Many interior designers have come to rely on performance fabrics and other synthetic blends for their durability, affordability and accessibility. However, as the climate crisis becomes more urgent, it’s time to give natural-fiber textiles like cotton, linen and hemp another look. “Trying to avoid petrochemical-based textiles is always a great goal,” says Leila Behjat, an architect and senior researcher at Parsons School of Design’s Healthy Materials Lab. However, if you flip through the swatches in your materials library, you may discover this is easier said than done.
“Unfortunately, designers don’t have ultimate control,” says Baltimore-based interior designer Laura Hodges, a member of the Sustainable Furnishings Council. “We are at the whim of manufacturers—and a lot of vendors, retailers and manufacturers don’t fully disclose their materials.” Still, there are ways to get around that challenge. Here’s what you need to know.
Plants are better than petroleum
Synthetic fabrics, including acrylics, polyester, nylon and spandex, are made from petroleum, the extraction of which causes pollution and global warming. “We are aware of the performance qualities and cost efficiencies of fossil-fuel-based textiles, but if you are prioritizing the health of humans and the planet, natural fibers and textiles are always a better choice over their synthetic counterparts,” says Behjat. Plus, “Faux leather, viscose and a lot of these other man-made materials don’t last,” points out Hodges. “Even if it’s less expensive today, if it’s not going to last, that’s not good design. It’s not responsible to the environment, our clients or the project.”
Don’t write off blends
“A blend is still a better product [than an all-synthetic one], because any step taken toward a healthier environment is a great step,” says Behjat. Fabrics purchased directly through a manufacturer are usually labeled better than assembled upholstered furniture, so study each swatch’s content. If a fabric has at least 60 percent natural fiber, with the remaining 40 percent a composition of synthetics chosen to meet certain performance needs, you can still see that 60 percent as a win. She suggests ranking blends by the percentage of natural fiber content to get a clear sense of which fabrics are better choices. If you can’t tell what the percentages of a blend are, ask the manufacturer.
Be wary of chemical coatings
You also want to avoid chemically treated fabrics. “There is an inseparable link between chemicals and carbon,” says Behjat. Flame retardants, water repellents, PFAS and PVC are also all known to be harmful to human health, and even when you’re using a plant-based fabric, if it has been chemically treated for stain resistance, “the natural-based product disappears into the background, and the chemicals are in the forefront because that’s what we are going to touch,” says Behjat. Knowing this might motivate a client who wants performance fabrics to reconsider natural fabrics. “Sometimes a client doesn’t necessarily have a top priority of being environmentally friendly and sustainable,” says Hodges. “But everybody wants the inside of their home—whether it’s the air quality or the actual materials touching your skin—to be healthy.”
Edit your materials library
“Do your research and see what’s actually out there ahead of time,” says Behjat. “Making it easy for yourself when you’re in a project is the most important thing.” Start by ridding your library of the worst offenders: PVC, vinyl, and anything you know contains PFAS or other chemicals. Then, gradually add in more organic, natural-fiber textiles, so you have more of the good options as your go-tos. Get to know the fiber content of any blended fabrics you regularly use, and make note of any that are particularly low in synthetic material. There may be fabrics you are unsure about that require a call to the manufacturer—and you may not get clear answers. “There’s always going to be some compromise,” says Hodges. “To be 100 percent sustainable is practically impossible; I always suggest designers take baby steps.”
Look for transparency labels
As you edit your library, ask yourself, “Do I know what they’re made of? Is there a transparency label?” Behjat suggests. While green certifications are imperfect, that can provide some useful insights about how and from what textiles are made. (We’ve got a guide to the most common green product certifications.) Don’t be shy about sharing this information with your clients, either—they might see added value in your firm’s healthy materials library.
Learn to love linen and hemp
While any plant-based fiber is a good choice, Behjat notes that linen and hemp are particularly good from a climate perspective. Flax (the plant that becomes linen) and hemp also require less water, fertilizer and pesticide usage than cotton. Plus, both can be laundered and tolerate a lot of wear and tear. Hodges suggests bedding and window treatments as two easy places to start using more linen and hemp in your projects.
If you specify cotton, try for organic
The traditional methods of growing and harvesting cotton are high in water, pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer use, so try to use organic cotton when you can. Behjat says the supply chain is slowly improving. “[Organic cotton] is a small percentage [at] this point—cotton is not perfect, but it’s still a plant,” she says. Buying more organic cotton can also help to speed up the change, as manufacturers respond to demand.
Define needs versus wants
Even knowing the health concerns, it may be tempting to specify performance fabrics in a house with kids, pets or both, but ask yourself if it’s really necessary. “Retailers and marketing companies have gotten us thinking that things should be bulletproof and require as little maintenance as possible across the board,” says Hodges. Instead, encourage clients to have realistic expectations, implement proper textile care, and consider earth-derived textiles that are also naturally durable, such as leather, linen or wool.
Right fabric, right place, right construction
Designers often argue that they choose performance fabrics because they extend the useful life of the furniture (therefore keeping it out of the landfill), but there are other ways to ensure a piece of upholstered furniture will last for years. Think practically about fabric deployment: Darker colors and patterns can all help sofas and chairs covered in natural-fiber textiles look good longer. You can also pursue slipcovers and upholstery tacks instead of glue. “We like to say ‘Design with disassembly in mind,’” says Behjat. “Don’t glue down a textile; make it possible to take it off—screw it, clip it, zip it, Velcro it. Then maybe you can wash it or replace just small parts of it.”
Talk to your vendors
Make your preferences known to your vendors. “Every time your sales rep comes around, every time you’re in a showroom, let them know that this is what you’re interested in,” says Hodges. “Tell them, ‘If you make it, we will buy it.’ I think that a lot of times, fabric makers are just going and doing what they’ve always been doing.”
Laura Fenton is a writer with a special interest in the intersection between homes and sustainability, and is the author of the Living Small newsletter and two interior design books, The Little Book of Living Small and The Bunk Bed Book. She has written about home and design for nearly 20 years, and her work has appeared in many outlets, including Better Homes & Gardens, House Beautiful, Real Simple, and The Washington Post, as well as online publications and regional design magazines.