For those familiar with ethical fashion and conscious living, thinking about styling your space sustainably is a natural next step — but what exactly is sustainable interior design all about?
This post will break down what the concept of sustainable interior design is and why it matters. You can also expect to find expert tips and the most common myths to be aware of when it comes to designing your home consciously!
This is a guest post from Kelly Butler, an interior stylist helping women confidently create sustainable, beautiful spaces that tell their unique stories through virtual 1:1 coaching or room eDesign.
What is Sustainable Interior Design?
Most people think about sustainable interior design as an approach based on a set of principles to reduce negative or increase positive environmental impact. And, that’s true, of course. But, I don’t think the definition stops there — true sustainability requires a more holistic definition.
Sustainable interior design is a connected ecosystem. It begins with you and your loved ones in your home (your health, happiness, and comfort), connecting to the planet, and from there, rippling to the people who made your home goods in the supply chain and to our societies at large. And finally, the outer ring of this ecosystem is composed of our world’s economies and cultures.
This holistic approach encourages us to think more broadly about what we bring into our home — and gives us more choices of how we style our interiors for beauty and impact.
Why It Matters
1. Exploited Labor in the Supply Chain
When standing in a home goods store, browsing through a stack of beautiful rugs, the last thing most people consider is that the rug they’re looking at was made with exploitive practices. The U.S. Department of Labor reported that carpets and rugs, textiles, brassware, and furniture are known to be produced with forced and child labor.
According to Goodweave, “carpet kids” sit at looms for up to 14 hours per day, using sharp tools to weave carpets with no access to education. Some are trafficked to loom sheds far from home — often under threat of violence — to work off a family debt that can never be repaid on meager wages.
While this example is specific to the rug industry, you can find similar stories of exploitation in other categories of home decor and furniture, too.
2. Furniture Waste
10 million tons of furniture go into landfills per year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That’s 20,000,000,000 pounds of furniture dumped each and every single year.
The rate of furniture waste is accelerating as the rise of flat-packed furniture has created a “fast furniture” culture similar to fast fashion, and a mindset that we can buy furniture cheaply and then dispose of it when it doesn’t last.
Just as there is a growing movement to return to a slow fashion mindset, the home industry in desperate need of a slower furniture cycle.
3. Illegally and Unsustainably Forested Wood
$17B of wood (which is used for items like wooden furniture) is traded through illegal forestation every year. The recent Amazon fires and threatened rainforest habitats sound further alarms, yet the U.S. leads with the highest demand for wood furniture. The environmental effects of illegal logging include deforestation, the loss of biodiversity, and greenhouse gas emissions.
Illegal logging has contributed to conflicts with Indigenous and local populations, violence, human rights abuses, corruption, funding of armed conflicts, and exacerbation of poverty.
The Case for Change
The problems laid out above make the case clear for why we need to change how we approach styling our homes.
That said, it feels better to me to work with my clients from a place of opportunity.
Currently, Pinterest fuels our desire for more beautiful spaces and “before and after” images can be found everywhere, from Instagram to HGTV. But what if those “after” images went deeper than a pretty picture? What if each finished space also had a backstory of a positive impact?
That vision is what drives me as an interior stylist, and it’s what drives my clients. We want more than a pretty space — we want that space to feel deeply connected to our personal stories and most importantly, to our values.
Sustainable Interior Design Tips
1. Buy Fair
Fair trade is an approach to business and to development based on dialogue, transparency, and respect that seeks to create greater equity in the international trading system. For more details on fair trade principles, visit FairTradeFederation.org.
Designer tip: These neutral White Canvas Curtains from West Elm hang beautifully and can fit in with just about any decor style. The curtains are sold as a set of two, reasonably priced, and filter out just the right amount of light. Make sure to hang your rod close to your ceiling molding to make your window look larger.
2. Go Treasure Hunting
Vintage lovers, rejoice! We’ve never had such access to quality vintage furniture online.
There are informal platforms supporting local trade like Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist (which are great places for finding affordable sustainable furniture). And there are online marketplaces (both peer-to-peer and curated) like AptDeco, Chairish, Apartment Therapy Bazaar, Kaiyo, Etsy, 1stDibs, One Kings Lane, and Jayson Home.
I also love carousing my local antique shops, flea markets and thrift shops for the best finds!
And, nothing beats the patina of vintage pieces to add a layer of depth to your home.
To minimize the carbon footprint of shipping large items, prioritize buying vintage furniture locally where possible.
Designer’s tip: Take measurements of the areas in your home that need a piece of furniture. For example, your entryway wall. A good rule of thumb is to allow 36 inches of foot traffic for main areas and 24 inches for secondary areas. Plug your measurements into your phone so that when you’re out shopping locally or online, you have the right dimensions at hand.
It helps me keep track of the pieces I need and that I’m willing to invest in. It’s often far more difficult to return a vintage item (if you are even able to return it at all), so having the right measurements protects your investment.
3. Prioritize Sustainably-Sourced Wood
The most sustainably-sourced wood is the wood that already exists! Look for reclaimed wood wherever possible — Etsy has many options and home retailers like VivaTerra and Viesso also offer reclaimed wood collections.
For finding new furniture made from responsibly-sourced wood, the most widely used and globally recognized certification continues to be the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
We’ve already touched on the problem of illegal forestation, but something else worth noting is that China imports the most illegally harvested wood in the world. And, unsurprising, the United States has the highest demand for furniture produced in China in the world. So, for any furniture imported from China, it’s especially important to look for third-party certifications like FSC.
Another resource for finding sustainably-sourced wooden furniture is the Sustainable Furnishings Council. The group collaborates with the National Wildlife Federation to publish an annual “Wood Furniture Scorecard“, ranking dozens of brands on their wood sourcing practices.
Designer’s tip: Find FSC-certified wood furniture at mainstream retailers Williams-Sonoma, Pottery Barn, and CB2 by searching “FSC” on their websites or check out smaller eco-friendly furniture brands like Medley Home, Simbly, and Avocado Mattress.
One of my latest favorites is this moody blue Irving Queen Nailhead Bed with its beautifully curved lines.
4. Look for Non-Toxic and Eco-Friendly Pieces
This is a broad category, but it’s worth calling out here. Eco-friendly can mean low VOC’s (volatile organic compounds), sustainably grown fibers, recycled content, non-toxic, and more.
One label to look out for to avoid harmful chemicals is OEKO-Tex Certified, which is a standard of testing textiles for regulated and non-regulated substances harmful to human health.
Another important certification for furniture is Greenguard Certified, which ensures low-chemical and low-particle emissions.
When looking for home textiles and linens (think bedding, curtains, and even upholstery), look for the Global Organic Textile Standard. GOTS is the leading standard for organic textiles, both in the fashion and home industries.
For pieces with latex (some mattresses, pillows, and sofas), you can look for the Global Organic Latex Standard, which ensures that the latex was sourced in a socially and environmentally responsible manner. Products with the GOLS certification must have at least 95% certified organic raw material, according to Control Union, the certifying body behind GOLS.
Designer’s Tip: Choose a high-quality sofa with classical lines that won’t go out of style, which extends the lifespan of your piece. One of my favorites is the neutral Carlisle Upholstered Tightback Sofa with English rolled arms. It’s classically chic but still laid back enough for a nap, and it comes in several sizes and fabrics. The sofa is tested and classified as low-VOC and free of toxins.
Common Myths About Sustainable Interior Design
Myth busting is one of my favorite things, especially when it helps my clients to think differently about their perceptions and ultimately allows them to make choices they feel great about in their homes.
Myth 1: Sustainable interiors is only about where I buy furniture.
Sourcing is important, but it’s not the whole picture. Aside from where you buy your furniture, one of the most important ways you can style your home sustainably is to consider versatility, longevity, and quality.
Versatility means challenging yourself to think about how a certain furniture or decor piece can be used in at least three ways so that you can use it in another room or another home.
Consider, for example, that a three-drawer chest can be used as a nightstand, a bar station in your living room, or a printer stand in your home office.
And quality is interconnected with longevity, because the higher quality your item is, the longer you will have it, experience joy from it, and use it.
Myth 2: Sustainable interior design = minimalist
There was a time when sustainable interior design was equated with modern and minimalist aesthetics and not much else. However, the market is growing and there are styles out there to suit many different tastes, from farmhouse to boho, traditional to mid-century modern.
Broadening the definition of sustainability means more makers which are operating under one of the umbrella principles.
Myth 3: Sustainable interior design is expensive
It’s understandable why many people assume this, and it is certainly true that a sustainable option can be more expensive in some cases.
But, as discussed above, buying secondhand and vintage (or even sourcing used furniture for free through apps or family) is sustainable.
These options can often be more affordable than new sustainable furniture or even be available at lower prices than new “fast furniture” in some cases. Today, there are more options than ever for shopping pre-loved furniture that make buying vintage easier and more accessible. (See “Go Treasure Hunting” above for some suggestions!)
Most importantly, reframe your budget definition to be long-term. Investing in a quality piece and buying once rather than buying cheaper options that then have to be replaced sooner is often more affordable overall.
But don’t worry — you don’t have to blow your budget all at once. Start small and improve the quality of pieces in your home gradually.
If you need some support or guidance with sustainable interior design, my services (which are detailed below) are designed to be attainable because I believe sustainable interiors are for everyone.
How to Get Started with Sustainable Interior Design
For weekly free training on sustainable interiors content, tips and inspiration, follow Kelly on Instagram @gratify_home. You can also grab Kelly’s quick checklist of 6 questions to ask before you buy a piece of furniture for your home.
If you’re feeling ready to create a sustainable space you love and you feel stuck or overwhelmed, set up a free Design Breakthrough call. During this 20-30 session, Kelly will help you create a crystal clear vision for the conscious goals you have for your home. She’ll also uncover hidden challenges that could be preventing you from creating a home you love. You’ll leave the session renewed and inspired to finally create a home you feel deeply connected to, that tells your unique story, that you’re proud to share.
I entered the sustainable home styling space quite unexpectedly through happenstance. A 30-day trip to India to consult with an education nonprofit stopped me in my tracks. Walking through the slums in Mumbai, I began to challenge my understanding of sustainable income and how business could be used to address poverty. I started to challenge myself as a future social entrepreneur.
When I returned home, I followed my curiosity about sustainable and conscious practices and married that passion with my love of home interiors. I saw a gap in the market for sustainable home interiors outside of the luxury market. I wanted to create services that were accessible to many, not just a privileged few. My business, Gratify Home, was born and I took the leap from my corporate career of 20 years to focus in this space!
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