Shopping for sustainable home furnishings couldn’t be easier; just follow these basic principles.
Principe #1: Salvage, reuse, reclaim or repurpose it.
Attempt to give everything—a chair, a half-used can of paint, reclaimed wood flooring—a second life, especially if it’s made from natural materials. When you reuse items, there’s less demand for new goods—which means less mining, logging, milling or manufacturing in the long run. You can find many materials—from floor tile to bathroom fixtures—at construction exchanges or local salvage yards.
Principle #2: Choose natural and renewable.
The best natural choices for your home are made from rapidly renewable resources including wool, wheat, bamboo or cork. Wood is renewable, but it takes decades to replace a tree. Stone is not renewable, but it requires less embodied energy (the amount of mining, smelting, machine-working, firing, processing or shipping required to make something) than metal. Most natural materials will eventually biodegrade or disintegrate when disposed of.
Principle #3: Buy recycled.
Recycling diverts trash from landfills and gives it new life. Glass and metal may be melted down and refabricated. Wood recycling, however, could more accurately be called “downcycling,” meaning the resulting product is of lower quality than the product that went in. Recycled wood becomes wood pulp, which becomes paper, which becomes recycled paper.
Principle #4: Seek out the least harmful option.
Some products don’t fall into any of the sustainable categories but still might be worthwhile choices because they cause less harm to the environment than their conventional counterparts. Examples include paints that have lower emissions of toxic chemicals (called volatile organic compounds, or VOCs) or carpet squares that can be returned to the manufacturer for recycling.
Search out these materials
Natural interior decorating is more than a quest for beauty; it’s a dedication to materials that are healthy for your family and the earth. Look for items with these qualities:
Locally harvested or made. If it’s grown or created nearby, less transportation and shipping are needed and fewer fossil fuels are expended.
Organic, non-genetically modified. Fibers, grains and other products from farms that employ sustainable practices, such as forgoing pesticides, will support the ecosystem’s soil, water and agricultural balance.
Nontoxic. Avoid polluting your indoor environment by steering clear of anything made with toxic substances or that contains VOCs (chemicals that evaporate at normal room temperatures).
Reusable. Search for items that can be used again without further manufacturing (for example, stones that are salvaged from a hearth).
Compostable. Whenever possible, choose renewable resources that can be chopped up, shredded or layered into the compost pile, feeding the soil from which they first came.
Recyclable/Downcyclable. Consider the lifecycle of the materials in your home, and opt for those that could be remanufactured, remelted or refabricated in the future.
Healthy Interior Checklist
Conventional paints, especially oil-based types, outgas volatile organic compounds (VOCs) through the evaporation process. VOCs are not only smelly, they contribute to poor indoor air quality that can lead to respiratory, skin and eye irritation; headaches; nausea; and muscle weakness.
• Milk or casein paint (n/r) is made of milk protein (casein), which is renewable, and small amounts of mineral pigments, which are non- renewable. The paint is incredibly durable—it was used in colonial homes and the colors are still vivid today—plus it has little odor and is nontoxic.
• Natural or organic oil paint (n/r) relies on compounds derived from nature such as plant oils, insect-based shellacs, beeswax and citrus extracts. These give off natural VOCs, and the odors may be strong, so a test patch is advisable. Synthetic compounds may be added, so check for details on the label or the product’s Materials Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), which is legally required to list hazardous materials. You may have to look up the MSDS on the Internet or request it from the manufacturer.
• Zero-VOC or low-VOC paint (g) is a terrific solution for covering walls that have already been painted; you won’t need a primer if the existing surface is in good shape. These paints, while synthetic, have significantly fewer VOC emissions than their conventional counterparts. “Zero”-VOC finishes still might release minute amounts of VOCs—especially if they use VOC-containing colorants—but the levels are well below federal standards. Usually they’re lower in odors as well.
• “Recycled” paint (d/g) can mean different things. Some recycling districts collect unused paint and remix it into inexpensive blends, a terrific method for keeping paint out of landfills. However, this blend of conventional paints may have higher VOCs than are desirable for indoor use. Unused or partly used cans of “recycled” paint also are available from construction exchanges; look for low-VOC types.
From an ecological standpoint, the issue with most wallpaper and wallcoverings is the addition of a plastic called polyvinyl chloride (PVC) to the backing or surface. PVC is suspected of causing a host of illnesses and its manufacturing process is environmentally toxic. Check for a PVC-free version and use natural wallpaper paste or low-VOC adhesives whenever possible.
• Wallpaper or textiles (n/r/d) are made from a variety of natural fibers such as wood pulp, linen (from the flax plant), silk, cotton or rice. They also may be made from recycled paper; look for high recycled or natural-fiber content.
• Paneling (n/r/d) options with green qualities include wood, bamboo, cork byproducts from the production of beverage stoppers, or biocomposites (agricultural crop byproducts, such as wheat, pressed into woodlike boards). Reclaimed wood is an excellent eco-choice.
Wood has been the overall choice for cabinetry for centuries, but bamboo, metal or glass also might be used. Avoid fiberboard (MDF) cabinet backs and shelving; these have been made with hazardous formaldehyde or synthetic melamine-laminate surfaces.
• Wood (s/n/r) cabinets that have been salvaged for reuse are an excellent choice; Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood cabinets are second best.
• Metal (s/n/d) shelving or cabinets, although made from a nonrenewable resource, get points if they’ve been salvaged for reuse. Restaurant auctions are great sources.
• Biocomposite boards (n/r/d) such as wheatboard are created from agricultural crop wastes. They make sturdy cabinet backs and shelves, and their interesting “textures” create attractive cabinet fronts. Biocomposite boards are usually formaldehyde free.
MATTRESSES AND PILLOWS
Synthetic foams often found in sofas, mattresses and pillows rely on nonrenewable petroleum. In addition, the fire-retardant chemicals used on the foam—called PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers)—are showing up in human blood and breast milk and in food. Opt for all-natural fillers instead of these hazardous foams.
• Natural latex (n/r) from rubber trees, not to be confused with synthetic latex, provides a durable, healthy sleeping surface. Both synthetic and natural latex are called by the same name, so request specifics from the manufacturer or retailer. Also, natural latex allergies are rare.
• Wool (n/r) is a mattress filler that’s renewable, breathable and even fire retardant. Few people are actually allergic to wool, although it can be itchy to some. A combination of wool over a natural latex core is common.
• Down (n/r) is soft and breathable, and it’s less likely to cause an allergic response if the maker washed it thoroughly before stuffing. You often can detect a scent on down that has not been adequately washed.
•Buckwheat, kapok, syriaca (milkweed) and beans (n/r) are good pillow fillers for those who have vegan sensibilities.
UPHOLSTERY, LINENS AND OTHER TEXTILES
• Wool (n/r) is a favorite for warmth and durability, plus it absorbs 30 times its weight in water. Look for wool from sustainable farms.
• Cotton (n/r), when grown conventionally, uses more pesticides than any other crop. Organic cotton is easier on the earth and is readily available in sheets, towels and upholstery fabric.
• Silk (n/r) cultivation is natural, but not cruelty free. To obtain long silk fibers, makers boil the silkworms in their cocoons to kill them before they mature and tear through their silk encasements. A few makers are producing “vegetarian” or “peace” silk by harvesting wild cocoons after the moth leaves. Also look for silk producers that prohibit child labor.
• Hemp (n/r) cultivation is not allowed in the United States, but the fiber is excellent for durable textiles such as in towels.
Ceramic tile, stone, natural linoleum and wood all can be used as countertops; refer to the Flooring guidelines, at right. For kitchens and baths, choose a countertop material that’s waterproof and hygienic; kitchen surfaces should be heat resistant.
• Recycled-glass tile (n/d) keeps beverage bottles out of the landfill. And glass can be recycled into glass over and over again. Eventually, glass will disintegrate into sand, from whence it came.
• Composites (n/d/g) incorporate byproducts such as crop wastes, sawdust or recycled paper. Although most composite countertops rely on synthetic resins as binders, they’re an improvement on conventional solid-surface countertops made from acrylics, vinyl and other petroleum products.
Practically any material, from wool carpets to stone, can go underfoot. Because floors are especially prone to scratches and stains, select a durable, washable surface for any high-traffic area.
• Wood (s/n/r) flooring can be reclaimed and reused; there are many retailers of salvaged wood flooring nationwide. If you’re purchasing new wood flooring, look for certification of sustainable forestry practices from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSCUS.org).
• Bamboo (n/r) won’t last as long as wood but is regenerated much more quickly than trees. There is no widely accepted method to ensure sustainable bamboo farming and fair trade practices were followed, and most bamboo is from Asia. Look for companies that can verify where and how the bamboo plantations were managed. Some bamboo flooring uses toxic urea-formaldehyde as a binder, so search out formaldehyde-free brands.
• Cork (n/r/d) flooring is made from bark stripped from cork oak trees (which doesn’t harm the trees), that are sustainably managed through strict cooperatives. Almost all cork is produced in Europe.
• Natural linoleum (n/r) is made from renewable linseed (from the flax plant), pine resin, wood and sometimes limestone. The material also has antimicrobial properties. Squares or sections are easy to replace if damaged, and they eventually biodegrade if sent to the landfill.
• Ceramic tile (s/n/d) is produced from clay fired at high temperatures, so it has high embodied energy—but it’s tough, inert and easy to clean. Salvaged tile may be easy to find at construction exchanges. The grout must be sealed to avoid deterioration.
• Stone (n) is natural, but it’s nonrenewable. Avoid quarried stone that leaves a scarred earth and instead opt for collected field stones. You may need to seal the stone to avoid staining.
• Concrete (n/g) is durable and easy to clean, but it’s made from a mix of natural and sometimes recycled industrial slag that is fired at high temperatures, so it’s high in embodied energy. Acid staining is a popular treatment, but also highly caustic. The best concrete floor is a naturally tinted foundation slab. Another option is concrete “terrazzo” made with recycled material such as glass.
• Carpet (n/r/d/g) usually is made from nylon and is a huge burden on landfills when it’s discarded. A few manufacturers accept their carpets back for downcycling, and a few others use downcycled plastic for carpet fibers. The greenest carpets and rugs are made from natural fibers such as wool, silk, cotton, jute, sisal or seagrass.