Working out of her Santa Monica-based studio, interior design star Sarah Barnard handles projects big and small, from corporate headquarters to beachfront cottages. She defines her range of style as “innovative yet time-honored,” combining a contemporary aesthetic with traditional roots.Throughout her work, there’s also an emphasis on healthy living and sustainability.
In this exclusive Q&A, Barnard talks to RetailerNOW magazine about the growing role of health, safety and sustainability in the home and how product content labeling is becoming a more important consideration for consumers.
RetailerNOW: How do health, safety and sustainability influence your work?
Sarah Barnard: My firm’s tagline is “Eco Chic Interiors: Where smart design, sustainable choices and healthy living converge.” To me, interior design is a multifaceted practice involving aesthetics, function and home health. My practice integrates all three elements in that we create spaces that are high-performing and functional; respectful of the environment; and, most importantly, healthy and safe for the occupants.
RN: Have health and sustainability always been priorities in your designs?
Barnard: Yes. I’m a younger designer, and at the time I went to school these elements were part of my curriculum. Today, being a sustainable, healthy home designer is to be expected. It’s part of our professional obligation to design spaces that are responsible for the greater world and healthy for homeowners. Also, my parents are both historic preservationists. I’ve lived in many older homes. The idea of working with what exists, recycling what you have and making smart decisions about decorating and remodeling is in my blood.
RN: Are environmental safety and health concerns becoming more important to consumers?
Barnard: Among my clients, I see a growing interest in home health—the safety of ingredients and the toxicity of materials—and declining interest in big-picture issues like “saving the planet.” In the early 2000s, sustainability meant doing your part for the greater good. Today, people are more motivated by their own health and desire to create a safe personal environment. They are concerned about their bodies and what they put in them and realize that what you surround yourself in the home has the same potential to impact health.
RN: What are the key traits associated with healthy and safe furnishings?
Barnard: The top topic of conversation is the safety of ingredients. Take textiles. If I’m sourcing textiles for a client, I want to know if they were organically grown, treated with fire retardants, what the dyes or printing agents are and how healthy one choice is versus another.
In addition, there are other topics of interest that fall into the “sustainability basket”—such as the use of environmentally friendly content, such as sustainable woods, and socially responsible manufacturing.
Lately, I’ve been hearing more clients say that they are exhausted by the green messaging that has been in the press for the past decade. They don’t want to be told how to live or lectured that they are not being responsible enough. But they all they want to buy products that are safe and create home environments that are healthy. And they need accurate, easily accessible information so they can make the best choices.
RN: You are leading a panel discussion sponsored by the Specialty Sleep Assn. at the winter Las Vegas Market called “What’s In Your Mattress.” The SSA has developed a Consumer Disclosure Labeling program that encourages the bedding industry to be transparent about the construction and contents of specialty sleep products. Do you think identifying exactly what’s in a mattress will help consumers make more informed buying decisions?
Barnard: Absolutely. This is a fantastic program. Having a label that shows the specific components in a mattress demystifies the discussions that salespeople are having with consumers about product construction. Clear, accurate labeling also eliminates the fear of “green-washing” many consumers have—not knowing what a claim that something is “green,” “eco-friendly” or “organic” really means.
The SSA’s labeling program gets everything out in the open and gives the consumer a chance to really understand what the product is made of and why pricing may be lower for a similar product that isn’t as safe.
RN: Are certain groups of consumers more interested in product safety and health issues than others?
Barnard: Home health is an issue that everyone can relate to, regardless of age, income or gender. Women have a particularly strong level of interest, but men also care about it. And the issue really resonates with younger consumers, who are very concerned about the chemical contents of products. Going forward, younger consumers are going to expect that this type of labeling information be available. As an industry, we need to pay attention to this because younger consumers are our future.
RN: In sleep products, a 2010 consumer study by Furniture/Today and HGTV found that 30 percent of consumers are aware of “green” mattress options. Do you think the average consumer is aware of the many safer and more sustainable options that are available in the home furnishings marketplace?
Barnard: Consumers are definitely becoming more aware of what’s available.
RN: The SSA and Simmons sponsored a research study in 2009 in which 39 percent of consumers said they would pay more for an environmentally friendly mattress. Fifteen percent said they would pay $200 to $500 more. Is pricing an obstacle for consumers when it comes to buying safe, sustainable furnishings?
Barnard: At the high end, it’s not an issue. Those on a tighter budget need to see the benefits immediately to justify the expense. The idea that paying 15 percent more will help workers, for example, doesn’t carry much weight. But if the consumer understands how the extra expense
will enhance their own home, making them healthier and safer, that can be very powerful.
It’s also important for consumers to understand that a better-made product is going to cost more than a low-quality product, and that a higher-quality product may provide a much better experience. For example, most people understand the importance of sleep and how their choice of mattress or pillow has an impact on sleep quality. Most people would be willing to stretch their budget to get the sleep system that provides their body with the healthiest, most rejuvenating experience possible.
Barnard: People are afraid that sustainability means increased cost and reduced selection. When somebody is building a dream home, especially if they have been fantasizing about a specific look for many years, they don’t want to hear that their plan is going to be restricted by anything. I often have to explain to clients that responsible design does not mean they have to give things up. They can have everything they want and it’s just going to be better. Once they wrap their heads around that—that nobody is going to take anything away from them and that this isn’t a punishment, but rather a benefit—they never mention it again. As long as they get the aesthetic and function they desire, who’s going to say “no” to a nontoxic product?
RN: What role do salespeople and designers play in educating consumers about the health and safety of furnishings?
Barnard: Having the sales force educated to discuss the pros and cons of various options is critical. And the ways that they discuss those options is important. We need to present safety and sustainability to consumers and clients as a benefit, not a responsibility.