Updated: February 18, 2024
From recycled materials skimmed from the seas to NFT authentication and carbon footprint-awareness initiatives, sustainable design is more than a buzzworthy trend. Innovating toward a more eco-conscious future, some of our favorite makers are taking an holistic approach to their craft—from manufacturing processes to final product—and placing sustainability in all its methods at the very center of their practice.
Sustainability is a fundamental aspect of quality design, and implementing sustainable practices is one of the only ways forward in a contemporary world defined by its dwindling resources and growing waste problem. Five million hectares of forest are lost every year, and ocean temperatures are higher now than any year on record. More than 300 million metric tons of plastic waste are produced annually, and 50% of that waste is attributed to packaging, with the textile industry coming in at a close second. In the United States, the EPA estimates that nine million metric tons of furniture are thrown away every year, most of it ending up in landfills, right alongside plastic parts and packaging that can take up to 500 years to degrade.
To say that the need for sustainable design is urgent, these days, is an understatement. While governments around the world implement national policies to increase energy efficiency while reducing carbon emissions and waste, the design industry is shifting its practices to create products that consider their impacts on people, the planet and culture. B-Corp certifications, which require brands to implement high standards of performance, accountability and transparency regarding supply chain practices and materials, and even employee benefits, are on the rise. With innovative new processes, even seemingly small details like furniture glides, castors and wheels can be made from renewable raw materials with injection molding technology. Wood, when harvested sustainably and certified by organizations like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), can be a carbon-neutral and renewable material. Contending with raw material shortages, circular design focuses on using recyclable and bio-based materials instead of unsustainable plastics—and is growing increasingly popular with consumers.
The central tenants of circular design—repairability, reusability and durability—aim to reduce waste while encouraging designers and brands to implement sustainable practices from the very beginning, before a new product is even sketched down on the page. By embracing sustainability and the circular economy, these design brands are leading the charge toward a more responsible, equitable and vibrant future.
What started as a pile of discarded linear cut-offs in a workshop has grown into a design-forward lighting design studio with sustainability at its heart. Stickbulb lights are designed with the fewest number of components possible, using recycled and recyclable materials and a modular ethos that lets the user create their ultimate system. Reclaimed wood from New York City rooftop water towers and building teardowns is one of the line’s signature materials, joined together with steel connectors and fitted with ultra-efficient LED light bars. Stickbulb sources, designs and creates its line in New York.
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Considering the health of the environment alongside each product, LZF—based in Valencia, Spain—is committed to using FSC-certified wood for each of its signature lighting fixtures. Achieving the brand’s characteristic organic appearance of imaginatively looped and twisted veneer shades is only possible through LZF’s sustainable harvesting methods, which help to preserve the natural biodiversity in forests around the world. In addition to the brand’s eco-friendly materials sourcing, LZF has taken a sustainable approach toward packaging, too. Each LZF lighting fixture is shipped in a cardboard box made partly from recycled material, and bio-degradable potato-starch bags wrap each component to prevent damage to the design in transit.
Danish brand Houe is making waves in the industry with its innovative efforts toward sustainably-crafted design. From innovative material production to the energy efficiency of manufacturing processes, Houe is committed to considering the environmental and social impacts of its design process, and has earned an EU Ecolabel for its sustainable efforts. Taking a beautifying approach to trash, Houe has pioneered a new technology that allows designers to reuse everyday household recycled plastic trash to create indoor and outdoor furniture collections intended to last a lifetime, like the ReCLIPS collection, crafted from 97% household trash, which received the 2022 IFDA Selects Award for Sustainability.
Combining technology and sustainability, US-based Heller partnered with Digby, a tech company, to create NFTs that function as authenticity certificates for each of the brand’s products. Combatting excess furniture waste, Heller’s innovative use of NFTs is linked to its “full-circle program,” by creating a confirmed chain of ownership and authenticity, and allowing customers to return their designs to Heller at any point in the product’s lifestyle—shipping paid. When these unwanted designs reach a Heller warehouse, they’re ground back down into powder, and the powder is reused to recreate the product down to the last specification.
Award-winning designer David Trubridge lends his name to his environmentally conscious lighting studio. The designs reflect a reverence of the planet in more ways than one: Not only are these lighting designs dreamily organic and crafted from sustainably harvested timber, most David Trubridge designs are flat-packed to cut down on packaging and shipping weight—doubly important when shipping worldwide from New Zealand. Putting one of these lights together is a snap—literally—and the incredible shadows the open-wood designs create are otherworldly.
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Three friends from California, frustrated by what they perceived as a disconnected approach to lighting design, prototyping and manufacturing in the market, set out to innovate on their own terms. Cerno was born with a love for artistic quality, craftsmanship and environmentalism that was integral to the founders’ upbringing. Handcrafted in California using sustainably harvested woods and LED light sources, each Cerno design is a celebration of contemporary modernism.
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Founded by architects, hand-assembled by artisans and made out of discarded cardboard: That’s Graypants. Breathing new life into old cardboard boxes from Seattle and Amsterdam, Graypants makes an afterthought into a centerpiece. Employees can still be found dumpster-diving for materials, though larger scale clean-cardboard donations make up some of the difference. Up to 75% of that refuse goes into the final design, which is treated with non-toxic fire retardant for safety, and non-toxic adhesives for durability.
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Slamp’s proprietary polymers have been recyclable for 25 years, and the Italian brand shows no signs of slowing down its sustainability mission. The company’s headquarters is powered almost totally by renewable resources, with huge windows reducing the need for additional lighting or heating. The small amount of offcut waste from making these featherlight lighting designs was already being recycled, but some of it is now being used to create beehives to help bolster a waning pollinator population.
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Fast-growing and abundant bamboo is one of the most environmentally friendly wood options on the planet, and Greenington is making full use of its benefits. The brand works with bamboo farmers in China who hand-select and harvest the shoots to preserve the forest’s ecosystem as well as the bamboo root systems. Plus, nothing is wasted: Even the sawdust produced by making furniture is burned to make steam, powering the kiln and press machine. And mature bamboo is stronger than red oak, so there’s nothing wobbly about this bamboo furniture.
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Gus Modern is well known for its mid-century modern designs made for today, but it’s not as commonly known that the Canadian company is highly environmentally conscious as well as high-quality (and high style). Much of Gus Modern’s furniture features FSC® certified wood frames and some designs are stuffed with eco-friendly synthetic down. This clean fiber is produced from plastic bottles and feels like real duck and goose down.
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Copeland Furniture’s wood is sourced from the American Northern Forest, mostly within 500 miles of its manufacturing facility, drastically reducing transport energy costs. This and other sustainability measures the company has undertaken have resulted in a number of prestigious awards. Not satisfied to rest there, Copeland Furniture uses a GREENGUARD Certified varnish as its standard default finish on all furniture designs, which delivers low chemical emissions. The factory in Bradford, Vermont, is powered by three acres of solar panels that make up about two-thirds the company’s electricity needs and offsets hundreds of thousands of pounds of carbon emissions each year. Copeland continues to innovate with packaging improvements, recycling and even heating the building with its own manufacturing waste to reduce dependence on foreign oil.
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Perhaps the original recycled, recyclable chair is Emeco’s Navy Chair, originally crafted from aluminum in 1944 to stand up to a wartime environment. Aluminum loses almost nothing in being broken down and reworked, so it’s one of the most sustainable materials on the planet; plus, recycling scrap aluminum keeps it out of landfills. Later iterations saw a partnership with Coca-Cola to recycle plastic waste into seating, followed by a solid wood iteration crafted by Amish woodworkers from sustainably managed forests. Emeco wasn’t stopping there, however, and turned to its carbon footprint to do even more for the environment: Emeco packaging is made from recycled cardboard and other materials. Transport and energy use are also factored into the company’s carbon-footprint bottom line, as well as its overarching philosophy to do more with less.
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High-density polyethylene is abundant in the United States, and it’s from this mouthful that Loll Designs creates its durable and fashionable outdoor furniture designs. A simpler way to think of this material is as easy as opening up your fridge: Loll Designs furniture is made mostly out of recycled single-use plastic milk jugs. The company estimates about eight milk jugs go into each pound of weight in any given Loll chair. The material that’s made from these milk jugs is recyclable in itself, and the color is extruded in manufacturing so there’s no paint or finish to chip off or even fade much. On top of that, Loll donates 1% of gross sales from the Lollygagger collection to environmental charities.
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The tech throne of the 2000s has gotten a material update in the Aeron Office Chair‘s latest iteration. This pioneering feat of ergonomics now uses ocean-bound plastics in its body, helping to divert tons of waste from the environment each year. It’s still the supremely comfortable and adjustable task chair with an even more environmentally friendly twist.
View Designs by Herman Miller
The design may be from 1955, but the execution is totally 21st-century. Meet the Ocean series by Mater, crafted from recycled fishnets and hard plastic fished from the ocean. Each chair uses 960 grams (about 2 lbs) of ocean plastic waste. In its facility in Denmark, Mater cleans and shreds used fishing nets which are then processed into pellets, melted and injection-moulded to create the slats on Ocean chairs and tables. The frame is pure steel, and each iteration is designed to be easy to break down into its components for repurposing or recycling if needed.
View Designs by Mater
These brands and many others are helping contribute to solutions in a world increasingly concerned with environmental impacts and sustainability. Good design that’s better for the planet is a win for everyone.
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