- Designers have a responsibility to advise their clients on the environmental and social impact of products, materials and technologies.
- Raising awareness will put pressure on supply chains to become more sustainable, and in turn companies will have to become more proactive to meet the expectations of stakeholders.
- There are sustainable options out there for most things that interior designers specify for, and the list of options is growing.
The construction industry accounts for 38% of all CO2 emissions – more than aviation and farming. The need to transition to more sustainable practices has never been more urgent.
To achieve the targets set out in the Paris Agreement, designers have a responsibility to advise their clients on the environmental and social impact of products, materials and technologies. One way the interior design sector can become more sustainable is through eco-conscious sourcing and specifying.
In March 2022, the brightest minds in the UK construction industry gathered at Futurebuild, to share knowledge and explore how we can make the built environment greener.
Among these were the speakers at The Importance of Sustainable Sourcing for Interior Design panel discussion, chaired by Liz Bell, Design Director at Absolute Project Management.
All are members of the British Institute for Interior Design (BIID) and sit on its Sustainability Committee. Over the past couple of years, the committee had produced a three-year Sustainability Strategy and a Sustainable Specifying Guide.
What is the BIID Sustainable Specifying Guide?
The BIID’s Sustainable Specifying Guide seeks to raise awareness, build knowledge within the industry and promote change, said Bullock at Futurebuild’s panel discussion.
“It supports members to look at things material-by-material. It has a list of questions you might want to ask suppliers about, because there’s lots of different interpretations about sustainability.”
“There’s also guidance on how members can apply net zero to their practices. It’s an ongoing, living document,” Bullock explained.
Interior designers can also sign up to Interior Design Declares, added Suss. Interior Design Declares is a grassroots declaration of intent.
It recognises that climate change and biodiversity loss are the most important things on the agenda right now, and that “meeting the needs of our societies without breaching the earth’s ecological boundaries will demand a paradigm shift in our behaviour.”
It explores how designers can collaborate together on an industry level to effect change, including through regulation and setting benchmarks for how projects are run. An interior designer’s purchasing power is significant, and decisions around things like where timber comes from can make a real difference.
“By doing the research we have the power to specify sustainably without compromising on the way something looks or feels, so our clients are still getting the look and the interior they desire, knowing that we’ve done the research to actually do good for the planet,” said Suss.
The more designers ask questions, the better, the panel agreed. Raising awareness through initiatives like Interior Design Declares will put pressure on supply chains to become more sustainable, and in turn companies will have to become more proactive to meet the expectations of stakeholders, including shareholders.
Do clients want to make sustainable choices?
The demand for sustainable sourcing on the client side is growing.
Studio Suss, for instance, is working with a funeral parlour that is looking to become a B-Corp. B-Corp measures organisations’ entire environmental and social impact, so it’s important that operations and supply chains – including the built environment – is as sustainable as it can be.
“It’s our job to introduce [sustainability] into the conversation if it doesn’t appear in the initial briefs,” added Woulfe, who highlighted that talking about sustainability early on is important from a practical perspective and for contractors involved in the project too.
Being proactive about sustainability and timescales from the outside can buy you time to resell existing bathrooms and kitchens in situ, so that they don’t just end up in landfill. A great company to work with is used kitchen exchange, added Woulfe.
Contractors require ample time to expertly review and remove kitchens, bathrooms and things like marble finishes that can be reused or repurposed elsewhere.
Approaching clients with a variety of options can also be an effective strategy for encouraging sustainable choices. If you present three chairs which are priced the same but one is sustainable, it’s unlikely the client will choose a non-sustainable option, for example.
Clients can also be incentivised by the storytelling/marketing aspect associated with making sustainable choices. And, as Bullock pointed out, “homeowners love to tell a story too.”
What are some of the most exciting sustainable products?
In terms of materials, Bullock is a “keen watcher of mycelium and algae,” both of which are regenerative materials. Instead of lessening the harm of construction, regenerative design seeks to work as a positive force that repairs natural and human systems.
Typically found beneath the ground, mycelium is the root network of a fungus. It is completely natural, lightweight, cheap to produce, easy to grow and completely renewable. As well as packaging, it’s being used in the built environment for insulation, acoustic panels, flooring and various other design features and products.
According to Suss, there are sustainable options out there for most things that interior designers specify for, and the list of options is growing.
YesColours, for instance, is one example of an eco-conscious paint brand. Its products are 100% water-based with no VOCs and its packaging uses 16% less fossil fuel, 26% less water, and generates 21% less greenhouse gas emissions throughout production compared with traditional packaging.
Jennifer Manners’ /re/PURPOSE collection comprises beautiful and durable hand knotted rugs that are made from recycled plastic. The waste polyethylene components are processed using heat and water to create yarn that is surprisingly soft and robust.
It’s not just about the soft furnishings though, added Woulfe: “If you’ve not spent any time researching the build elements you’ve missed a trick.”
Designers should talk to their clients about the sustainability credentials of systems like air conditioning and heating first.
Ultimately, designers shouldn’t feel like they have to “go it alone.” Just as a business would hire an accountant to manage finances, there are specialists out there who can help you with setting sustainability statements and goals.
Directories are also useful. Bullock recommends Cradle to Cradle, a products directory that is helping to power the shift to a circular economy. Then of course there’s the BIID’s Sustainable Specifying Guide, which contains a wealth of advice on sustainable sourcing.