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11 Characteristics of Sustainable Materials

 , October 17, 2018
Sustainable materials are materials with a relatively positive impact on communities and the environment that are used to build products, deliver services and develop environments such as buildings. Ideally, sustainable materials conform to each of the following characteristics.

Health

There is no doubt that the material does not harm the health of people in the way that it is used in products, services and buildings. There may be exceptions to this such as rare allergies and so forth but the idea is that the material isn't going to hurt anyone. For example, an organic cotton used in clothing is unlikely to harm anyone with the exception of people with an allergy to the fiber who may simply avoid cotton products.

Responsibly Sourced

Workers who produce the material are paid a living wage where they work. Work is reasonably safe and healthy such that workers are unlikely to be injured or acquire work related illness. Sales of the material are not used to fund a war, harm or oppress.

Environmental Impact

The material has low environmental impact over its entire lifecycle as compared to economically feasible alternatives. For example, a wood product that is naturally resilient to rot outdoors as compared to a wood product that has been treated with toxic chemicals to improve its rot resistance.

Economical

The material can be produced at a reasonable cost and has properties such as durability that make it competitive with other materials. Developing a material that is expensive and low quality but low environmental impact is a useless exercise as it will not be widely used.

Efficient

The material consumes few resources relative to its value. The material can also be used to produce efficient products, services and buildings. For example, there is no point replacing a plastic in an airplane with a natural material if that natural material is going to be heavy and cause the airplane to burn far more fuel over its lifespan.

Quality of Life

The material is pleasing to people and raises quality of life. The material doesn't have an unpleasant look, feel or smell that reduces enjoyment of products, services and buildings. For example, natural rubber has a strong smell such that it may be detrimental to quality of life to use large amounts of it in the interior of a building.

Resilience

Materials that are resilient to stresses and problems such as a fibre that makes helmets safer in a crash or a porous landscaping material that makes a city less exposed to flooding.

Renewable

A material that is renewable such that it is continually replenished. For example, wood as compared to a petrochemical product such as plastic.

Reusable

A material that can be reused or recycled. In some cases, this mitigates the sustainability of a material that isn't renewable. For example, large stones used as a construction material are very likely to be reused with a durability of perhaps a million years. Likewise, any material that originates with waste that has been reused or recycled is typically considered sustainable.

Emotionally Durable

A material that produces high value items that people are unlikely to throw out. For example, a sterling silver spoon that may be used for generations as opposed to a plastic spoon that will be used for minutes and then disposed.

Waste is Food

Ideally, a material produces no waste that can't be safely consumed by an organism. This applies to production waste products such as the chemicals commonly used by mines to extract precious metals. The principle of waste is food is also applied to end-of-life waste products if a material isn't reused or fully recycled.

Notes

There are typically complex trade-offs in determining if a material is sustainable. This requires a practical approach that improves the current state of things. No material is likely to have zero environmental impact. For example, bamboo is a strong material that grows quickly making it economical, renewable, reusable, emotionally durable and efficient. However, natural bamboo forests aren't large enough to support global demand for materials such that making everything out of bamboo would have a large impact on land use and habitat. As such virtually every material is open to some criticism.
It is common for firms to present a material as sustainable based on some novel feature while neglecting the end-to-end impact of the material in the real world.
Overview: Sustainable Materials
Type
Definition
Materials with a relatively positive impact on communities and the environment that are used to build products, deliver services and develop environments such as buildings.
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