In a world that's finally woken up to the severity of the climate crisis, claims of sustainability and eco-friendliness now surround us. But how do we know what’s genuinely important, what will make a difference, and what’s just greenwashing? As designers and brands grapple with the challenge of balancing business with the responsibility of introducing new products to an already saturated planet, we take stock of how to define sustainable design. Here, champions of environmentally-minded homeware, both established and new, give us their answers…
Sheridian Coakley, founder of SCP
‘I think sustainable design means pieces made from responsible materials, but that have also been built to last a lifetime’
‘When I began SCP in 1985, there was no clear approach to sustainability. Now, there is more of an industry focus on making things in a considered way. Our policy has always been to produce things that will last a lifetime, to become heirlooms. Something that has pleased us recently is the number of SCP pieces being brought back to us for re-upholstery, many from the first 15 years of SCP.
Our furniture is generally made of wood, metal and textiles. Wood is the key material as it captures carbon for its entire life span and locks it in the product itself. Upholstery pieces are made in our Norfolk factory, which we bought when the owners retired. Since then, we’ve been able to expand the factory and have control over how it is run and the materials used. We sell a lot in the UK, so shipping is kept down. Another advantage is that we work closely with mostly UK-based designers who visit the factory often when items are in development. We are not of a scale where we can own all of our manufacturing base, so outsourcing the making of our wood designs to factories in Europe in the early 2000s was a natural step. There are also no factories of this kind in the UK that can make things at the cost we require – we try to make sustainable products that are not prohibitively priced.
In terms of sustainability, we are on a journey. We would like to get better, but we’re on the right trajectory. We’re proud to be creating designs that people are still sitting on three decades later and are still in production.’ scp.co.uk
Arielle Assouline-Lichten, founder of Slash Objects
‘Sustainable making requires authentic intention in the entire process of production, which considers the environment and the people in it’
‘It was in 2015, while working as an architect designing a Manhattan gym that I discovered recycled rubber. I saw great potential for this mundane material that was transformed when combined with others such as marble, brass and concrete. Slash Objects aims to encourage a new way of thinking about recycled materials – “green”products have historically had a specific look and I wanted to contradict that with elegant and contemporary pieces. People are more engaged with what materials are used in manufacturing, and are excited to hear there may be benefits beyond aesthetics and function. But even within sustainable materials there are questionable choices being made with regards to what is actually better for the earth – it’s a really important issue that we are defining at this moment. We have to rethink everything we thought we knew about making. It’s my duty as a designer to find new uses for things that have already been created. That’s also why we focus on the long-lasting aspect of the products, so that our designs not only divert waste from landfills, but also don’t fill them up in the future.’ slashobjects.com
Brodie Neill, designer and founder of Made in Ratio
‘It’s seeing potential and using materials that are provocative to highlight the big issues the planet is facing’
‘Sustainability has become a tag, but it’s what we’ve been doing since day one – it’s our natural response to everything. I grew up in Tasmania, Australia, where there’s an inherent respect for nature and natural materials – living on an island, ocean plastic is an issue that’s close to my heart. With the “Giro” table from 2016, we wanted to bring the problem to the international design forum (it contains over 500,000 fragments of ocean plastic) by presenting a different attitude to waste streams. But we need to go back further and challenge our takeaway, convenience-driven culture to stop the need for these pollutants in the first place. We’ve also worked with bamboo for a while. Technically, it’s a grass and is a very stable, fast-growing and renewable material. It’s not perceived as “high-value” but we’ve found a way to elevate it with an organic black ebonised stain, which makes it look sensational.
Our latest collection, made from Hinoki cypress (above), was inspired by a trip to Japan last year, where I visited many craftspeople in their workshops. Despite not speaking the same language, we came away with an agreement that we were going to work together. There is such a love affair of craft in Japan but there’s concern that these skills are going to be lost forever soon. Collaborations like this give them new breath to live on. These techniques are not about mass production, but about taking the time and care to make things that will last. That’s the way I was taught to build furniture when I was studying – anything we build should outlast us, plus 25 years.’ madeinratio.com
Bruce Ribay, co-founder of Noma Editions
‘Sustainable design is beautiful because beauty is the first condition for a product to have a long life’
‘At Noma, we want to change the current outlook on recycled materials, and so we’re very excited with the results of our first collection, which includes the “Art” armchair. It’s made from 82.1 per cent recycled materials but you’d never know from how it looks and feels. Our approach encompasses the entire life cycle of our products; from conception to production, distribution, use – and re-use! – until their end-of-life. All the materials we use for our products are recyclable (most of them are already recycled). We have gone through a very thorough sourcing phase and have a database of roughly 100 materials. We’ve only used a fraction of these for our first collection, but are keeping an eye on all of them so we can incorporate them when it makes sense. We’ve paid a lot of attention to the way our products are assembled so they can be easily dismantled. This is a must if we want everything to be recyclable. For instance, the “Laime” armchair is assembled without screws or glue. Whenever you need to maintain it, or at the very end of its life, you can quickly and easily separate the materials.’ noma-editions.com
Vanessa Yuan, co-founder of EcoBirdy
‘It’s a response to the needs and problems our world is facing today. It has to go beyond aesthetics‘
‘Why create something new, if so many good designs already exist? We were careful to keep this question in mind when we created EcoBirdy. Our debut collection is the result of two years of intense research about plastic, plastic toys and how to recycle them into furniture. The toy industry is among those using plastic most intensively. There’s a lot of confusion concerning eco, bio and biodegradeable plastic. For example, bio-plastics are not always biodegradable in the normal environment. Without an accurate sorting and waste management system, they will mostly end up in waste incineration. Our products are entirely recyclable and can be easily recycled by any professional plastic recycling company.
On our school visits we ask pupils to put their old and unused toys in our EcoBirdy container, which we then recycle into furniture. Kids’ faces light up when they see our products. They want to engage with the soft, friendly shapes. Our “Charlie” chair has become our icon – it looks good, is comfortable and the speckled finish tells the story of the recycling process. After a visit, some parents tell us their children ask them to recycle more.’ ecobirdy.com
Tom Raffield, designer
‘For me, a sustainable design is one that doesn't compromise the planet in any way’
‘A passion for protecting and conserving nature has always been the driving force behind our designs. We’re committed to using sustainably sourced timber from responsibly managed forests, weighing up credentials, carbon footprints and woodland techniques to inform what we buy and where. Our upholstered pieces are covered using only 100 per cent natural fabrics. We work alongside one of the last wool mills in the UK that manufactures sustainable, recyclable fabrics – mainly high-quality wool derived from pasture-fed and ethically reared sheep – and help to support independent farms that showcase the best farming practices.
I was drawn to steam-bending as a manufacturing process because it felt like a forgotten art form – there were very few people using the process commercially and I knew that there was a lot of creative scope. Steam-bending is a low-energy process that relies only on heat and water. Lengths of timber are loaded into a steam chamber, heated at 100 degrees Celsius and then wrapped around custom-made metal or wooden jigs that have been formed to the shape of the products. The technique produces very little wastage; we even reuse any excess water that has condensed in the steamer the next time wood is heated. We also currently work with two small local companies that recycle any waste wood offcuts to create wooden toys, seed dibbers and small gardening tools. We’re now working really hard to ensure all our materials arrive plastic-free from our suppliers, we’re 99 per cent of the way there and expect to hit our target in the next few months.’ tomraffield.com
Henrik Marstrand, founder of Mater
‘The most important step towards a more conscious future is to inspire each other and create partnerships. We can‘t solve all the issues alone’
‘When I founded Mater in 2006, sustainability was an afterthought – it was never embedded in the design from the start. I wanted to flip the industry and create a brand with a visible and transparent purpose. Our philosophy is based on ethical and circular thinking – looking at how you disassemble a product, how you then recycle, collect and process the materials to make new furniture once a piece ends its first life cycle. Our newly launched “Nova Sea Chair”, created for the interiors of hotel Villa Copenhagen, uses 96 per cent recycled plastic made from fishing nets. In total, the 800 chairs installed at the hotel contain 2.2 tons of polluting ocean waste, which has an amazing impact on the life below the water.
We’ve spent the last few years developing materials from post-industrial waste in collaboration with the Danish Technological Institute. This is unusual in furniture manufacturing, but it’s an expression of Mater’s commitment to supporting climate action. The technology led us to partner with a large Danish beer brewing company; we collected the spent grain from the brewing process (which is called mask in Danish), dried it and used the fibres to create a unique barstool seat for the “Mask Stool”. This groundbreaking new initiative not only saves emissions and resources, but also solves a significant waste problem for the brewing company.’ materdesign.co.uk
Thomas Dinesen, CEO of Dinesen
‘Fundamentally, the efforts put into making things should be worth the energy in the long run’
'Sustainability is about both physical and aesthetic durability; good design lasts, and good raw material makes durable products. In Europe, you will only find sustainable forestry, but it can be very differently managed. At Dinesen, we value the fact that the forest has a great biodiversity, many different wood species and ages. We do not support clearcutting, and you must never cut more than the annual growth. The raw wood the foresters produce must be of such a high quality that it is worth using in long-life products and buildings. Overall, it’s our mission to give the largest possible part of the tree trunk the longest life possible. Naturally, there will be a lot of offcuts left in the process of making our planks. We work closely with designers and architects who can utilise them, including Danish practice Lendager Up. In their upcycling projects they use a lot of wood which was previously offcuts at Dinesen. Our latest product, Dinesen Layers, is an engineered floor with two bottom layers consisting of finger jointed leftover tree to ensure an excellent utilisation of the raw wood. Another product manufactured from offcuts is Habeetats, small homes for wild bees. What’s not suitable for other purposes is used to heat our buildings, drying kilns and for biomass. We are also considering how our leftover heat can be used by neighbours and replace gas and oil. A sustainable mindset is one that chooses products that affect you emotionally, that affect your senses and make you happy, and that you would like to pass on to the next generation. I’m proud that something as minimalistic as a plank from Dinesen can create both pride in craftsmanship and long-lasting joy.’ dinesen.com
This article appeared in ELLE Decoration June 2020 issue
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