Sustainable by design: Eco-friendly interiors explored
PUBLISHED: 13:59 21 August 2019 | UPDATED: 17:31 09 September 2019
Environmentally-friendly furniture has never been more fashionable. Eco-worrier Richard Burton found out more.
When I began my life in property, I thought sustainable furniture was something that would survive the journey home in the van. And recycling meant getting the bike out of the shed after a lazy winter.
These days they're a key part of every manufacturer's strategic thinking as terms such as style, comfort and "making your house a home" have been replaced with the likes of reduce, reuse and recycle as we move towards the so-called circular economy which takes waste out of the equation.
And you don't have to be an eco-warrior, or like me, an eco-worrier, to realise that the latter doesn't need to compromise on the former.
While no production process can claim to be totally impact free, any steps any of them are taking towards minimising waste, cutting carbon emissions and toxic ingredients has got to be applauded.
It's a trend that's affects every industry, thanks to the likes of Google which has committed to carbon-neutral shipping and recycled plastic for all devices by the same deadline, even helping eco campaigner Stella McCartney's efforts to improve fashion's environmental footprint.
In the interiors business, sustainability has become something of a buzzword with the leading brands showing the way.
Ikea has vowed to replace all single-use plastic from its product range by 2020 with renewable and recycled materials, alongside a longer-term pledge to achieve zero emissions on its home deliveries. And luxury brands such as the Bauhaus-inspired Knoll say all their products undergo Life Cycle Assessments during design and development to measure potential environmental impacts and joined CDP, the Carbon Disclosure Project which measures environmental impacts.
Definitions of 'eco-friendly' can get confusing because it's hard to quantify exactly much how one manufacturing process or material can be considered less harmful to the planet than another. And when a company makes loose claims about being environmentally conscious, how do we be sure what all that means?
That's why organisations such as the Hertfordshire Sustainability Forum play such a vital role, bringing together local councils and voluntary and community groups to raise awareness.
And Sustainable St Albans, the local charity which brings people together to find "positive and creative" ways to raise awareness and move towards a low-carbon economy, organising the annual Sustainability Festival with Friends of the Earth.
Carolina Karlstrom, founder and director of the Hertfordshire-based Jade Advisory, is sympathetic but optimistic.
"With the likes of David Attenborough's Blue Planet, Extinction Rebellion and school strikes for the climate, there's been enough out there to raise awareness and make this feel like a step change in the way we approach things," she said.
"There are many informed individuals doing their best to do the right thing but it's a challenge to stay on top of everything, especially given there are so many decisions to make. For example, it can be as simple as going to buy apples: you can buy them loose or wrapped, but find the loose ones are from South Africa and the UK ones are in plastic so what do you do?
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"It's better to reuse, repair and maintain than recycle. That should be the last part of the process. And if you do have to get rid of something, it's better to turn it into energy than dump it in a landfill.
"Do we really need to upgrade our mobile phones every six months? At least, if we do we should send them somewhere that will take the old one apart and reuse the components."
Carolina, whose consultancy work has seen her develop wind farms in South Africa and advise a top renewable energy company, added: "We need more from the government and bolder decisions from our politicians. Business, too, could do more to push their agendas even harder. There are a lot out there doing good work, such as JPA Furnishing in St Albans who focus entirely on upgrading and recycling and have won awards in the process."
To support my original point about substance replacing style, I'm confident in saying that nine out of ten companies I have spoken to on interiors issues in the past year have all stressed their eco-credentials in some way. And press material I see regularly rarely fails to highlight them in some form.
One of the most innovative companies laying claim to 100 per cent sustainability is Pentatonic, the London and Berlin-based manufacturer which makes all its products from recycled and recyclable materials, including chairs made from plastic bottles, desks from discarded DVDs, glassware from old smart phone screens, and in the words of founders Jamie Hall and Johann Boedecker, they even turn "coffee cups into coffee tables".
The pair set up the business frustrated by the impact rubbish has on the environment and incorporated such things as modular design methods which means they don't use glue so parts can be replaced as needed and each component is made from a single material, infinitely recyclable and numbered so it can be tracked throughout its life cycle.
They even have a buy-back programme in place for when products cease to be usable.
And if you think there are aesthetic compromises to be made, Jan Hendzel's south London studio which supplies the likes of Conran and Selfridges is renowned as much for its beauty as its sustainability.
Most of his products have had previous lives such as roof joists, wall panelling - or even the odd canal lock gate - and he notes how depressing it is "to see new wood being milled at the same time as old wood being chucked".
And by using traditional techniques, he hopes to keep the furniture alive: the ultimate mark of sustainability. In his words, "I think the most sustainable thing for a maker is to make things that people buy once and cherish for their lifetime."
And the trendy Rust Collections has made a name for itself as a go-to brand for long-lasting rustic-luxe reclaimed pieces, making everything from beds to coffee tables from wood salvaged from "local" reclamation yards to keep transport miles to a minimum.
"But you don't have to buy reclaimed wood for it to be sustainable. We also use oak to create some of our furniture, and ensure that it is sourced from a company that is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council and adheres to sustainable forest management - essentially ensuring that today's forests are here for future generations to enjoy and benefit from."
Blacks of Sopwell is testament to that, operating from a 450-year old tithe barn in the countryside in St Albans' Cottonmill Lane.
"Timber is one of the most sustainable and renewable building materials on Earth," Ian Black says in his blog.
"Trees are nature's solar panels, converting carbon emissions to oxygen as they grow and it can be used for energy when burnt at the end of its useful life.
"It is important to us that the wood we use in our furniture is harvested in a responsible way to ensure that that it is farmed correctly , replaced as necessary and meets all the requirements to make it a sustainable material".