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Common Sense Green Guidance

When it comes to specifying environmentally sound textiles and wall coverings, a little common sense goes a long way.

By Cliff Goldman


When it comes to specifying environmentally sound textiles and wall coverings, a little common sense goes a long way.

Common Sense Green Guidance

Each and every day interior designers use common sense to guide their decision-making process in all matters regarding their profession. In fact, it is fair to argue that in any profession, no matter how technical, people rely on common sense to make intelligent decisions every day.

As an interior designer, you have your own innate definition of beauty, and you use personal and professional experience to guide your decisions regarding function and efficiency of products and spaces. Safety in a space is usually dictated by straightforward regulations that are often black and white.

Yet when it comes to environmental decisions, trade associations, local municipalities and a plethora of “green” organizations have created a wildly confusing array of terms, measurements and codes to follow. Product companies are equally at fault for often putting out unclear and misleading information about their products and their relative environmental attributes.

It is time that interior designers realize that the power of common sense—which combines sound reasoning, logic and research—is the most powerful tool in making product decisions. It is time to stop looking for the “perfect” environmental standard and utilize the assets and tools that every designer has used in their work for many decades.

To help designers start down this path I have put together 10 important points—a common sense way to evaluate textiles and wall coverings for interior spaces:

Nearly all the companies who market interior textiles and wall coverings do not have manufacturing facilities. Why is this important to a designer? Without fixed manufacturing, these companies have great flexibility and latitude to source the most advanced environmental technologies in creating their textiles and wall coverings.

Action Plan—Align yourself with companies whose environmental philosophy and actions mirror your own. When you give your business to a company you should feel wholly positive about their market approach and integrity.

Safety codes must be met for interior textiles/wall coverings in commercial buildings. Fire safety and/or complying with codes must take precedence over any environmental concern. Fortunately, in 2010, there are a number of excellent environmental choices that meet both criteria.

Action Plan—Seek solutions that enable you to meet safety codes and your environmental criteria.

There are no absolutes in formulating the criteria for environmentally sound finishes. A combination of evolving technology, human creativity and market demand leads to a dynamic system of incremental improvements in product inputs, manufacturing and on-site performance.

Manufacturers exist to fulfill market demands and match their clients’ expectations. Designers need to realize the power they wield simply by the questions they ask, the products they specify, and even the complaints they register with manufacturers. You are a critical part of this journey.

Action Plan—Actively engage and lobby textile and wall covering manufacturers to improve their products, processes and policies on the environment. Designers need to fully appreciate the influence they have and how closely product companies care about their opinions. In addition, the products they do (or don’t) specify for environmental reasons does affect how the market moves forward.

In today’s world, there is often compelling evidence of problems with certain materials and processes. And for every argument against a material or process, there are scientists or trade organizations to defend that industry’s point of view.

While this is a broad-based principle, the following short definition is often cited: “There is a social responsibility to protect the public from exposure to harm, when scientific investigation has found a plausible risk,” or more profoundly stated, “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

An increasing number of organizations, municipalities and companies are beginning to adopt this philosophy in their mission statements, local laws and purchasing contracts.  

Action Plan—Interior designers should use rational thought and individual research to draw their own conclusions about which materials to avoid in their projects, realizing that there are rarely any absolutes in today’s world of dueling scientific expertise.

The addition of finishes or backings to achieve flame retardancy or other performance criteria expands the environmental footprint of a product. Extra processes often mean additional chemicals, disposal issues and additional transportation. There is no question that some finishes can enhance a products performance and potentially its life span, but be aware of the other environmental effects.

Action Plan—Use textile finishes/backings only when an end use mandates it, and the products performance enhancement and longevity significantly benefit the end-user.

Common assumptions about a product’s production, use and disposal are not always explicit. “Natural” does not always equate to “better” in terms of the environment. A product’s entire life-cycle is complex. For instance, some natural fiber materials require extensive land use as well as water and pesticide use that can negatively impact air, soil and ground water in more significant ways than synthetic materials.

Action Plan—Try to better understand a product’s full life-cycle effect on the environment and beware of catch-all terms.

Some textile/wall covering companies will put generic phrases on their sampling and literature, such as “Environmentally Beneficial” or “Rapidly Renewable” without any further explanation. Such labels fail to account for all the complexities of bringing this material to market. While a natural material such as wool is rapidly renewable, what may be done to make that material into a viable interior textile may in fact be “unnatural.”

Action Plan—Learn to ask pointed questions when reviewing labels. Ask manufacturers to provide further information beyond catch-all, do good phrases. Those who are genuinely engaged in an environmental agenda will welcome the opportunity to address your questions, while those who aren’t will probably give you vague explanations to match their indistinct labeling.

Third-party certifications are an important way to validate what a company is claiming about its product. As an independent organization, these third-party certifiers help substantiate an environmental claim in an unbiased way.

Be aware, however, that many certifications are often focused on a single attribute, while others address more of the total life-cycle. In addition, different organizations use different methodology and accepted achievement levels for measuring what is (and what is not) acceptable.

Achieving an indoor air quality certification does not mean that a product is green or even necessarily environmentally sound. Such a standard does not address the safety of material inputs, manufacturing processes or its long-term use and disposal issues.

Action Plan—Value what a third-party certification states as an unbiased evaluation, but don’t draw additional conclusions about a product beyond this certification’s scope.

LEED for Commercial Interiors (LEED-CI) is a great step forward in getting designers focused on choosing sound environmental products for interiors. As a broad consensus system, however, it only scratches the surface of evaluating sound environmental product choices. It does not account for the full life impact of some materials over others and is more narrowly focused on single-attribute characteristics.

Action Plan— Use LEED-CI as a rough guideline, but set your personal bar higher with a goal of digging deeper for a fuller understanding of a product’s overall environmental impact.

Approach your specifications no differently than purchasing something for your own home. Ask hard questions, and don’t settle for vague or superficial answers. Textile and wall covering companies with a serious environmental agenda will welcome the challenge and rise to the top.

Action Plan—Combine manufacturer claims, certifications and your own research to make the best environmental choices for your clients.

Research, reason and logic (common sense) are more powerful tools for an interior designer than any established green standard in the marketplace today. Designers need to rely more heavily on their intuitive ability to study a problem and come up with a solution.

As a specifier, you have tremendous influence over the future of product development in the textile and wall covering market through the questions you ask, the demands you make, and the products you specify. There is no more powerful agent of influence to a company than the orders they receive. When a company makes a positive environmental effort, and you reward them with your business, they are motivated to do more in that positive direction. At the same time, when you sense that a product is using more of a marketing smokescreen (or “greenwash”), not specifying that product sends an equally powerful message.

Designers will move markets more powerfully than any standard or code in the future. Prominent intuition, sound reasoning and the willingness to investigate claims will best prepare designers to make well-informed decisions.

Cliff Goldman is president and owner of Carnegie, a textile/wall covering company with a 60-year history of innovative product development and a commitment to the environment. He can be contacted at