Selecting Sustainable Materials: Your Go-To Guide
By Marissa Lada
February 21, 2019
What should you look for when selecting sustainable materials?
Probably, what people think of the most when going eco-friendly with interior design is the materials. It’s a valid area to focus on, since material selection is a big factor in interior design. But, do you know what exactly to look for when sourcing materials? Well, B&V has your back with this quick go-to guide for selecting sustainable materials, making you a sustainable pro when it comes to finding green materials for your next home project!
What is the material made of?
Just like your food, did you know that materials also have ingredient labels? They may require a little more research to find (as manufacturers are not required to reveal them), but you can be a conscious consumer — just reach out and ask the showroom featuring the product, or email the manufacturer directly and ask!
Here are some things to focus on when looking at the make up of a material:
Pre-consumer recycled content, post-consumer — what’s the difference with recycled content?
Pre-consumer recycled content is material that is diverted from waste during the manufacturing process. For example, the waste material could be sawdust, walnut shells, metal shavings, or other various scraps. This is beneficial because it creates a use out of these materials that are a byproduct of manufacturing that would otherwise become waste.
Post-consumer recycled content is material from a finished product that is recycled afterwards and used in the production of a new item. This lessens the burden on landfills by giving a new life to a discarded item.
Free of Chemicals
Often times, these chemicals are emitted during the manufacturing process. This waste runs off into our streams and rivers, dispersing into our waterways, soil, and overall ecosystem. Materials that are free from toxic chemicals are beneficial not only to the environment, but to our health. While damage to our soil and water is a horrible hazard for our health, these chemicals can also impact us on a more direct level, causing issues from respiratory diseases to cancer.
Many companies are now posting labels on their products to show the list of ingredients that goes into them. These are known in the industry as “DECLARE” labels and they offer transparency to consumers. When shopping around, not only is it good to look for companies that have DECLARE labels, but also claim to be RED LIST FREE, meaning that their products do not contain any of the worst chemicals known to pollute the environment and cause harm to humans.
Just as it’s important to not have chemicals in the actual materials, being mindful of the installation method for those materials is equally important for our health and environment. Off-gasing is a serious concern with the installation of building materials such as flooring and tile. Many of the bonding agents that adhere a material contain harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde and VOCs. Whether hiring a contractor or if you are working DIY-style, be sure to select and specify water-based solvents or opt for materials that don’t require any glues or bonds, such as floating click-system flooring.
Where did the material come from?
Help reduce emissions due to transportation by sourcing local materials. If you view sourcing materials in a hierarchy, the base line would be to select materials and products that are made in your country. The next tier would be finding items within your region — meaning, if you’re from Washington, focus on items produced in the Pacific Northwest or on the west coast. The top tier is to source locally.
According to the USGBC (United States Green Building Council), local sourcing is anything within a 500 mile radius of the job site.
How is the product made?
How a company is manufacturing their products is just as important in terms of being “green” as the products themselves. If a company is manufacturing an “eco-friendly” product in a facility that runs off coal, that product isn’t actually “eco-friendly” at all.
Here are things to look for in the manufacturing process:
Since waste is such a huge environmental issue, how are these companies eliminating or reducing their waste consumption? Whether this is by recycling and creating products utilizing pre-consumer waste, or by reclaiming old products to reuse them, looking into how a company deals with waste contributes to their overall sustainability.
What methods are these manufacturing plants using in terms of energy? This may require a bit of research if a company isn’t being transparent. Some environmentally-responsible ways companies can use energy are through purchasing green energy, minimizing their energy usage, or powering their plants through post-industrial waste (such as a lumber mill heating their facilities through wood scraps/shavings).
Operation safety may seem unrelated in terms of sustainability, but both share a similar underlying value in reducing resources. In the case of safety, these resources are human. How does a company care for their human resources? Looking at the sustainability of a company, the economic, social, and environmental responsibilities are interconnected.
This ties into to operation safety, but more specifically, it is important to ensure that the health of the workers isn’t compromised in the process of manufacturing. Are the people to help create a product inhaling toxic fumes? Just as chemicals are bad for the environment, they can also bad for human health!
How do you trust that something is as sustainable as the company says it is?
A company may claim that they are green, or have green products, but unless there is a reliable outside source to back it up, you may be seeing some false advertising or a case of “green washing.” To ensure that a product is green, there are many third party certifications that one can look for.
Here are just a few popular ones:
This certification is used for plumbing fixtures and focuses on low flow and water reduction. In general, when selecting plumbing fixtures, a good guideline is to source toilets that have no more than 1.28 gpf (gallons per flush), showerheads with a max of 2.5 gmp (gallons per minute), and faucets with a max of 1.5 gpm.
Cradle to Cradle (C2C) Certification
This certification focuses on five quality categories: material health, material reutilization, renewable energy/carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness. It’s a great ‘one stop shop’ for knowing a product is truly green.
Standing for Forest Stewardship Council, the FCS certification focuses on responsible forest management when cutting down trees for wood products.
This certification is from the Carpet & Rug Institute for the testing of VOCs and chemicals in carpets, rugs, and their backings.
This is the certification most people are probably the most familiar with, almost to the point of ignoring it, but Energy Star focuses on electric consumption and energy-efficient products, and you definitely want it!
This is all just a start, to help you feel more confident when selecting materials so you can design your space with sustainability in mind. We hope it gets you thinking. Of course, we are here to help you out on your journey.