sustainability | Feb 7, 2024 |
How to start a sustainable materials library

Every designer has their tried-and-true favorite products. Whatever your niche, one way to steer your practice toward more sustainable ways of working is to fill your materials library with better options—for both the planet’s and your clients’ health. Jennifer Jones, the founder of the sustainably minded design firm Niche Interiors in the San Francisco Bay Area, notes that these two things almost always go hand in hand: “What’s best for human health is also better for the environment 90 percent of the time or more.” Whether it’s physical samples or a digitized library, here’s how you can reimagine your materials for a healthier environment.

Just Start
You don’t have to audit your whole library all at once—begin by evaluating the materials you are considering for your current projects. “It’s very overwhelming for a lot of people,” says Luam Melake, senior researcher at the Donghia Healthier Materials Library at Parsons School of Design’s Healthy Materials Lab. “Start out with some initial steps and then make your way [through your library].”

Educate Yourself and Your Team
If a library edit still feels daunting, get advice from the experts. The Healthy Materials Lab was specifically founded to help professionals navigate designing and building healthier homes. Additionally, Jones recommends the Sustainable Furnishings Council, Good Future Design Alliance and Green Science Policy Institute as great resources for learning more about sustainable materials. And past editions of this column can help you learn more about PFAS (“forever chemicals”), sustainable wood furniture, eco-friendly paints and natural textiles.

Make Your Firm’s Red List
Once you’ve done a little research, deciding what you don’t want to use is a good starting point. “Come up with your own ‘red list’—things that you want to exclude from your collection,” says Melake. “Then you can focus on finding substitutes for those materials.” The Living Building Challenge (LBC) Red List has a catalog of “worst in class” materials, chemicals and elements you could reference, but fair warning: It’s a dense read.

Edit Out the Worst Offenders
Each firm will have different goals for its sustainable materials library. Some might want to eliminate most plastics, while others might want to focus on indoor air quality. At the top of Jones’s list are PVC (often found in roller shades), flame retardants, and fabrics with applied stain treatment. Melake would like to see vinyl disappear from designers’ libraries, particularly luxury vinyl tile (LVT), which she suggests replacing with linoleum, “which is made from flax and is biodegradable.”

Find Better Versions of your Go-Tos
Next, vet your everyday resources. “Think about what you grab first when you’re about to start a project,” says Melake. “People [typically] have material palettes that they use frequently; let’s make sure that some of those materials are good—that their preferred paint is a good paint and their wood is a good wood.” If you always specify a conventional paint, consider a plastic-free mineral or clay paint, which can often be color-matched to your previously preferred brand. If your favorite stone is shipped from overseas, seek out a domestic doppelgänger to avoid the carbon footprint of a trip across the ocean.

Forget Perfection
“Do the best you can—don’t kill progress with perfection,” says Jones. “There’s no way that we can work in luxury residential design and only source organic linens and cottons, for example.” Melake agrees, noting that in some aspects of the industry there are no good (or affordable) options. For example, there’s no scalable, sustainable alternative to polyurethane foam. “Even at our library, not everything is the ideal material,” she adds. “Sometimes you have to make some allowances.”

Aim for Better Than Average
Look at each material category and figure out where the average version of that material is, suggests Melake. “Then ask yourself, ‘Are the products that we’re looking at significantly better? Are they making a better impact on the environment and on health? Is there recycled content in them? Are they using renewable resources for energy?’” If a product or material checks some of those boxes, let it into your library without guilt.

Give Preference to Local Materials
Always ask where things are made. If it’s an organic textile but it came from halfway around the world, the item still has a large carbon footprint. While Jones continues to source special pieces from abroad—like a B&B Italia sofa that a client has their heart set on—she tries to use primarily domestically made furniture and materials.

Don’t Accept Catalogs
To reduce waste in their materials library, Niche Interiors asks brands not to send catalogs—a request they make next to their address on their website. “There’s no need for it, and it’s such a waste of paper,” says Jones. “Plus, we don’t have room in our library for a million catalogs. We know we can go online and just look at their website.” The same goes for visiting sales reps: For any scheduled appointments, you can let them know in advance that you do not want printed materials left behind.

Donate the Cast-Off Samples
While you might decide you no longer want to use a particular synthetic fiber, it might still be useful to someone before it heads to the landfill. Kate Smith, founder of K.Smith | X, a construction management and design firm in Fish Creek, Wisconsin, suggests that designers look for a place to donate their unwanted materials samples. “We have an art school right down the street, so I box up anything that could be good for projects. The amount we donate is unreal.”


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.

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