Jill Salisbury on Green Design

No green product is perfect. Honest advice from Jill Salisbury, founder of el: Environmental Language Furniture. A while ago, we interviewed her for a write-up in UR Chicago. It turned out to be a great lesson in how to go green, including developing a checklist of your priorities. We learned a lot...

How do you apply green design to your furniture collection?
When I started the company, I took 2 years to work with an environmental consultant, finding responsible vendors and manufacturers. We really worked from the ground up, focusing on bionutrients. Bionutrients is a term developed by the architect William McDonough, that he outlined in his book, Cradle to Cradle, having to do with a closed loop system of materials that are renewable.

Are you strongly influenced by William McDonough?
Yes, him, and also Janine Benyus who wrote Biomimicry. Her approach has a lot to do with how to look at nature and the ecosystem and build plans for environmental sustainability from there.

What are some of the materials you use that are both environmentally responsible and good looking?
One of the most exciting materials we use is called the Tagua nut. It's a nut that's too hard to eat. The color and texture mimic ivory. Since it's a nut, it's a renewable material with a really exciting texture.

In our upholstery, we use organic wool batting that's been treated with chrysanthemum, derived from the flower. When the wool is in a virgin state, the fibers are opened up and the chrysanthemum is used as a natural anti-bacterial treatment for the wool. It can't be washed off or worn off. It becomes embedded in the fiber of the wool, and it's immune to dust mites. Wool is an amazing material. It's inherently flame resistant. It also regulates body temperature.

We also use FSC wood and veneers. If a wood is not available in FSC, then we go to sustainably managed vendors.

You can also get the Origami Chaise with a stainless steel frame. The stainless steel is 75% recycled content and it can be recycled again. The frame could be detached from the upholstery and it can be recycled, while the upholstery can basically be composted.

What should consumers look for in green products and materials?
When you're looking at products that claim to be green, don't look at just one part of the product. Look at the whole process. If something is made from bamboo, which is a renewable material, but coated with a high VOC lacquer, it really defeats the green benefits of that product. You need to take a look at what materials are used in the product. Look for low-VOC finishes. Ask about adhesives. Formaldehyde can hide in adhesives and binding agents, in the linings of upholstery. Start asking questions of the salesperson or the manufacturer, and get a feel for whether the product is as green as it claims to be.

We developed the environmental protocol within the business, because no green product is perfect. For instance, the Tagua nut comes from Ecuador, so it's a question of a renewable resource being more important to us in this instance than the fact that it travels a long distance to get here. Bamboo is a great renewable material, but it's shipped from Asia, so there's a trade off.

How did you determine your environmental protocol?
The protocol is a checklist of qualities we're looking for in a material. We assigned each item a number, and we tallied those numbers to figure out how different materials ranked in terms of their sustainability.

When you shop for green products, you should definitely develop your own checklist. What are the priorities that you're looking for? What are the materials that appeal to you? Maybe having healthy air quality is more important to you than the distance something has traveled.

On our website, we have a section called Living with El where you can see the standards that we've set for products and what we value in sustainable design.


For more information and a list of where to buy, click here.

(Thanks, Jill!)