Sustainable and environmentally friendly interior design is a hot topic these days. With almost 8 billion people on Earth, all living and consuming, the topic will continue to become increasingly prevalent as we embrace the global campaign to restore Mother Earth.
Our oceans are filling with plastics, landfills are overrun with disposable and not-so-disposable products (globally we recycle about 13 percent of what we use), chemically treated interior products outgas, manufactured goods over use water, and our carbon footprint expands due to trucking and shipping. However, there is some proverbial sunlight at the end of the forest.
The interior design community is encouraged to continue educating themselves on the latest in sustainability by the American Society of Interior Designers. Working alongside builders and architects—who are making creating amenities like landscape walls—designers are looking at everything from environmentally responsible interior design and building practices, to products that are good for the environment and healthy for their clients.
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What makes design sustainable? One way of approaching this topic is considering the environmental, social and economic impact of creating products from the beginning. Sustainable design principles focus on the consumption of non-renewable resources, the use of local and authentic materials, water conservation, and sustainable supply chains.
Ethical production is also important, ensuring healthy and fair labor practices associated with each product. If you really want to do a deep dive on the topic, we always love TED.com, which features topics on innovative ideas like growing your own home, recycling plastic, houseplants that purify air, water harvesting and edible landscapes. (Our ICONIC LIFE team is a fan!)
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Additionally, the industry is promoting environmentally friendly design by recognizing designers who’ve completed their LEED certifications, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It is an industry standard for rating the environmental impact of a structure. And now, more homebuyers are paying attention to this important system.
To shed some light on the importance of sustainability, we talked with LEED certified interior designer, Anita Lang, principal of IMI Design, to hear why she is so passionate about protecting the Earth, the health and values of her clients, and how she is making an impact through her firm.
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“My passion for the environment was intrinsic to my childhood, growing up in Coastal New England, but on becoming a mom, I had the epiphany about environmentally responsible interior design and our Earth, as many of us do, how we truly are just stewards of the earth for the next generations. And frankly we have done a terrible job. While said a thousand times, it is an axiom, we are borrowing the Earth from our children, and so I better get my act together.
As it turns out, my daughters are even more passionate than I am, one is a sustainability major and one is studying to be an environmental attorney. So, you can imagine our house…we are always trying to improve on our carbon footprint,” says Lang who describes herself as a hippie-at-heart designing luxury homes for some of the most affluent clients in the world.
“My other passion, interior design, is often based on mass consumerism, so in that I have this paradox to be balanced. What I have found is rather than the quick buy green labels that everyone slaps on a product, is to adjust our mindset in design. Let conservationism just be more of a way of life, something I see in our industry and in the new generation of passionate young adults who work in my firm,” says Lang, who focuses on presenting simple and attainable lifestyle changes that create a collective impact to influence environmentally responsible interior design.
In our disposable society, we are encouraged to consume and buy as much as possible, so much so that some people buying a new house may be eager to get rid of their old furniture and purchase a whole new home’s worth of things. Lang feels strongly that we should embrace more of a European mindset.
“As you think of your possessions as a curated collection reflecting your lives journey, in that you may carry those pieces with you to each new abode along the way. This idea is not only better for the Earth; it actually makes for better and more interesting design,” says Lang, who recommends buying less, but buying the best pieces you can afford and keeping those items through the years. When starting a new project, she seeks to preserve clients’ belongings as much possible, perhaps repurposing, repainting, or reupholstering.
In addition to re-using items, environmentally conscious interior design emphasizes the resourcing of responsible materials. “Are they biodegradable? Are the materials harvested in a way that is good for the Earth? Can we use local resources? How far to do we have to ship it and how much fuel does it take and how much pollution does it create? The packaging or crating…what is it and where does that go? What are the maintenance and energy requirements during the life of the product? What is done with the product at the end of its life span?” says Lang. And while no product is perfect, many manufacturers have made vast improvements in the processes.
“Currently, I’m working on a textile line and researching the best textiles to use. It’s been both shocking and enlightening to learn more about the textile industry, and to realize how much waste is involved.
So many of us are unaware of the fact that it takes 2,700 liters of water to make one cotton t-shirt, or that 84 percent of all textiles end up in landfills. I had to ask myself, how can I create this product in a more thoughtful way? I am looking into using only natural, organically grown fibers from farms with ethical working conditions,” says Lang, who has many ideas for environmentally responsible interior design solutions to be released soon.
The designer says she is seeing her clients care more than ever about having homes that are kind to our plant, like her client who is vegan. “She’s very conscientious of the environment and animals, so we made sure not to use leather in her house,” says Lang.
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So, although there is a movement of conscientious living, I still feel like it's my responsibility to lead the movement as I present options to my clients.
“So, although there is a movement of conscientious living, I still feel like it’s my responsibility to lead the movement as I present options to my clients. In doing so, there has to be a well-rounded option that provides the correct luxurious aesthetic for which we are known, the performance, the manufacturing ethics, and if it’s sustainable, then I have a winner,” she says.
Lang has some resources she really likes to use. One carpet manufacturer produces in a way that is environmentally responsible for interior designers, and bonus: they recycle every bit of carpet they take out, so it doesn’t go into a landfill. The product costs a bit more, but in a luxury environment, why wouldn’t it make sense to do the right thing?
When it comes to environmentally responsible interior design, she also uses a wood veneer product that installed much like wallpaper. It’s from Japan and has an intriguing technology with a metal layer that stabilizes it, even in a dry environment. “It looks like wood paneling or wood millwork at 1/300th of the amount of wood. Instead of a project taking one tree, one tree can do 300 projects,” she says.
When talking about leather, she is also working with some vegan leathers as an alternative—an innovative product from Mexico is made of cacti, which is preferred as most faux leathers contain plastics. There are also leather products made from re-used leather that uses an existing material rather than create new. She is also seeing interesting all wall textures that use recycled papers that are given new life.
“There are some interesting things happening in fashion, too. There are several shoe brands selling collections made from recycled materials or even plastics from the ocean. Even larger companies like H&M are using textiles made from pineapple leaves and orange peels. There is so much innovation in this field, and the more it becomes mainstream the bigger the shift will be,” she says of environmentally responsible interior design.
“Another thing is to source locally for what we need. It’s kind of like the farm-to-table version of design. It makes so much sense. You cut down on packaging, you cut down on shipping, and you’re also generating economic growth for that particular community by supporting local artisans and small businesses,” she says.
Lang is such a believer in sustainable and environmentally responsible interior design, because while it may take more time and resources to do it right, it is worth it. “In the end, we are all one. How we treat ourselves, how we treat our neighbors and how we treat Mother Earth are all linked.
“When we treat each other with respect, kindness and love, it moves society into a more harmonious, happy place for us and for future generations. We may not be here forever, but we are leaving our mark…let’s do so with love and integrity.” she says.