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Mix Roundtable: Cruelty-free design

This month’s Roundtable looks at human-friendly, planet-friendly and animal-friendly design and its connotations – from products and production methods, to the wider context of creating a brand and design differential in an increasingly segmented market. Will the ethics ever outweigh the economics?

Feature in partnership with Ege Carpets

15/10/2020 8 min read

Sustainability is rightly permeating every aspect of our lives and this is no different in the world of commercial interior design. Vegan interior design – or cruelty-free design – is already a reality at a couple of forward-thinking hotel sites, and logic (together with demand) suggests this will continue to spread throughout both the hospitality and workplace sectors.

The rapid growth of sustainability and climate consciousness is driving this – from fabrics, through to furniture and even paint. Although vegan interior products are lagging a few years behind the vegan food scene, more and more ethical designs, production methods and products are emerging, focusing on creating interiors that are cruelty and toxin free: human-friendly, planet-friendly and animal-friendly.

We are gathered (socially distanced and COVID-safely, of course) at ege Carpets’ fabulous Clerkenwell showroom. We’re always sure to thank our sponsors and our guests, but we are truly grateful to both ege and our selection of industry experts for going above and beyond to make this happen. We’ve missed this!

We start our conversation by asking our guests about terminology.

Chloe: This is actually really hard. Vegan is the correct word for what I do because I use products that aren’t animal tested and don’t have animal products within them. Cruelty-free means that they don’t test on animals – but they could still have animal products within them. I think it is a tricky word – but I want to be honest and I want to use the word ‘vegan’ although, sometimes, I don’t think it does me any favours. I find that I then have to do a lot of explaining – but I don’t only want to appeal to vegans. I want to talk to everybody about this industry. This industry is responsible for a lot of things, including a lot of waste, but also how we treat animals and the things that we’ve been conditioned to believe.

It’s one of those things that you don’t really think about until you look into it. I’ve never wanted to be an activist or wag fingers at people because I didn’t know a lot of this stuff myself. I thought that leather was a byproduct and I thought that wool was simply a natural product – I’d never thought about the animal point of view. I just want to try to convince people to use other, better products – there is so much innovation and so many exciting new products now.

Chloe: Sustainability is a much easier word to use – people are thinking about the planet and have had this connection with nature and animals throughout this period (of COVID) and I think there is a bit of an awakening. Also, there is the Healthy Building Movement – human-centric design is really attractive.

Ana Rita: For me, it’s about planet-friendly and people-friendly – and that means quality design. So, this is about sustainability and wellbeing, but there are a lot of cross-topics between them. If you start to understand different stages of the process, then you become more aware of it. Once I started to learn more about what sustainable means – that this is not simply about the finishes, but where you get your raw materials from, how you manufacture, how you transport, how people use it…

I truly believe that, if the building itself is considered in terms of sustainability measures – all the costs and all the measures – then that becomes a healthier environment for the users, and therefore more people-friendly.

We get a lot of materials presented to us that are vegan or vegan leather or other materials that are ‘sustainable’ – at the moment everything is sustainable! Everyone has a certification – so therefore it is more important to understand what the certification means and what this sustainability means for you and your office. That certification could mean anything – it could be reused or recycled, no matter how harmful that original material is. It will still get a tick.

Chloe: What applies to one client, doesn’t apply to another.

Ana Rita: You have to be aware – and then you have to act.

Chloe: In some ways, very little has changed in 25 years. I’m still asking manufacturers the basic questions about this – and people still have to go away to find the answers. Half of the time, I don’t even hear back from them. In general, furniture is still really poor – but building materials are really good.

Neil: I agree. We’re trying to take things to that circular economy place, so everything should be demountable, so you don’t just put a recycled material on the floor that’s going to be there for, say, 20 years and then just thrown into the bin. It has to be used again and again.

Ana Rita: But how do you control that cycle?

Neil: That’s a good question. It’s very early days, but it’s about having the intention to do that. You could actually build an entire building out of a bolted steel frame and then rather than demolish it you could take it apart like a kit. It’s about selling the idea to the client.

Richard: It’s about the provision, the flexibility, the choice and the ability to be able to do that at some point in the future. As you say, once that project is signed off and it’s with the clients, then it’s in their hands really. It rests with them really – it might be their intention but…

Neil: There might well be more regulations on this in the future. I believe that Sadiq Khan has an entire team dedicated to this. So, if regulations get stricter, it might well be a requirement to do this if a building gets knocked down.

Richard: There are two ways to do this – you can do this with legislation at a local level, but certainly for ege and I suppose other manufacturers in our sector, the way to drive change is to incentivise it – and usually that’s through financial reward. A great example of this is econyl yarns, which are predominantly regenerated fishing nets that would historically be cast off into the ocean and cause harm to marine life. By saying to fishermen that, by bringing these nets back to land, we will give you money for them, you’re actually incentivising change through reward.

There needs to be a complete drill-down through the supply chain. It’s not just about who we deal directly with, but who in turn they’re dealing with. It’s about going all the way back along the chain. As a carpet manufacturer, we still use a huge amount of wool, and our goal is to have that complete visibility – to go back to the individual farm and to go to countries such as New Zealand, where you know that the animal welfare standards are of such a high level compared to other countries and that the farms are audited and do sign up to codes of practice when it comes to veterinary care etc.

We’re really proud of the fact that, in terms of Cradle to Cradle as a standard across all products, no one has achieved this quicker than we have – and we’re not just talking about carpet manufacturers here.

Richard continues by talking about sustainable aspirations for the future (the business is looking to achieve Cradle to Cradle Platinum by 2030) and the challenges this brings to a manufacturer. As an example, he explains how 80:20 wool blend carpets are more durable than 100% wool products, but the blends cannot by separated when it comes to recycling.

Una: We see a lot of the hotel operators insist on having 80:20 wool blend carpets as a brand standard. As Richard says, 100% wool is not as durable and, often, there’s a view that if a carpet is not 80:20 wool then it’s not as high a quality. This is a mix of economics and perception – rather than an ethical decision – because, if you think about hospitality, it has to be aspirational, it has to be luxurious. It does depend on the level though – hospitality is extremely broad ranging. At the budget level, there are more manmade materials specified – and arguably there should be more vegan focus. But – and this is a real contradiction in terms – boutique hotels will very rarely use manmade materials because they are all about opulence and luxury. For them, it’s all about wool, leather and silk. If you are charging £250 or £500 a night, you need to have that perception of luxury.

Chloe: Una’s absolutely right. There are still the luxury-associated materials – and it’s hard to break that. I don’t want to use animal products – but at the same time I really want to get away from plastics. This is why you have to look at the whole process – see who made the products and how.

Una: 100%. If you look at some faux leathers, they might not be produced from animals, but they might be made using unethical processes, using child labour and then shipped halfway around the globe!

Richard: We actually looked into a business that was producing plant-based fibres. When you started to look at the bigger picture, a lot of those fibres could well be coming from sources where the crops had been genetically modified, they were potentially diverting water away from other sources…we quickly thought, ‘Let’s not go there!’

In terms of commercial interiors, which sectors are leading the way?

Chloe: In my experience, it is workplace that is leading the way, especially with things like the Healthy Building Movement.

Neil: I was going to say the same thing. I think workplace is ahead of hospitality personally. We always talk about sustainability to our clients. I’ve never spoken to our clients about vegan interiors – and it’s never come up. I definitely will now.

Deborah: It always come up under the banner of sustainability. I have asked clients whether they’d like a ‘pineapple lounge’, using pineapple leather, but nobody’s taken us up on that. I do think that evaluation of products today is phenomenal. On one project we had 222 finishes and I can’t imagine how many you might have on a major hotel project. Each one of those finishes has to be independently evaluated by an external assessor to satisfy that company’s values and their approach to sustainability. They do take this extremely seriously and it is still high on the agenda.

One idea discussed to simplify the evaluation process would be for manufacturers to create a ‘product passport’, which would give designers and specifiers the provenance on how a product has evolved.

Neil: On the hospitality side, I have come across a few brands where this is now being written into their brand standards – and the same is true with some residential developers. Workplace is more about performance and people’s wellness because they are spending eight hours a day in this space. With a hotel, you have to try to punch in as much impact and feeling as you can – so sometimes you end up with a bull’s horns on the wall. We don’t do that – but some people still do.

The issue of sustainability is not going anywhere – and rightly so. The really positive thing here is that there are manufacturers, such as ege, who are taking complete responsibility for not just the materials they use, but also the entire life cycle of its products, its production and its supply chain.

There is clearly still a perception in certain sectors that natural products offer a sense of quality and luxury that manmade alternatives cannot attain. That is now starting to change though as innovative vegan and recycled products come to market, offering a durable, ethical and high quality solution.

We believe that the ethics will begin to outweigh the economics and the perception of luxury and opulence for a whole new breed of clients – but this will require a level of education and plenty of conversation around the subject. It’s good to talk. It’s great to be back. It’s even better to be friendly.

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