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  • The problem with natural materials

    The problem with natural materials

    I recently fired off an email to someone that said: "I’m tired of people showing me wooden scrubbing brushes and telling me they are sustainable/waste free when they cost a pound and have probably been made as a result of illegal logging in Indonesia by people who are paid a pittance and then flown around the world for rich white people to feel good about themselves."

    Yes, I was frustrated. And yes, maybe this is an oversimplification of the facts. But the sentiment is an important one for a sustainable interiors company to address. 

    Although here at Aerende we only use natural products, it’s simply not the case that just because something is natural, it is automatically better (for humans or the world). Bamboo for example undergoes a range of toxic process before it can be turned into anything approaching use in homewares. And cotton is widely known to be one of the most polluting crops on the planet. Did you know the ecological footprint of one tote bag is the equivalent of 327 plastic bags? This is not to create guilt around using cotton or bamboo products. Rather it is a reminder to be aware of the widespread greenwashing and manipulation of language used by big companies to create a positive emotional connection with their products. 

    A lot of organisations use the term natural in disingenuous ways (at best) because most of us equate natural with goodness. Here’s why that isn’t always the case. Let's start with H&M, a company that promotes its sustainable initiatives loudly. When it launches an interiors range with a 'natural and sustainable' label, people notice. Because we all know that being 'natural and sustainable' is A Very Good Thing, even if we don't really know what it means.

    Behind the soothing colour palettes and soft textures of these high street natural ranges is... well, it's hard to know really. Reductive labelling uses words that evoke a sense of purity, allowing customers to feel they are making a positive decision with that textured cushion or wooden spoon but without giving us the information we really need. Where was that natural fabric made? How was it grown? Did it use chemicals that cause skin illnesses in children and excess suicide rates? Was its farmer paid? How far did it have to travel to get to the shop? Who turned it into a cushion and how were they treated? Without answers to these questions, we'll never really know whether a natural product is truly sustainable. Because being sustainable is about all of the elements in a system, not just the end product.

    So, yes, we can appreciate that lovely tactile feeling, the sense of wellbeing and the style or that gorgeous natural item. But most of the time natural should be just the starting point for a more nuanced conversation about material origins and supply chains. We are here for this conversation any time. What do you think? Let us know in the comments. 


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