Ethical used not to be a good look. Virtue, in the form of environmentally friendly, ethically sourced homewares, tended towards the clunky: vases woven from recycled plastic, dodgy ethnic crafts. The point, for devotees, was not that they looked good, but that they did good. In the past, aesthetically, you had to pick a side: stylish or right-on.
Little by little, though, ethical design has raised its game, and now products with unimpeachable conscientiousness are among the most covetable: Vanessa Arbuthnott’s Xavier Project bed linen; Stitch by Stitch’s embroidered and woven wares; Mini Moderns’ matt emulsion, made with 90% recycled paint. Today, you can do a good deed and, unless you mention that your throws are creating work and wealth for needy Nepalese, nobody would guess.
As Victoria Meale, who specialises in sustainable decor, says: “Sustainability and exquisite design are not mutually exclusive.” Which is fortunate, because, while green issues are close to their hearts, her fashion-industry clients wouldn’t dream of settling for a dowdy but virtuous home.
“They want a uniquely designed home, but they also want to understand the provenance and life cycle of products and materials, that they are ethically and environmentally sound. This creates peace of mind, a story behind the design and an interior with integrity.”
Meale’s fellow decorators agree that there has never been more demand for interiors that look good and feel good. Anna Whitehead, who runs a sustainable interior-design practice and heads the environment committee for the British Institute of Interior Design, says: “You need to ask some key questions before you can be satisfied you are buying environmentally friendly products.”
Rather than taking on trust the green ticklists displayed by almost every manufacturer — which often only confirm bare compliance with the law — she suggests discussing the sourcing of raw materials, sustainability, manufacture methods, disposal of waste and whether the product is recyclable. “When you’ve found out about the product, you should also ask who made it,” she adds.
It is an excellent point. An exquisitely embroidered cushion created by artisans paid an exploitatively low wage is not a comfy proposition. Sumptuous hand-knotted rugs made through the bonded labour of children in Asia aren’t anyone’s definition of a good buy. You might think that the higher price you pay, the more likely it is that it will be ethically produced, but the luxury rug trade, concentrated in Nepal, India and Afghanistan, has long been plagued by child labour.
One way to avoid encouraging the practice is to buy rugs bearing the GoodWeave label, from firms including the Rug Company, Jacaranda, Wovenground, Deirdre Dyson and Bazaar Velvet. Independent inspectors have checked that no children are working illegally on these products. And, like the best of the new ethical homewares, they are both conscience-friendly and design-led.