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Sustainable interior design: Which materials are greenest?

BY Becca Inglis

22nd Apr 2023 Environment

Sustainable interior design: Which materials are greenest?

Sustainable interior design can help to stem fast furniture's negative impact on the planet. From hemp to recycled plastic, these are the best materials to use

Many of us are now familiar with the term “fast fashion” and the ways that the clothing industry harms the environment, but far less attention is given to our interior design tastes. 

Just like fast fashion, fast furniture plays a big role in the depletion of valuable natural resources—particularly the world’s forests—and in the growth of waste being sent to landfill.

The problem with fast furniture 

The furniture industry is the third largest consumer of forest wood in the world (after construction and paper). Although sustainable logging certifications do exist to prevent deforestation and biodiversity loss, the industry is still blighted by illegal logging, 

Children’s furniture made by IKEA, for example, has been linked to protected forests in remote Siberia, which are owned by Evgeny Bakurov, one of Russia’s fifty most wealthy politicians. 

A report by Earthsight revealed that Bakurov has broken several forestry protection laws to illegally harvest 2.16 million cubic metres of wood over the past decade (enough to build a wood pile that would rival the Great Pyramid of Giza’s height). 

"The furniture industry is the third largest consumer of forest wood in the world"

But it’s not just furniture that’s the problem. The cotton in your soft furnishings is likely produced using unsustainable techniques—growing cotton is thought to be one of the most water-intensive agricultural practices, as well as a significant cause of soil degradation.

Meanwhile, the flexibility and relative cheapness of non-renewable plastic makes it a popular candidate for mass produced furniture, which has been multiplying rapidly to meet our surging demand for new home furnishings since the pandemic. 

Sustainable materials for interior design

Hemp

Hemp leaf, hemp fabrics and hemp stringHemp is a better carbon sink than trees are

Hemp is something of a wonder material when it comes to sustainability. For one thing, it’s an incredible carbon sink—hemp is actually more effective than trees at removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

One Cambridge University researcher told Dezeen that one hectare of hemp will absorb between eight and 15 tonnes of CO2, whereas a forest of the same size would typically absorb between two and six tonnes. 

If properly managed, the manufacturing of hemp emits less carbon dioxide than what it absorbs while it grows, meaning that hemp can be a carbon negative resource. 

Hemp is a hardy crop, so it only needs around a third of the water that organic cotton requires to grow. It also flourishes without pesticides, making it far less polluting to cultivate. 

"Hemp is more effective than trees at removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere"

It is a vastly flexible material, which can be used to create hemp-based upholstery and linens, as well as more hardwearing materials like hempcrete—a plant-based substitute for concrete.

Some homeowners have gone so far as to build their homes out of hempcrete. Just outside Cambridge, Margent Farm built its farmhouse largely out of the hemp that it grows on its land. 

This effectively stores carbon in the house’s walls for the building’s entire lifespan. And because hemp is so good at absorbing moisture and heat, it is an ideal insulative material, which means that homeowners use less energy (and emit less carbon) to heat their home.

Bamboo

Bamboo wood table next to chinese bamboo plantBamboo is the fastest growing plant in the world, and can be used to replace hardwood in furniture

Bamboo is classed as a grass, but its rigidity makes it uniquely suited to replacing wood in furniture, hardwood floors and construction—in China, it has been used as a building material for many years.

When it comes to renewable resources, bamboo is exemplary. It holds the Guinness World Record for being the world’s fastest growing plant, with some species growing at a rate of almost three feet a day.

That means that some bamboo can be ready to harvest within three years—compare that with the 50-70 years it takes to harvest oak, which is still considered one of the faster growing hardwoods. 

Harvesting bamboo leaves the roots intact, which means that the soil underneath is not disturbed. This helps to prevent soil erosion, while also helping to protect the area from flooding. 

But there are some caveats to Bamboo’s sustainability claims. Bamboo’s popularity is leading to more bamboo fields being planted, which are generally cultivated as a monoculture. If bamboo is grown in an unprotected area, it can seriously disrupt local biodiversity. 

Rattan

Rattan chair, rattan cabinet and potted succulent plants in mustard roomGrowing rattan can incentivise forest protection, so long as it is done sustainably

Rattan is another fast growing material that is good, in many cases, at substituting hardwood—and because it is a runner plant, rattan survives by living in synchronicity with trees that it can climb. 

According to the WWF, this means that harvesting rattan can provide an incentive for better forest management that preserves, rather than depletes, tree numbers.

"Because it is a runner plant, rattan survives by living in synchronicity with trees"

However, that is only the case if rattan harvesting is managed sustainably. In some cases, excessive extraction is still contributing to rapid deforestation, which the WWF is working to moderate. 

Since 2006, the WWF has partnered with IKEA to deliver the Sustainable Rattan Project in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Communities who rely heavily on income from rattan have been trained in sustainable ways to harvest the crop, including ditching toxic chemicals and increasing patrols that target illegal deforestation. 

This has led to the creation of the first FSC-certified rattan, which comes out of forests in the Mekong region.

Recycled plastic

Woman sitting in retro plastic orb chairFurniture made out of recycled plastic can help to divert the toxic material from landfill

It may seem counterintuitive to include plastic as a sustainable material, but finding ways to recycle plastic is far greener than sending it to landfill or producing new plastic products.

More than 99 per cent of plastics today are made using chemicals derived from fossil fuels. With the projected growth of electric vehicles and renewable energy set to replace petrol and oil, fossil fuel companies are now increasingly investing in a plastic future. 

If the plastic industry’s current growth spurt continues unabated, the carbon emissions from plastic’s entire life cycle could equal as many as 615 large coal-fired power stations by 2050.

Plastic’s end of life is equally disastrous for the environment. By 2015, around 6,300 Mt of plastic waste had been produced worldwide, with 79 per cent of that ending up in landfills or the environment. 

Yet plastic does still have some advantages over other natural materials, like wood, when it comes to making furniture. For one thing, it is far more durable (wood will tend to decompose and need replacing after a number of years), and is also cheaper for the average consumer. 

Using recycled plastic to create materials like synthetic wood can help to reduce the load that gets sent to landfill, while also reducing fossil fuel emissions from new plastic production.

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