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6 Sustainability Trends in 2021

With the climate crisis continuing to mount, the design world will undoubtedly focus on sustainability in the new year. In order to get a sneak peek of what the year might have in store, industry experts were asked what trends they envision for the future.

Based on their responses, we can expect to see an emphasis on the classic principles of “reduce, reuse, recycle,” which will manifest in minimalism, DIY upgrades on vintage pieces, and a dedication to reclaimed materials.

At the same time, eco-friendly choices aren’t the only themes worth considering. “Sustainability is a broad spectrum that goes beyond organic cottons to also include labor and social justice,” explains FATRA founder Akilah Stewart, who crafts handbags from recycled plastic bottles. An increase in equity-minded architecture and healthy businesses will reflect that comprehensive definition of sustainability.

If predictions are correct, the combination of planet-first and inclusive trends will result in a brighter tomorrow for the design world as a whole.

A Dedication to Recycling
LikeMindedObjects founder and designer Elise McMahon anticipates a rise in the use of obviously recycled materials in products, interiors, and buildings. “It’s such a clear way for designers and companies to be more transparent about their commitment to ethical sourcing,” she says. “With the stories of global waste streams polluting land, air, and water growing in mainstream knowledge, people are looking for tangible ways to limit their contribution to the extraction of virgin materials.” Elise’s own CRCL.Earth project is a great example. She creates pillow cushions using recycled fast fashion textiles, saving such fabrics from their near-inevitable landfill fates and giving them new lives.

DIY Upgrades on Used Pieces
According to Laurie Barrette, cofounder of Montreal-based sustainable home goods company Dans Le Sac and coauthor of the upcoming book Minimal: For Simple and Sustainable Living, there will be a revival of upgrading used furniture and learning new skills to become more self-sufficient. We’ll likely see an uptick in DIY upholstery, woodwork, and more. “Renovation projects are multiplying, but supply chains are slowed down due to the global pandemic,” Laurie describes. “It’s then faster and more economical to reevaluate the furniture that we already own or buy used. Upgrading home decor is a wonderful way to keep busy while developing creativity. The skills that our grandparents mastered are regaining interest for the greater good of the planet.”

Equitable Architecture
Looking forward, Akilah expects human-centered, equitable architecture to take center stage, which means that future construction will be more equal when it comes to race, gender, disability, and more. She referenced a recent New York Times article that reports on the American Institute of Architects’ new ethics rule that prohibits members from creating spaces of execution, torture, and solitary confinement in part because such chambers are disproportionately used against Black and brown people. This is just one instance of a move toward design that helps to dismantle injustices, rather than enable them. “I think industries are recognizing how they are contributing to the suffering of marginalized people and that will be reflected within architectural design,” Akilah says.

Government Incentives
In the past, the government has provided tax credits to those who buy solar panels and electric cars. Phillip Raub, the CEO of custom, sustainable furniture brand Model No., thinks that the same types of monetary incentives will soon be offered to persuade shoppers to purchase large household items that have a positive environmental impact. “Consumers are more mindful and aware of the challenges being posed by climate change,” he notes. “The incoming administration has indicated they will place an emphasis on sustainability and green technologies.”

Healthy Materials
As cofounder and design director of Healthy Materials Lab at Parsons School of Design, Jonsara Ruth’s work aims to raise awareness about the toxicity of building products and to develop healthier alternatives. The associate professor of interior design believes that people are becoming conscious of the impact our intimate environments have on our health and the connection between the materials in our homes and indoor air pollution. For this reason, homeowners will seek clean indoor air, and designers and architects will employ healthier materials for interiors and structures. For example, vinyl flooring is being replaced by linoleum and marmoleum, and carpet companies are beginning to eliminate the use of stain and water repellent chemicals.

“We will return to using materials that originate from nature rather than highly processed synthetic materials,” Jonsara insists. “To do this, architects and designers will demand ‘nutrition labels’ of materials to determine if they contain any harmful ingredients.” Both the Health Product Declaration Open Standard and the International Living Future Institute’s Declare platform allow industry members to transparently report their use of healthy materials.

Minimalist Living
During the pandemic, LULAH founder and Parsons School of Design adjunct professor Ibada Wadud transitioned to tiny living when she moved into a trailer in her friend’s backyard in Rockaway Beach, New York. She’s adopted a minimalist existence with an indoor camping mindset and style, and she imagines communities of such homes will pop up in the coming year. “I think society will embrace a pattern of consumption that is rooted in a clear set of core values that honor the earth and a simpler lifestyle,” she says. “If anything, what we learned in 2020 is that we can do a lot more with a lot less.”