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Positive Impact: Cruelty-free design

Designer and author Chloe Bullock on why vegan design could lead us to a more ethical, sustainable future.


3 min read

I get a lot of confused faces when I mention vegan design. It’s that food association. People say things like, “I’m not going to eat it”. Then I say animal-free and again, confusion. People seem to be so unaware of the amount of animal products that surround us in our spaces, in the form of leather, suede, skins, wool, silk, down, feathers, bone, fur and shell. Even paints, finishes and adhesives may be animal tested or have animal product content; beeswax, lanolin and other coatings and additives also include animal products. On the flip side, if people do understand the concept of vegan design, they think they need to be following a vegan lifestyle to do it. Why is conveying that you don’t want or need to use animals as commodities in interior spaces for clients so hard?

I’m constantly trying to find how to reframe this concept to get this notion through. We seem to be disconnected to the provenance of the resources (and their impacts) that we use in our spaces, in the same way we are disconnected from the plastic packaged food in a supermarket or the apparel we buy. We are realising nothing comes cheap. Exploitation is rife in the name of profit. You can be sure where humans are exploited, animals are too, and vice versa. And if animal welfare or treatment of workers doesn’t engage, then how about human health or environmental impacts? How were animal products ever seen as luxurious in the first place? Isn’t it archaic at a time when there is so much excitement around next generation materials and regeneration?

I have used these animal product materials in the past (although never fur). I thought I was using things that were natural and circular, even – not realising the misery involved or the whole lifecycle impact. Now I know many of the realities. What’s so wrong with suggesting we avoid industries that harm? Shouldn’t we be letting go of some profit in favour of purpose and ethics? Aren’t we supposed to be using business for good? That’s certainly what I signed up to and thankfully the world of commercial design uses far fewer of these materials now.

Shouldn’t we be letting go of some profit in favour of purpose and ethics?

I would argue that true sustainability is vegan design once we consider our nature-connection (yes, we are nature too). So, let’s look to the exciting world of carbon sequestering, biobased materials and utilising food and agricultural waste, and enhance and solve problems through our specifications. Look out for materials like MIRUM® an entirely animal-free ‘alt leather’ material, made with Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC®) certified natural rubber, cork and charcoal, as well as coir, clays, plant-based oils and waxes. Unlike most leather alternatives, it’s completely plastic-free and is United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) ‘BioPreferred’ approved, thanks to it being 100% bio-based, composed of a combination of virgin natural materials and upcycled, carbon-sequestering agricultural side-stream by-products.

WEGANOOL™ is a plant-based, chemical-free, wool alternative made from 25% stem and 5% pod fibres of the Calotropis gigantea plant, combined with 70% organic, rain-fed cotton. The plant thrives in drought-prone and depleted soils, needs very little water and no fertiliser or pesticides. Growing it restores soil fertility and biodiversity. The biodegradable fabric has been mostly utilised for garment making, as it has a similarity to cashmere and its hollow cellulose structure makes the woven fabric breathable and easy to maintain. The fabric feels warm, doesn’t irritate the skin and is antimicrobial. It won’t be long for these materials to be used widely in interiors.

Compassionate, ethical, conscious, regenerative, sustainable – whatever the label – I am a designer and we are trained problem solvers. I don’t need to dwell on the negative, just focus on the innovative, positive, better materials out there to use – which my clients absolutely love the storytelling aspect of and which our future generations will thank us for.

Chloe Bullock is the founder of Materialise Interiors, Brighton-based B Corp certified interior design company.

Bullock has written a book on Sustainable Interior Design, commissioned by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) due for launch 1st May 2024. The book covers the various approaches to a sustainable interior design, to inspire her industry to work in a better and more conscious way. Pre-order at ribabooks.com/sustainable-interior-design

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