The ultimate guide to sustainable interior design.
Choosing to live sustainably is the greatest thing we can do to personally make a difference to the emissions we create.
Sustainable interior design is about making informed decisions about the products and materials we surround ourselves with to reduce the impact we have on the earths resources, the amount of fossil fuels we use and improve the health of the home we live in.
There are 5 key ways to achieve a sustainable interior design:
Choose sustainable materials
Depending on the size of your renovation project there will be a lot of decisions to be made on materials like cabinets and bench tops, carpet, tiles, floorboards, windows, doors and more.
The key to choosing sustainable materials is knowing:
Here are the best ways to choose sustainable materials:
1. The ultimate eco-friendly materials are recycled or reclaimed
This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to buy an old kitchen off eBay. With new technologies always emerging and the increasing appetite for eco-friendly materials, lots of products are now being made from recycled materials, ranging from the more obvious items such as timber through to carpet and kitchen bench tops made out of recycled drink bottles.
More modern forms of concrete used for polished concrete flooring and bench tops is made out of recycled fly ash, which, like all reclaimed and recycled materials, not only stops the recycled product from going to landfill but avoids the carbon footprint of making a product from scratch.
2. Source locally
The further away materials need to come from, the more ’embodied’ carbon that product uses being transported to where it will be used. Therefore local manufacturers and materials are preferred if you’re looking for the most sustainable option.
The same goes for furniture and homewares – FSC certified timber furniture imported from overseas is not as good an option as furniture made near you because by the time you count the emissions produced to transport it its eco-cred has been undermined.
3. Look for materials that are independently certified as eco-friendly
The building industry is the largest contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions.
With greenwashing rife in the industry, it takes a fair amount of due diligence to make sure the building materials you’re considering are truly sustainable.
It can be hard to trace products back to the source, but thankfully there are a few certifications to look for that simplify this process:
3. Go for materials that are natural, organic and renewable
Renewable materials like sustainably-harvested timber, bamboo, hemp and wool are all derived from resources that can be re-grown or otherwise replenished.
Sustainable materials buying guide
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all the sustainable options, don’t worry! We’ve consolidated the best information available to help you choose the green options that fit your budget and lifestyle.
The most eco-friendly lighting options are:
Eco-friendly kitchen cabinets
Recycled or sold timber cabinets are beautiful but not everyone’s cup of tea.
The most commonly purchased kitchen cabinets are made of MDF (medium density fibreboard) which contains Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) that emit nasty gases such as formaldehyde into your home.
If your kitchen cabinets are to be built out of MDF there are low VOC types such as E0 and Super E0 board materials which you can specify along with low or no emission paint finishes.
Kitchen bench tops
The kitchen bench top is the main feature of most kitchens and often comes at considerable expense. Historically many have chosen non-renewable mined resources such as granite and quartz which are beautiful as well as durable.
Ten years ago when we built our sustainable home we went with quartz (caesarstone) as the recycled options around today for green kitchen counters just weren’t available.
Green bench top materials
Green kitchen splash backs
Choose sustainable furniture and homewares
The ethics of furniture and homewares shopping can become blurry quickly when you take the time to research where they came from and how they were made. Unfortunately old growth forest destruction and child slavery are rife in the mainstream furniture industry and, naturally enough, you won’t find this advertised in the brochure or website.
Home decor and furniture can be simultaneously sustainable and stylish. Here are our top tips:
Give old items new life
The most sustainable option for an eco-friendly home interior is repurposing furniture you already have, such as reupholstering your couch or painting your dining chairs. Alternatively consider reclaimed and recycled furniture and vintage homewares such as rugs and light fittings.
While many furniture and homewares brands have jumped on the sustainability train these days, you will probably need to dig deeper to find out the origin of the materials your furniture or homewares are made with. For example, is the wood reclaimed or from FSC certified timber? Is the bed linen made from organic materials?
Fair trade and ethical labour practices are vital in a capitalist world where child slavery and exploitation of powerless workers is unfortunately very common.
The easiest way to ensure your furniture and homewares come from an ethical source is to choose companies that prioritise fair wages and a safe work environment for their workers, whether domestic or abroad.
Fair trade certification programs such as Fair Trade International and Fair Trade Australia & New Zealand can be helpful resources.
Durable and timeless
An often overlooked element of sustainability is the durability of a product. A coffee table is not sustainable if it only lasts for 5 years or becomes dated and is put into landfill.
Choosing timeless styles made of durable materials is a key part of sustainable interior design.
Choose energy-efficient and water-efficient appliances and products
Home heating and cooling releases over 441 million tons of carbon dioxide every year. It is also the largest energy expense.
Choosing energy-efficient heating, lighting and appliances and water efficient fittings and appliances is a great way to reduce your fossil fuel consumption and will be a lot easier on your pocket.
Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) use roughly 20% of the energy of an incandescent bulb and last ten times longer.
However, LED light bulbs are the true sustainability star with 75% energy savings and a lifespan up to 25 times longer than conventional bulbs.
If you want to take things to the next level of sustainability, we recommend dimmer switches, auto-off timers, and “smart” lighting to control energy efficiency from your devices.
Appliances such as ovens, cooktops, white goods and TV’s can account for a third of a household’s energy use, so choosing eco-friendly appliances will not only reduce the carbon footprint of your interior design but also help your hip pocket.
Many countries have an energy rating system in place to help you choose the most energy efficient appliances – some of them are Energy Star in the USA, Energy Rating in Australia, Energy Rating Labels in New Zealand and the EU energy rating system.
Low-flow taps and shower heads
With droughts growing longer and tougher in many areas of the world, carefully managing water use is a top priority. Low-flow taps and shower heads can save up to 2650 litres of water per household per year. Look for water efficiency certification for any products you buy.
If every home in the U.S. replaced existing taps and showers with WaterSense models, it would save over 69 billion gallons of water annually. Not to mention over $1.3 billion in water and energy costs!
Design for durability and longevity
Longevity isn’t always the hottest topic in sustainability. After all, most brands are trying to market and sell new eco products to us all the time.
We have to look at the whole lifecycle of products in our homes to really determine their environmental impact. If they aren’t built to last or need to be replaced every few years, they aren’t sustainable, they are just more landfill.
Look at the lifetime of a product
To design for a durable, long-lasting green interior, make the up-front investment in products that will be in your home for many years to come. Look for long warranties and durable materials.
Choose classic neutrals
A good green design tip is to stick to neutral colours when selecting furniture you plan to keep for a long time. Part of sustainable interior design is to limit buying based on trends and add pops of colour or interest to change things up with cushions, throws, artwork and accent decor.
Choose resilient hard surfaces
If you have kids or pets, we all know how quickly things can get destroyed. Hard surfaces tend to be the easiest to clean and most resistant to scratching, dents, or spills. Choose robust well-sealed materials for flooring, benchtops, and cabinetry so you don’t have to worry about repairs for years to come.
Choose non-toxic products and paints for a healthier environment
Health Impacts of VOCs
From formaldehyde to VOCs to many known carcinogens, everything from paint to flooring to furniture is loaded with toxins these days. These aren’t only harmful during manufacturing, but can also adversely affect indoor air quality after they’re installed in your house and can cause symptoms like headache, allergies, nausea, fatigue, and dizziness.
Choosing non-toxic products for your interior will ensure cleaner air, less off-gassing, and reduced exposure to potentially harmful chemicals.
Greenguard certified products
The Greenguard Environmental Institute (GEI) is the leading regulator of low-chemical and low-emission products. They ensure healthy buildings with the highest possible indoor air quality. Greenguard certifies everything from furniture to cleaning products to building materials. Look for their signature GREENGUARD Gold emblem to make sure that your interior purchases are Indoor Air Quality Certified.
Low-VOC or VOC-Free Paints
Paints, varnishes, and wood finishes are the most common sources of VOCs. Sustainable interior designers should always source non-toxic, natural paints for better indoor air quality and negligible environmental impact.
Flooring such as laminate, PVC and carpet are common culprits for ultra-high levels of VOCs. Unfortunately, “greenwashing” tactics often mean that VOCs can also be laced into natural flooring options like bamboo and hardwood. The only way to know for sure is with FloorScore, GreenGuard, or a company’s zero-VOC promise.
FloorScore is the leading indoor air quality certification specifically for hard surface flooring, including adhesives, underlays, and floating floors. The label differentiates low-VOC from VOC-free, and also checks for formaldehyde and acetaldehyde below certain limits.
For the environment, your health and your wallet
Sustainable interior design is all about choices: knowing where materials and products came from, how they were made, how long they will last and whether they will go to landfill after use or will biodegrade or be recycled. Choosing based on this criteria is what eco-friendly design us all about and will help you create and enjoy a sustainable home that not only protects the planet but also your health and your wallet.