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2010/09: Social Responsibility and Interior Design – Survey Overview 2009-2010 PDF Print E-mail


In the 12 months since we invited PLiNTH & CHiNTZ readers to participate in a Social Responsibility and Interior Design Survey, the year has evaporated into the ether, no doubt fueled by the collective demands of projects and life in general. srsurvey2010-results3.gifDuring that time, the instigator of this quest for information – i.e., 20-year industry veteran and Assistant Professor of Interior Design at the University of North Texas, Johnnie Stark, RID, ASID, IDEC, LEED AP – has utilized her scholarly skills to analyze the results, configure them in an academically accepted format, and share them with the world via an official paper and, we’re pleased to say, here on P&C via this interview revealing her motivations, findings and conclusions.

First off, why this topic?

Sustainable design is my primary research interest. Since sustainability is a vast, multi-layered topic, I have focused my study on the attitudes, skills and behaviors (on the part of design professionals and students) that lead to sustainable outcomes.

In my life before full-time academia, I was employed in various positions in the commercial interiors industry. I also worked as a freelance textile designer and sales representative when "green" textiles were first under development. So, I often use textile design as a means to study sustainability.

 Goals for this study were to explore designers' perceptions of social responsibility and the relationships - or disconnects - between socially responsible decision making and practice. We asked questions about social and environmental impacts in both the textile life cycle and design practice in general.


What did you know going in that helped shape what you asked and how you asked it?

Some things we knew based on previous writings and studies (which you can find references to at the end of this article):

  • An attribute-based approach is used to specify green building products, materials, and systems.
  • The “triple bottom line” sustainability triangle balances economic, environmental, and social issues.
  • Designers have traditionally understood the social ethics or “the human side of the triangle” in terms of client or occupant health and safety.
  • Social responsibility and environmental responsibility are interrelated but not interchangeable.
  • Life cycle assessment requires an understanding of human and ecosystem health throughout the product supply chain.
  • The “sustainability gap” exists between how designers think they should practice sustainable design and how they are able to practice it.


Before we get into the findings, fill us in a little on the respondent profile.

Most of the respondents were practicing interior design full or part time (72.2%), 60% had more than five years of experience, and 30+% had practiced 21 years or more. 38.1% were self-employed and 41.2% worked for a company or institution. There was a balanced representation of residential and commercial designers.


And now on to the results. We don't really have the room to go over every little detail, so can you just give us the highlights?

Yes, the questionnaire was extensive and generated a large quantity of data. Here is an overview of our findings...



Briefly describe your understanding of "social responsibility" as it relates to interior design. (open comment question; chart shows frequency of responses and emerging categories)





Design Process:



Reduce, reuse, recycle; locally sourced; non-toxic


Sustainable approach; use green specs


LCA; how product is made


Certifications; standards



Health, Safety

& Welfare

HS & W for clients; current end users


HS & W for the general public; current population at large


HS & W for human beings, environment over time; "future generations"




Individual ethics; responsibility to educate others; support community


Provisional outcomes; look to others in industry to define responsibility



Design Process:


Conservation; waste reduction; timeless solutions; inclusive/universal design


Balance client requirements & environmental resources; make money and save environment; best value


Meet or exceed client requirements



World View

Triple bottom line; society at large; cultural sensitivities


Do no harm to the environment



Don't know; not sure



[97 participants generated 152 responses]




How important is social responsibility when specifying textiles for a project?

Although 77.3% rated social responsibility as extremely or very important when specifying textiles, 41% ranked social and environmental impacts as the least two important factors when asked to prioritize a list of attributes that also included aesthetics, cost, health and safety, and performance criteria.


Environmental impacts on ecosystems of:  Raw materials harvesting & processing, fabrication, shipping/distribution, installation, product use, maintenance, reclamation/end of use

Social impacts on the health and well being of people involved in: Life cycle stages of the product as described above PLUS: Equitable living standards; Respect for human rights; Employee training


What have you heard about The Sustainable Textile Standard (currently in development by ACT, GreenBlue©2006, NSF and ANSI)?

86.5% had heard nothing or very little about the Standard.

Throughout this section, responses indicated a low awareness of existing evaluative tools and a "disconnect" or "gap" between what is valued in a standard and what is actually used in practice. 

For example, respondents were somewhat familiar with the Greenguard Environmental Institute and ISO 9000 and 14000, but other standards or agencies* all received the highest scores in the lowest, or not familiar category.

And although several questions indicated that designers value the third-party, anti-greenwashing specification approach, the most common sources for product information were market based: manufacturers' literature and websites, manufacturers' representatives, trade publications, trade shows.**

*Association for Contract Textiles (ACT), Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), C2C - McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC),©2009, the SMaRT© Sustainable Textile Standard 2.0, the Global Organic Textile Standard, and Eco labels.

**Other available choices - professional organizations/websites; CEPH presentations; product standards and testing agencies; research journals/websites; textbooks.

I will not go into more detail on the other sections, but we also asked questions about general design practice.

Socially responsible business practices:  Employee health, well-being; Employee training; Fair compensation & benefits; Community involvement; Philanthropic donations

Environmentally responsible business practices: Office paper & supplies made from recycled content; Minimal packaging / recycled content in packaging; Efficient practices for energy and water use; Carpooling or mass transit supported

So what are your conclusions?

In our investigation, behaviors associated with textile specification did not necessarily relate to general sustainable design practice. In contrast to "the sustainability gap" we saw in the relationship between textile social responsibility attitudes and textile specification practice, questions about general design practice (residential and commercial) indicated that a higher importance assigned to SR did translate into the use of sustainable design as a standard approach.

Interestingly, those working primarily on commercial projects seemed to be using sustainable design approaches less on the basis of their own sense of the importance of SR. They were also slightly more likely overall to report that incorporating sustainable design approaches was a required standard project practice and that a higher percentage of their projects employed sustainable design and green products. As an emerging pattern, these relationships warrant more investigation.

Although the textile industry is a good model of a complex supply chain, designers may assign less importance to textile specification than systems and products associated with the building envelope. However, priorities for sustainably designed textiles are related to a holistic approach in FF&E specification, and awareness of evaluative standards and the means to locate unbiased, transparent information is basic to general sustainable design practice.

Responses across the study indicated that designers were motivated by...

·      external factors, such as client preferences, project criteria, company standard practice, market information, and third-party data, and

·      internal convictions, based on a personal world view, professional ethics, or a holistic design approach.

Seeking balance between these factors was a common theme.


Where do you see social responsibility going as it relates to the interior design industry?

Efforts to incorporate consideration for both environmental impact and social equity issues are underway on a global scale through the assessment tools of environmental product declarations, eco-labeling and sustainable product standards. Although still voluntary, the trend is toward more widespread use and regulations (especially in the EU, European Union, for example).

Designers will continue to be called upon to navigate these complex issues and balance the motivators of conscience, client, criteria and regulation.


For those who want to dig a little deeper into your findings, how can they access more information?

They can email me, Johnnie.Stark@unt.edu, and the full text of the paper is available through the conference proceedings publication:

Stark, J. & Cudhea, M. (2010). The human side of the triangle: Using green textile standards to address social responsibility. In S. Hernandez, C.A. Brebbia & W.P De Wilde (Eds.), WIT Transactions on Ecology and The Environment: Vol. 128. Eco-Architecture III, Harmonisation between Architecture and Nature (pp.525-536). Southampton: WIT Press. http://library.witpress.com

(Ms. Maia Cudhea, UNT graduate student in sociology, assisted in the statistical data analysis.)


Do you have any other recommended reading on similar topics?

Yes. These readings correspond to the "what we knew going in" list:

Spiegel, R. & Meadows, D. (2006). Green building materials: A guide to product selection and specification. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

Elkington, J. (1999). Cannibals with forks: The triple bottom line of 21st century business. Oxford, UK: Capstone Publishing Ltd.

Wendt, A. (2009). Building for people: Integrating social justice into green design. Environmental Building News, 18(10) 1, 10-15.

Dunning, D. & Zander, R. (2008). A vision revisited: Sustainable product design + evaluation. The Green Guide to NeoCon® by The Green Standard, 24-28.

Pearson, J. (2006). Design & sustainability: Opportunities for systemic transformation. Charlottesville, VA.: GreenBlue. Online (PDF) here.

Stieg, C. (2006). The sustainability gap. Journal of Interior Design, 32(1), vii-xxi.


Any final comments?

Working with PLiNTH & CHiNTZ has been an invaluable opportunity to reach a broad audience of design professionals and students. Through this initial study, I have learned a lot about future strategies for studying social responsibility and interior design.

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