There are No Sustainable Materials.

hyloh.
3 min readMay 13, 2020
Photo by Mihály Köles on Unsplash

Materials and people are alike. They come in many shapes and sizes. Their diversity makes for the richness of their realm, and reducing them to one attribute by applying a label is likely a hasty conclusion. No one is forever kind nor beautiful. Neither can we say that materials are undoubtedly healthy or smart. Relativizing is essential: it depends on the context and any generalisation and shortcut is detrimental to reaching our goals with care and honesty (see Transparency Is The New Green).

When it comes to sustainability, we, at Hyloh, strongly believe that there are NO sustainable materials. There are sustainable attributes that can be assigned to materials and their use — in context — that can lead us toward a lesser environmental (and/or social) footprint than others. There is (unfortunately) no ‘silver bullet’. Among the sustainable attributes that can be considered as noticeable assets, we can name: lightweight materials, mono-materials, materials with content of a renewable and/or recycled nature, responsibly sourced materials, materials that are recyclable and actually recycled, compostable materials, low toxic emissions materials… Any of these sustainable attributes need to be guaranteed before actually being considered, numerous (too numerous?) labels and certifications being available globally to guide us throughout this maze.

So let’s not be wooed by the greenwashing sirens trying to make us believe that brown and crunchy materials are necessarily apt solutions. Each project we collectively send out there to be devoured by our consuming world should first be analysed for its impacts, so too alternative material scenarios. Only then can we select an informed best option. A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), because of its complexity and comprehensive approach, often scares brands. Even though it is not a judgment call, but rather a thorough analysis out of which to build next better steps, few actually sign up for it. To be noted: it is not the only tool that helps evaluate environmental impacts, and several methods can be used, from checklists, to single-indicator analysis like carbon footprint, or even brands taking stances for or against one material, like PVC for instance. However, LCA currently remains the most efficient existing tool to evaluate environmental impacts with multiple indicators over the full life cycle of a product, and it has taught us numerous times that results can be surprising.

Let’s take a precise example here: who would have guessed, for instance, that between an often considered ‘nice, green, renewable’ wood derivative such as medium-density fiberboard (MDF) and a ‘bad, tainted, fossil-based evil’ plastic such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC), the choice could turn in favour of the latter? When competing against each other as the material for the large advertising surfaces on a pop-up store in China, PVC turns out to be the best option by far as it is able to exist as a thin layer of flexible material 25 times lighter in weight than its competitor. For the same context, the same use and the same function, the lighter material wins because its total impact in that specific project is much less. However, if we were to simply compare 1kg of both materials, MDF would be better on many environmental criteria… Food for thought, and undeniable proof that conclusions should never be drawn based on prejudices.

Instead, we encourage contextual materiality and circular thinking, i.e. a systems view of materials: where they come from, what you do with them, and how you can support the reclamation of material post-use in order to contribute to a regenerative and restorative cycle of design. There are No Sustainable Materials.

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hyloh.

Hyloh is a global consultancy making a positive impact through the application of materials, processes, and circular design thinking.