Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Green Materials Course - Part 2: Sustainable Leather

Nothing speaks luxury like butter-soft leather. It's durable, breathable, easy to clean, and it looks and feels sooo good. Plus it's a natural material, so that means it's green, right?

Well... it's complicated. When evaluating a product's sustainability, you have to consider how it's processed as well as how it's produced. And when it comes to leather, there's a lot to consider. On the one hand, it's a natural resource - and even better, it's a natural by-product of another industry that's never going to go away: food. So in an idealistic sense, it's smart to use leather, to minimize waste by utilizing every part of the noble beast that was slaughtered. A point for leather! On the other hand, cattle farming uses a tremendous amount of resources. Minus one point!

And then there's the processing. Collin Dunn and Blaire Stephens have written excellent articles for Treehugger and Ezine - follow those links for some great information. In short, the tanning process gives environmentalists headaches. There are two basic methods: modern chemical tanning, and old-fashioned vegetable tanning. Chemical tanning is super fast (often only one day), and it's currently the only way to get the ultra-soft leather that we love for gloves, sofa cushions, and those ruched handbags everyone bought last year. But it uses nearly 130 different chemicals, including pentachorophenol (carcinogenic), formaldehyde, (yep) and chromium (a heavy metal that can become toxic - see Erin Brokovich). Wikipedia actually has a fantastic bit on the environmental effects of chemical tanning - you'll find that modern, effecient pollution-abatement systems are successful in reducing the process from being super-insanely toxic to being, well, toxic. You can't help but feel sorry for leather workers in India.

Vegetable tanning, in comparison, is a great example of old-fashioned techniques being inherently green compared to industrialized methods, a phenomenon I mentioned in my last post. In this process, hides are treated with natural tannins found in tree bark. It takes several weeks, however, so it's obviously less popular with many manufacturers. From an interior designer's standpoint, vegetable-tanned leather often isn't as soft as chemically-tanned stuff, but there are still plenty of uses for it. And who wants to snuggle in a sofa full of carcinogenic chemicals?

It's up to you to form your own opinions about leather. Personally, I think that leather is a valuable natural resource to be used judiciously. I try to avoid chemically-tanned leather at all costs, and look for ways to get maximum value out of the vegetable-tanned leather I do use. Also, since leather is so durable, and often gets better with age, recycled leather is truly a viable option.

Where to get it? Edelman Leather is currently my favorite supplier. Their website doesn't do their products justice - be sure to visit one of their stunning showrooms if at all possible. They carry several luxurious vegetable-tanned products, some of which have eye-catching patterns embossed into them. Q Collection also offers a good-looking array of vegetable-tanned leather, though I haven't personally felt a sample yet. It'll be available in San Francisco at the Sloan Miyasato showroom in a couple months. And Organic Leather sells eco-friendly leather wholesale. For recycled leather, check out EcoDomo's leather floor and wall tiles, a vintage belt floor-mat offered by Branch, and cool folding containers from Ply.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Twill Fabrics: The Intersection of Luxury and Sustainability

I just had a fascinating conversation with Jeremy Beadell, the operations manager at Twill Textiles. We talked about Twill's line of sustainable fabric, the Climatex Lifecycle Home Collection, and about the intersection of luxury and sustainability. Twill Textiles is a collaboration between Sam Kasten, a weaver, and Suzanne Lovell, an interior designer. For them, producing a line of sustainable fabric was a matter of conscience, but it came about more through happenstance than strategy.

Twill's mission is to translate the handwoven artistry of Sam's work into a luxury fabric that can be produced in a commercial mill. It took some work to find mills that could produce the quality Sam wanted - Twill's standards had to be quite specific. "We're dealing with the craft that Sam produces," Jeremy explains. While researching this, Twill started working with small mills that use older time-honored methods for smaller-production runs. These mills, less focused on speed than the larger mills most companies use today, can more easily change their setups to create unique effects in the weave.

This quest for quality brought them toward sustainable practices as well. "A lot of the things we were doing a hundred years ago were green," says Jeremy. Many of the mills they use are located in small villages in Italy, Switzerland, and France, where all the resources they need are right around them. And producing Twill textiles in these mills directly supports these communities. That's real sustainability.

Then, of course, they produce a fabric line using Climatex Lifecycle yarns, which were awarded the Cradle-to-Cradle Gold certification by MBDC. They use natural fibers in all their other fabrics as well. They also focus on developing products that have a long production lifespan. These are all great sustainable practices.

The Climatex Lifecycle Home Collection comes to you at "loom-state," without any softeners or finishes. That gives it a fairly stiff hand that softens with time. The fabric is a wool/ramie blend designed for residential applications. It's not treated for stain resistance, but ramie is a very smooth fiber that naturally doesn't collect dirt. You can find Twill Textiles at Sloan Miyasato in the San Francisco Design Center, or at various other fabric showrooms around the country.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Looolo - Felt Cushions and More

One of my favorite sources is a company called Looolo, (yes, there are four "o"s) founded by Joanna Notkin. Based in Montreal, Joanna creates whimsical cushions, scarves and blankets from organic wool and ramie. She uses knitting and felting to give her products a unique dimensionality.

I absolutely love the colors and textures on these throw pillows. The knit wool material is soft and cozy.

From a sustainability standpoint, these cushions are tops. They are made from organic materials (wool and ramie, with kapok filling) and are biodegradable at the end of their life cycle. Climatex Lifecycle yarns are used, and all their dyes are researched to make sure the chemicals pose no environmental threat.

Note: these products are for residential use. Wool is naturally flame retardant, but unfortunately ramie and Kapok don't meet the flame-resistant standards for commercial use.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Problem of Insufficient Information, Part 2

In the previous post we talked about the dearth of information available on many products marketed as sustainable. It's a bit surprising in this information age, isn't it? While it's easy to blame that on manufacturers, there's a flip side as well...

What kind of responsibility do we designers take to find this information? According to a recent study published in the American Journal of Environmental Sciences, many interior designers cite sustainability as an important consideration in their work. Unfortunately, far fewer actually put this into practice, with sustainable material choice being the least frequently applied component.

This study also states that interior designers commonly rely on the manufacturer's literature and rarely search for conflicting information when selecting materials. It's convenient to simply take the manufacturer's word for it - but is there a conflict of interest involved? A manufacturer's statement is not the same thing as objective third-party certification.

This is a call to all designers to break through the superficial green label. It's not a moneymaker, I know, but it's a matter of conscience. Clients hire designers to be the experts in choosing furnishings, and when a designer says, "This is green," the client rarely asks why. And if questions are raised, it's easy for the designer to simply point to the green label on the product. But designers should know what backs up that green label. The information may not be easy to find right now, but the manufacturers are only going to take the time to provide this information in response to consumer demand. Designers are the crucial link between manufacturers and clients. Designers must create that demand.

I'll get off my soapbox now. You know the purpose of this blog. I'll do my best to research products and manufacturers and provide you with information you need in order to make informed choices.

A couple of leads to wrap up this post: Sustaintex is one company that appears to understand the value of transparency in their supply chain. Wal-Mart has also incorporated ecological transparency into their agenda, but it remains to be seen how deep that change goes. What do you think? The comments are open - let us know.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Decorati and the Problem of Insufficient Information

I recently met with Shane Reilly, CEO of Decorati. Shane founded Decorati in 2007 to provide a new level of service in the interior design industry. Her website has grown to be a nationwide resource for furnishings, textiles, and other design items. It also includes a fantastic find a designer service, information on sample sales, and a very useful forum area where people can ask questions and discuss design ideas.

Decorati has an extensive product database where showrooms and manufacturers can post their items for sale. The many categories are searchable by several criteria, depending on the product. These can include manufacturer, style, color, etc. However, there is no "green" subcategory. When I asked Shane about this, she said that they had that subcategory in the past, and would like to include it again, but they had to drop it because many of the showrooms and manufacturers didn't provide enough information about the sustainability of their products.

How strange. Green is the new black, right? There are so many manufacturers jumping on this bandwagon these days - everyone wants to offer green products. So why is is so hard to get specific details? Why is it so difficult to break through the superficial "green" label and find out exactly what makes the products green? Why isn't there more transparency in the manufacturing chain? Why don't more manufacturers provide easily accessible information to back up their claims of sustainability?

Stay tuned for the second part of this post, with more of my thoughts on this issue.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Furnicology: A Web Community for Sustainable Furnishings

I just found a great website for sustainable furnishings, reviews, and news. It's called Furnicology. It's more than just a database - it's an online community where you can read blog posts and connect with other like-minded people. It's also a growing resource for great furnishings for any space in your house. Looking for a desk made from formaldehyde-free, FSC-certified wood? Find it here. How about an EcoSmart fireplace, or a bed made from salvaged metal? You can find that too. In a world where finding good sustainable furnishings can take a lot of searching, the folks at Furnicology are a big help.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Green Materials Course - Part 1: Natural Fibers

As with anything else in the sustainable world, there are many shades of green when it comes to sustainable fabrics. It can be challenging to decide just "how green" a fabric is. There are three basic factors to consider: fiber, blend, and finish. That's not so complicated, is it? Depends on how deep you want to go. Today we're discussing fibers. We have natural fibers and synthetic fibers, and synthetic fibers made from natural fibers. What to choose?

In my opinion, natural fibers are usually the "darkest green" of the bunch... naturally. They are made from renewable resources, and can decompose when we dispose of them. I also prefer them to synthetics because many of them don't build up static electricity. Unfortunately, designers are limited when using natural fibers in commercial settings because of flammability and durability requirements. Natural fibers can also fade, stain easily, and be susceptible to mildew. (Wool is an exception to many of these limitations, but it's often too pricey for commercial use.) Fabrics are often treated for fire and stain resistance, but that brings up issues that will be covered in another post.

Not all natural fibers are created equal. The most common choices are bamboo, cotton, linen, wool, silk, and hemp. Would leather be considered a natural fiber? Yes, in my opinion, but there are enough challenges with leather to warrant another post as well!

Bamboo is currently my favorite natural fiber. It grows crazy fast (rapidly renewable), and the plant doesn't need a lot of specialized care. Bamboo fabrics are super soft and absorbant. Bamboo fabric is a relatively new material, but it has finally become affordable. There are many concerns, however, about the chemicals used in processing a lot of the bamboo currently on the market. For a much more in-depth look, check out Organic Clothing's opinion of bamboo.

Cotton is the most common natural fiber. It has developed a bad reputation in environmental circles because of its growing methods. Cotton crops typically require a lot of pesticides, fertilizers and water, and are very labor intensive (read: pollution runoff, soil erosion, and bad labor conditions). Organic cotton has become a popular choice for these reasons. Here's a good review of the pros and cons of cotton.

Linen is fairly common in drapery fabrics and wallcoverings because of its natural sheen. Made from the flax plant, it's strong and absorbent, though easily abraded. Linen can feel course, but softens with use. It's naturally more eco-friendly than commercial cotton, as even commercial linen is grown with only one-fifth of the pesticides that cotton requires. Of course, organic linen uses no pesticides at all.

Hemp still isn't really a mainstream fiber. Heavily promoted in hippy circles, it's valued for its durability, insulation, absorption, and mildew resistance. Its strengths are best utilized when blended with other fibers. The hemp plant has properties similar to those of linen, in that it grows easily with very little pesticides or fertilizer.

Wool is an exeptional fiber. Since it's actually animal hair, not plant fiber, it has many unique properties. It's naturally resistant to fire, mildew, and moths. It holds up to wear quite well. Wool can be felted, which gives it extra versatility for some really creative design products such as rugs, cushions, bowls, and other accessories. Harvesting wool doesn't hurt the sheep at all. The only things to watch out for are how well the sheep are treated, and how the wool is processed (as with any textile, there are many eco drawbacks inherent in the processing). Check out Organic Clothing's post on wool.

Silk is another animal fiber. Your opinion of it may depend on your views on ethical treatment of silkworms. It's renewable, durable, luxurious, and provides unmatched color effects, but fades easily in the sun. Treehugger has a very informative post on the green credentials of silk. Organic Clothing also has a well-written post about silk.

Jute, Sisal, Seagrass, etc. These strong, durable fibers are usually used for mats and rugs, as they tend to feel rough. The plants need only minimal processing to be turned into usable materials.

So where do you look for these green materials? I'll be posting more resources in future posts, so stay tuned. In the meantime, here's a mini-directory of green fabrics from our friends at Treehugger.