Whether you own or rent, living a greener life starts at home. From quick fixture swaps and eco-friendly ways to shop for furniture to full-blown reno projects, there’s an option for every budget. Here, 13 design experts share big and small updates for a stylish, more sustainable nest.
1. Live with less
You don’t have to compromise on coziness to embrace minimalism. A new school of designers is bringing a warm, sentimental twist to the pared-back style, with a focus on comfort over starkness. “It’s less about tossing everything out and more about mindfulness: focusing on what’s essential and providing a place that lets the objects you value shine,” says Fatima Islam, who, along with Ian Lee, runs Casestudy Studio, a Vancouver interior design firm that specializes in minimal spaces. “Storage is important to tuck things out of sight, but so are display shelves so that people can see the things they love.”
Like most who choose to eschew clutter, Islam and Lee favour a neutral palette of whites, greys, beiges and warm wood tones, but their underlying philosophy is deep green. “We encourage people to buy less but buy better, more durable things,” says Islam. “A minimal aesthetic is only part of what we do; we also aim for minimal waste,” adds Lee.
2. Shop local
It’s more important than ever to support homegrown businesses, but when it comes to big projects, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. That’s why Toronto-based interior designer Alexandra Hutchison co-founded Marlowe RoomxRoom, a virtual design service which curates everything clients need to renovate or decorate their homes, with an emphasis on working with local talent. Her light bulb moment came while she was producing shows for HGTV (including Income Property and Marriage Under Construction) and discovered that local suppliers often didn’t cost more but frequently offered the most unique, character-rich and sustainable options. “I look for artisans and craftspeople who not only work locally, but also source and utilize local materials in their work,” she says. “The closer a source, the lower the carbon footprint from transportation.”
3. See the (LED) light
When it comes to setting the mood, lighting is everything. “Nothing beats natural sunlight,” says Majida Devani, principal designer at Calgary-based home-building firm RNDSQR. “It brings a lot of energy to a space.” For homes without a lot of sun exposure—like, say, a north-facing condo unit in the shadow of a tall building—and those looking for evening ambiance, Devani recommends lighting things up with LED bulbs, which are up to 90 percent more energy-efficient than old-school incandescents, last longer and save money on electricity. “They used to emit a cold, blue light, but they now come in a range of colour temperatures,” she says. “LED light bulbs can actually mimic natural daylight quite closely.”
4. Rent your room
Can’t—or won’t—commit to expensive furniture? Try renting it instead. “I love furniture, and I love walking into a beautiful room,” says Andria Santos, the founder of Montreal-based furniture-rental company Fülhaus, who launched a direct-to-consumer service last year. “But I didn’t want to put out more garbage into the world.” Whereas big-box furniture can often feel disposable, rental companies, like Fülhaus, donate used items to those in need, while others clean, refurbish and rent high-quality items again. With tailored design packages and a selection of on-trend big-ticket items (think: sofas, rugs, tables and art) and accessories (like lamps, vases, cushions and throws) that rotate every six months, Fülhaus’ rental service appeals to serial movers and those who constantly crave something new. “Renting is a great way to try out a style you aren’t certain about,” notes Santos. And if you can’t bear to part with your rented couch, payments go toward ownership so you can easily buy out the lease.
5. Go with the low-flow
No matter what your morning routine looks like, a few simple bathroom swaps can help you save water and money. “Making the switch to low-flow faucets and shower heads is easy,” says Toronto designer Brenda Danso, who recommends considering them even if you rent. Not only do these nifty fixtures save precious resources without affecting water pressure, but they also save money. Tests done by Écohabitation in Quebec show that the one-time purchase of a low-flow shower head preserves, on average, 42,340 litres of water per year for a family of four—and saves more than $100 in electricity annually in the process. “There are so many water-saving options that look great and function really well,” adds Danso. “There’s no reason not to try one.”
6. Make a lasting impression
Whether you’re shopping for new furniture or undertaking a full reno project, opt for materials that are renewable, require little energy to produce and will stand the test of time. Jute—an affordable, quick-growing fibre—is a favourite of architect Anne-Marie Armstrong, who loves decorating with finishing touches, like rugs and textiles, made from the sturdy material. “With its rich texture and golden-brown colour, it adds warmth to any space. It’s also biodegradable, so it doesn’t pose long-term environmental threats if disposed of correctly.” Another one of her favourite materials is wood, a renewable resource. “Cedar treated using the traditional Japanese technique of shou sugi ban—a way to weatherproof the wood by charring it—is a great option for a distinctive exterior siding, because this type of wood is readily available in Canada,” she says. “For exteriors, I love the character that it gives a home.”
7. Stay in your lane
Over the last decade or so, many Canadian municipalities—like Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto—have started allowing laneway suites in order to counter increasingly steep real estate costs. The pint-sized, self-contained dwellings usually have one or two bedrooms and are located in the backyards of city homes, next to public laneways. They can either be rented out for extra income or used to house extended family members, like aging parents. To make the concept more accessible, Toronto architecture firm Superkül has developed a prefabricated option with built-in eco-friendly features, which costs a relatively reasonable $300 to $350 per square foot. The suites require less energy to heat and cool than a typical home, thanks to their small size, well-insulated walls and high-quality windows. “Our goal is for people to live comfortably regardless of how big or small their house,” says the firm’s co-founder Meg Graham.
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8. Get thrifty
Regina Petate, the thrifter behind the Instagram account @LuveWantShop, promotes what she calls sustainable vintage. “If I have to reupholster a chair, I like using vintage fabric or repurposed textiles,” she says. “If I have to change the hardware on a piece of furniture, I take it from other pieces that are beyond repair.” In general, Petate recommends looking for pieces “with good bones, that need minimal repairs,” noting that structurally damaged furniture can be hard to fix without advanced carpentry skills. The pandemic has made scouring for pre-loved treasures trickier, but Etsy, Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist and Kijiji are great starting points for online thrifting. To evaluate the quality of a piece remotely, she recommends getting as many photos from as many angles as possible and asking the seller to send a video. “If there are any chips or flaws, the vendor should show that,” she says. “Signs of wear and tear might be expected with vintage, but they shouldn’t be a surprise when you receive your item.”
9. Brush up on better paint
Traditional paint contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs), solvents that get released into the air as paint dries and can cause an array of side effects, like dizziness, itchy eyes and sore throats. A new crop of healthier and more sustainable paints are making it easier and safer to brighten up blank walls—without the headache. “It’s a good idea to opt for low- or zero-VOC paints,” says holistic designer Alicia Ruach, whose work is inspired by her belief that our physical health and mental wellness are closely linked to the spaces we inhabit.
While major paint makers, like Sherwin-Williams and Farrow & Ball, now offer low-VOC product lines in all shades imaginable, small Canadian businesses—such as Loop, which creates its shades by recycling discarded paint, and Homestead House, which manufactures eco-friendly milk paint using natural ingredients—are definitely worth having on your radar.
10. Sleep on it
Need a new set of sheets? Sustainable options from homegrown brands abound. Linen, for starters, is having a resurgence—for good reason. “Linen is made from flax, a sustainable crop that requires less water and fewer pesticides to grow and produce than cotton, and generally lasts longer as well,” explains Anna Heyd, co-founder of Vancouver-based Flax Sleep. It’s also temperature-regulating, she adds. Flax Sleep, as well as other Canadian brands, such as Maison Tess and Sömn, have upped the fabric’s cool factor with Instagram-friendly palettes of blush pink, soft grey and rich terracotta.
If you prefer the look and feel of cotton, Vancouver-based Takasa offers sheets that are certified organic, chemical-free and made from materials sourced from fair trade farmers, as well as pillows and duvets made from organic wool and ethical down salvaged from poultry farms. Tuck, another Canadian company, makes bedding from a blend of organic cotton (certified by Global Organic Textile Standard, or GOTS) and Tencel Lyocell, which uses an eco-friendly closed-loop production process.
11. Save the bees
Pollinators, like birds, bees and butterflies, are integral to growing just about every fruit and vegetable we like to eat. Vicki Wojcik, director of the Toronto chapter of Pollinator Partnership Canada, an organization dedicated to the protection of pollinators and their ecosystems, says it’s possible to create bee-friendly gardens anywhere—even on cramped city balconies. “Patio container gardens or window flower boxes work really well for pollinators,” she says. “Having as few as nine different flower types in the garden—three that bloom in the spring, three in the summer and three in the fall—will attract and support a lot of pollinators.”
And while these creatures need beautiful blooms to visit, they also require habitats to live in. “It’s okay to leave fallen leaves and dried-up stalks in the garden,” says Wojcik. “Bees, butterflies and caterpillars like to hide in them, and that’s a good reason not to rush to clear out a flower bed—messy is good.”
12. Reconsider plastic
Seventy percent of the plastic we consume each year—that’s a whopping 3.3 million tonnes— ends up in the trash, and just nine percent gets recycled. And it’s not just Canada; plastic pollution is trending upward worldwide. The good news? Some of that waste is being diverted from landfills and given new life as Pinterest-worthy furniture. Case in point: the speckled kid-sized chairs, tables and night lights designed by Belgium-based EcoBirdy. “Recycled plastic furniture is a great decor element that transforms a space while being cognizant of growing environmental concerns,” says Byron Peart, co-founder of Montreal-based socially conscious online marketplace Goodee, which carries the brand. Also look out for Canadian companies, like Re-Plast Products, Krahn and Recycled Patio, that are turning plastic waste into chairs, tables and flower boxes.
13. Get growing
There are many benefits to bringing the outdoors in: Plants have been scientifically proven to boost productivity and lower blood pressure, and they create a calm atmosphere that promotes rest and relaxation. They’re also a natural way to soundproof a room. “Hard surfaces, like drywall and concrete, create an echo, and plants absorb noise,” says Toronto-based architect and interior designer Vanessa Fong. Her go-to decor move is to build in living walls—large installations of plants suspended in sacks of soil that rest on self-irrigating tiers—whenever possible. If a full reno isn’t in the cards, affordable and easy-to-install options also exist. For a quick hit of green, consider offerings from U.S.-based company WallyGro, which makes modular wall-mounted planters from recycled materials, or Canadian-founded Umbra, which sells a wide selection of plant stands and hanging options.
Originally published in 2021; updated in 2022