Despite the claims made by many brands there are few materials that are environmentally friendly all the way through the supply chain.
The following materials will always need to be treated with skepticism, but in general are greener than the rest.
Also known as manila, abaca is a species of Banana — though unfortunately inedible. The fibers are used to make to make a variety of specialized rope and paper as well as clothes, mattresses and even parts of laptops.
Abaca’s green credentials are impressive; first it is rapidly renewable resource, with each plant being harvested for around ten years, before being replaced. The farming is typically done by small farmers rather than large companies.
Perhaps most impressive of all though is that Abaca fibers are being used to replace glass fibers in several applications, with energy savings of roughly 60%.
The harvesting of bamboo is incredibly green as its fast rate of growth means there is no need for toxic pesticides and fertilizers. This fast growth rate also means that it sequesters more carbon than other plants and can grow in soil other crops can’t.
But you need to be careful.
The demand for bamboo has led to bad farming practices in many areas; with forests being cleared and unnecessary pesticides being use. To know if bamboo products live up to their green credentials you should only buy FSC certified products.
You knew this was coming. Hemp is the second most famous plant in the cannabis family.
Fortunately, (for most people) hemp can’t get you high.
What it can do is grow fast and help make a ton of products — from bricks, to clothing and fuel. Hemp’s biggest selling point is that it is a ‘mop crop’ that removes contaminants (such as excess phosphorus and radiation) from the soil it is grown in.
Sea grass is a recent addition to the list of green materials. It is mainly used as a replacement for wicker in rattan furniture and rugs. Because sea grass farming has only recently become commercially viable, conservationists have ensured that it is harvested in an environmentally friendly way.
The biggest selling point for sea grass is that its cultivation has proved to be environmentally beneficial as it stabilizes the sea bed, preventing coastal erosion and establishing new ecosystems.
Perhaps the most controversial choice here, wood can be a surprisingly eco-friendly material. Not only does wood sequester carbon for hundreds or even thousands of years, but it can be reused and recycled extensively.
When using wooden products the greenest option is to use reclaimed wood. Not only does this prevent more trees being felled, but the reclaimed wood is often stronger and more stable than fresh cut lumber due to being exposed to more changes in temperature and moisture.
The problem is that wood is frequently over exploited. The most obvious example of this is illegal and unregulated logging in rainforests. But when wood is environmentally harvested then it is one of the greenest materials available. For example, FSC approved sources ensure that all of the trees harvested are replaced, helping to maintain the biodiversity of the forests.
This includes avoiding planting monocultures of fast growing trees such as pines, but rather maintaining a diversity of species through coppicing, for example.
None of these materials are guaranteed to be green, but they are more likely to be than other alternatives. Even though I only evaluated the harvesting of the raw material itself, an even more complete eco-evaluation could be made through considering the life cycle of it.
This would include harvesting the raw materials, processing them, manufacturing, distribution, use and disposal of the final product.
What is your favorite green building and design material right now?
Daniel Frank is a blogger and writer who is particularly interested in green issues, particularly corporate responsibility. He is currently writing on behalf of Wooden Blinds Direct.