Sustainable Home Decor Guide: Ethical and Eco-Friendly Design Tips

A hand holding a green plant, with the tips of the fingers colored green, on a white background.
Ethical design can help promote sustainable living through eco-friendly manufacturing and production. While industries play a crucial role in life, they can also cause industrial pollution. This pollution can contaminate drinking water, release unwanted toxins, and reduce the quality of soil, and can be the result of outdated technologies, inefficient waste disposal, and the use of nonrenewable resources.

Fortunately, sustainable designs can help both people and businesses avoid having a negative impact on the environment. By choosing an eco-friendly manufacturer, or designer, or by simply looking deeper into the footprint and profile of the materials and companies they work with, people can reduce their carbon footprint by being more conscious of the decor they put in their homes.

What Is Ethical Design?

Ethical design means creating designs that employ moral behavior and make responsible choices with the overall intent to “do good” throughout the process of creating and selling the product. These choices and behaviors cover a range of issues, such as:

  • Exploitation;
  • Working conditions;
  • Fairtrade;
  • Sustainable production;
  • Environmentally-safe production and manufacturing;
  • Animal welfare.

Designing a product can impact the environment throughout its whole lifecycle in a variety of ways, including through the extraction of natural resources, manufacturing, transportation, and waste disposal.

Combining ethics and design may be widely known in the industry, but it’s still not the default practice for many brands and professionals. Aside from the multitude of people involved in each stage of production (making it difficult to ensure end-to-end sustainability), ethical design may cost more. However, this doesn’t have to be the case, and with some basic research and effort, individuals can make sure their own design and decorating projects minimize their negative footprint or even benefit the environment.

Eco-Friendly vs. Vegan vs. Sustainable

Though these terms are used interchangeably, eco-friendly, vegan, and sustainable all have different meanings.

Eco-friendly describes how the item is made, and whether its production harms the environment. A couple examples could be clothes made from recyclable fabric, or reusable coffee cups. It could also mean that the product is made using renewable energy.

Veganism is a principle often associated with food, but it can be practiced in other aspects of life. PETA describes vegan as clothes, shoes, and accessories that contain no leather, fur, wool, skin, exotic skins, or any other animal-derived fabric. An example could be using an alternative to goose feathers in comforters, such as Polartec.

Sustainable products and processes provide environmental, social, and economic benefits. An example of this could be upcycling, a method of transforming by-products, waste materials, or unwanted products into new materials.

A piece of furniture or decor only has to fit into one category to be considered ethical. It is very rare to find designs that fit into all categories.

Why Is Ethical Design Important?

Design can impact people, places, and ecosystems at every stage of the supply chain. Not only does it affect the environment and resources, but it also affects people’s daily lives. Living in ethically designed places can influence behaviors and habits, even just by serving as a visual reminder that individual choices matter.

Industries and factories eject pollutants into the environment every day. In fact, 50% of all pollution stems from industries and manufacturing. Manufacturing can have multiple effects on the environment, including:

  • Global warming;
  • Water pollution;
  • Air pollution;
  • Soil pollution;
  • Human health;
  • Wildlife extinction.

According to the United Nations Environmental Project GEO report, the production of internationally traded goods accounts for 30% of all carbon dioxide emissions. Household consumption of goods and services over a lifecycle accounts for 60% of the total environmental impact from consumption.

The report also states that to avoid climate change and a scarcity of resources, a major shift is needed toward affordable and sustainable energy resources.

Benefits of Sustainable Design

Sustainable design has many advantages, not just for the environment, but also for the building owner. According to the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), sustainable design can:

  • Optimize site potential;
  • Minimize non-renewable energy consumption;
  • Use environmentally preferable products;
  • Protect and conserve water;
  • Enhance indoor environmental quality;
  • Optimize operational and maintenance practices.

Research from the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) states that a third of respondents have personal experience with bad health problems associated with poor living situations, but sustainable design can provide places that promote both health and comfort. The Department of Energy reviewed 22 LEED-certified buildings and found they consumed 25% less energy and 11% less water, creating a more positive impact on the environment.

Benefits of Vegan Design

Vegan principles can often serve as a proxy for measuring a product, company, or industry’s overall environmental impact and dedication to sustainability and ethics. Many furniture and fashion options can produce toxic chemicals that can cause negative environmental impacts. The leather industry, which is worth more than $77 billion, uses a variety of chemicals in the tanning process, like chromium, which is then dumped as liquid waste. Tanning one ton of hyde results in 20-80 cubic meters of chromium waste.

Some benefits of vegan design include:

  • It can be healthier. Most animal hides are treated with chemicals. Vegan materials are gentler, cleaner, and more beneficial for skin contact.
  • It can be easier to clean. Faux leather does not attract dust or insects, it holds moisture and is scratch-resistant.
  • It’s hypoallergenic, meaning those allergic to animal fur and feathers shouldn’t have a reaction.

The cosmetics industry is another arena that is seeing a vegan boom. The amount of vegan cosmetic launches increased 175% from 2013 to 2018. More and more people are seeing the potential benefits of vegan materials, including that they are healthier for consumption.

Tips for Designing Ethically

Ethical design is versatile, and there are many ways to employ ethical principles in projects of all types. It can mean splurging on a more expensive piece of furniture so that it lasts longer, or upcycling pre-loved furniture. Either way, designers can use this practice to reduce waste. Tips for building an eco-friendly home can include:

  • Being eco-conscious. Many companies provide eco-friendly and ethically sourced materials that are also quality-made. Buying a well-made piece of furniture can help reduce waste and save on landfill space.
  • Recycling. Whenever possible, recycle any leftover materials.
  • Upcycling/Donating old furniture. Many people throw away furniture because they think others won’t need it, but upcycling or donating are relatively easy processes. Most donation centers will handle the items after they have been dropped off. If a donation center is unavailable, having a yard sale or using social media to sell or give away the items are good options.

Shopping for eco-friendly designs can be troublesome. Greenwashing is a facade of sustainable and ethical practices that companies use to look ethical. There are some ways to avoid this:

  • Fact-check the company to ensure they are being truthful.
  • Be mindful of PR and marketing ploys that don’t convey the entire truth.
  • Use customer reviews for insight into the company.

While it may be tough to avoid greenwashed products all the time, donating or selling the item is a good alternative to throwing it away.

Deciding on DIY vs. Hiring a Contractor

When starting a project, it’s important to consider both the complexity of the project and your own skill level. Often, do-it-yourself (DIY) projects can seem cost-efficient, but project waste could be more due to mistakes. There is also the risk of potentially using unethical materials.

For example, if the project includes exterior home painting, it might seem easier to get generic paint from the hardware store. However, many paint brands use volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that emit fumes which are bad for the environment and human health. Contractors that specialize in eco-friendly paint services can help homeowners avoid this issue.

Finding an ethical contractor can be easy. Some things to look out for are:

  • Green specific certifications. The National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) issues certifications to contractors who have at least five years of experience in the industry. LEED certifications are also highly regarded and nationally recognized.
  • Experience. Look for a contractor who has years of experience and request to see their portfolio.

Many green designers will help guide homeowners to the right path for sustainable living, and they will have the information to educate as well.

Sustainable Paint

Most people may be unaware that paint can be sustainable too. Many paint brands use VOCs to help paint adhere to and bond with a house’s interior walls. Breathing in VOCs can cause many symptoms, such as:

  • Headaches;
  • Nausea;
  • Dizziness.

Using paint that has lower levels of VOCs, or is free of them entirely, can help improve the quality of indoor air in the long run.

Are Certain Colors More Ethical?

Some colors could contain titanium dioxide, more commonly known as a whitener, which can be bad for the environment. It’s important to understand which chemicals are in certain paints. Common chemicals in paint are:

  • Organic solvents, allow the paint to spread and are the main source of VOCs.
  • Formaldehyde is supposed to inhibit bacterial and fungal growth.
  • Acetaldehyde which acts as a binder.
  • Mercury which prolongs the shelf-life of paint.
  • Propylene glycol and glycol ethers which is a lower VOC but can still cause health problems.

Which Materials Are Non-Vegan?

For paint to be considered vegan, it cannot be mixed with animal byproducts. Most paints have non-vegan materials, including:

  • Casein, the primary protein in milk;
  • Shellac, a resin secreted from a female lac bug;
  • And ox gall, which comes from cows.

Ethical Paint Examples

Paint can be made from many materials, several of which are eco-friendly:

  • Milk paint: While this example is not vegan, it is made entirely from natural ingredients and is free of VOCs. It’s commonly used as a finish for wood furniture.
  • Chalk paint: This type of paint has low VOCs and can be used both inside and outside the home.
  • Ceramic paint: This paint has antimicrobial properties that help to eliminate mold and mildew while tiny ceramic beads help repel dirt, smoke, and bacteria.
  • Linseed oil paint: This Paint is solvent-free and can be applied to a variety of surfaces, including wood, masonry, metal, and plastic.

Sustainable Furniture

Many pieces of furniture can have a number of chemicals that, over time, can damage your health. The making of furniture can also be harmful to the environment. It’s important to know where furniture comes from and how it’s made. Looking at how furniture was manufactured, how it was transported, and what it was made with are all contributing factors in ensuring certain pieces of furniture are sustainable.

What Makes Materials Sustainable?

Some materials are better than others. Most mass-produced furniture is made from particle board, which doesn’t last long. More sustainable furniture materials include:

  • Wood harvest under the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). This means the wood was sourced in compliance with local laws.
  • Bamboo, which is easy to grow and durable.
  • Rattan, which when woven is slow to wear and tear and grows more rapidly than trees.
  • Metal, steel, and aluminum are easily recycled materials, though manufacturing them takes a lot of energy.
  • Pre-loved furniture is also a more sustainable option.

Ethical Furniture Examples

There are a variety of eco-friendly furniture options. Some examples of ethical furniture brands include:

  • Joybird supplies home decor that is eco-friendly and made in a warehouse that gives its workers a fair, competitive wage. For each item sold, they plant more trees than were used in the manufacturing of that item.
  • West Elm is a well-known, nationally-recognized brand that is FSC-certified and fair trade.

Sustainable Linens

There are many situations in the textile world that are considered unethical. Sweatshops, a high amount of waste, and the chemicals used to process “fast fashion” are reasons this industry can be one of the most harmful. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 15.1 million tons of textile waste was generated in 2013. Linen is a more sustainable and natural alternative.

Ethical Linen Examples

  • Linen can be used in a variety of ways, including in bedsheets, clothing, and dish towels. It’s known to be the oldest natural fiber, created from the flax plant. Some linen brands include. 
  • Peacock Alley designs luxury bedding and bath essentials. They source fabric from responsible mills and are sewn in Texas by local artisans.
  • Eileen Fisher is a clothing company that creates sustainable clothing from linen. The company also has a Waste No More program, where they take back old clothing and recycle it by transforming it into pillows, artwork, or wall hangings.

Sustainable Home Accessories

Many accessories can be made unethically. For example, most candles are made from paraffin, a byproduct of crude oil. In 2004, researchers found that air pollution levels in a church with many candles were worse than levels next to main roads.

Home decor pieces are usually made alongside new trends. These trends usually move pretty quickly, similar to the fast-fashion industry, which has the potential to yield a large amount of waste.

Ethical Home Accessory Examples

Many home accessory brands are turning toward sustainable materials and manufacturing.

  • Melt is a sustainable candle company that uses ethically sourced soy for its wax. They also don’t test on animals and are biodegradable.
  • Dims. sources all its wood from sustainably managed forests and is certified by the FSC. They also use finishes that are low in VOCs.

Other Ethical Design and Decorating Practices

If making furniture or paint is out of the question, there are other ways to practice sustainable living. Some examples include:

  • Buying from thrift stores;
  • Investing in better quality items;
  • Repurposing old clothes;
  • Learning how to sew;

Learning which brands are ethically made can promote sustainable living, whether it means keeping designs out of landfills or ensuring furniture is sourced and made ethically. By choosing ethical designs, people can reduce the negative impacts on the environment.