruption and inconvenience of renovation understandably means we usually want it over and done with as quickly as possible. Fast fashion is making the headlines for all the wrong reasons and there is a real case for Slow Decor too. Just like Mole showing Ratty around his modest home in Wind In The Willows, this means keeping and using family heirlooms, buying some vintage and second hand pieces, a certain amount of going without, and a bit of saving up, perhaps a few home made things. Taking pleasure in creating a unique home is a key component of Slow Decor. Planning and visualising the finished project in advance is good advice, especially when budget is limited. This also allows enough time to make better decisions. Builders can often surprise with urgent requests for decisions about finishes or tiles etc when their projects suddenly reach a certain stage, putting pressure on clients to make decisions fast at a time when they are likely stressed and busy. Hiring an interior designer can help you avoid rash decisions, buyer’s remorse and the possibility of having to redecorate twice.
Ripping out perfectly serviceable kitchens and bathrooms is just one reason why the construction industry has one of the worst carbon footprints. Buying second hand has never been easier thanks to the high standard of many charity shops and the web. You might be amazed at what you can find on Freecycle if you are prepared to put the hours in to searching for it - it’s all on there. Online marketplaces like eBay and gumtree are now full of second hand kitchens and leftover building materials and there are a few dedicated websites too such as the Used Kitchen Company.
Waste from renovations can still have value as long as it isn’t all simply skipped in the name of saving time at the end of a project. Your leftover paint can be donated for reuse, and indeed you could even source your paint from The Sofa Project (other parts of the country will have their own resources). If you can’t find your ideal colour there be sure to buy an environmentally friendly paint.
So there are plenty of ways we can improve the way we are doing interior design. If you have any ideas I haven’t mentioned please do add them in the comments below.