What does living sustainably mean? – with My Happy Place author Rachel Fowler

What does living sustainably mean? – with My Happy Place author Rachel Fowler

by Suswati Basu

Sustainability is about meeting our present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Living sustainably therefore, is an important practice for saving the environment and using our resources efficiently.

But what does this actually mean in the day to day practical sense?

Thanks to the following guests for participating:

Interior designer Rachel Fowler is the author of My Happy Place: Healthy, sustainable and humane interior design for life and work which is due to come out on October 26.

Josh Pitman, the managing director of planet friendly packaging company Priory Direct

MBA candidate for Psychology and Customer Success Manager for Igloo Software Amelia Cranfield

Sian Young, Founder of © Sustainable Success Coach and CEO of © The Centre for Sustainable Action.

Here are some of the resources from the show:

Peter Senge of MIT and the Society for Organizational Learning in an excerpt from an interview conducted in Tucson, July 2011 at Camp Snowball for the Waters Foundation:

William McDonough, innovative architect, author, and consultant, presents “The Upcycle: Designing for Abundance”.

Books looked at this week:

Rachel Fowler: My Happy Place: Healthy, sustainable and humane interior design for life and work

Dr. Peter Senge: The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World

William McDonough & Michael Braungart: The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability—Designing for Abundance

PS. I do not receive commission for reviewing books and talks.


Exploring how we can master ourselves by looking at how experts say it is possible with your host Suswati Basu.

Intro music

Welcome to episode 40 of How To Be…with me Suswati as your timid presenter, guiding you through life’s tricky skills by taking this learning journey with you.

So the word sustainability means the ability to exist and develop without depleting natural resources for the future. We hear a lot about it in the context of climate change these days, but what does this actually mean in the day to day practical sense?

Here is Josh Pitman, the managing director of planet friendly packaging company Priory Direct on how they are sustainable.


On to our first book by interior designer Rachel Fowler who wrote My Happy Place: Healthy, sustainable and humane interior design for life and work which is due to come out on October 26. She was kind enough to give me a preview of her beautifully presented guide on humane, and sustainable working and living spaces. We also spoke this week on the importance of sustainable living. Here’s a preview but find the full interview on www.howtobe247.com or on the YouTube channel.


Whether you’re a design professional or just someone who cares about their living space, Fowler looks in depth into creating designs that promote mental and physical wellbeing whilst being good for the planet.

From wall coverings to floor coverings, furniture to fabric, and with a special note on nurseries, Fowler uses her background in healthcare as a children’s intensive care nurse alongside her design expertise to reveal how the way we furnish our living spaces impacts on our health and happiness. After taking a big leap and graduating with a BA in Interior Design in 2019, she learnt how to select products, ask the right questions when buying materials, finding information on suppliers and she even provides a glossary of sustainable and vegan certifications.

The author says sustainable living is more accessible than it has ever been before. A few years ago, ordering a vegan or vegetarian meal in a restaurant seemed like such a challenge but now more and more it seems to be available. She adds caring for our planet, our bodies, and our health and happiness is a universal responsibility.

The purpose of the book is to act as a go-to guide in creating spaces – whether at home or in the office, inside or outside –which are both sustainable and animal friendly. This is particularly important in today’s society due to effects that traditional methods have had on the environment and our health.

For instance, the current air quality of internal spaces is considered to be poorer than that of the outside environment: including internal spaces within cities. Fowler believes when designing a space, it is important to understand the effects that the materials we select can have – not just on the environment, but on our mental and physical wellbeing too.

The mindset for achieving sustainable design also involves a process called the circular economy. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the circular economy involves implementing into the design processes measures to eliminate waste; designing products whose components can be re-used time and time again; and changing the way we work and design so as to revitalize the earth’s organic processes. Animal-friendly design, for example, can be defined as designing in a way that is not to the detriment of any other living species.

And I’m not sure if you’re like me, but I do own some IKEA furniture. The author says this is because sometimes cost can be the determining factor. But we need to ask ourselves: are we actually creating positive spaces, which promote our health and wellbeing? In the United Kingdom alone, 22 million pieces of furniture are thrown away every year according to the North London Waste Authority in 2018.

Starting with walls, Fowler says it is important to remember that too many colours can overstimulate the senses, having a negative effect on our stress levels and wellbeing so choose this wisely. And when thinking of paints, try and avoid formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are chemicals which, over time, release toxins into the environment. Whilst it’s mostly regulated, some parts of the world have not checked this.

Fowler even has her own range of sustainable wallpaper. She says sustainable and animal-friendly wallpaper can be made from a huge variety of sources and materials: paper sourced from sustainable forests, linen, seagrass, mica, cork, water-based paints, grass-cloth, organic fibres such as coconut bark, Japanese paper and sequoia bark. Avoid polyvinyl chloride or vinyl because apparently it’s not biodegradable.

There are two types of wood available for wall coverings and flooring: softwood and hardwood. Softwood, such as pine, is less durable than a hardwood like oak. According to Urbanline Architectural (2018), though, softwood is easier to work with than a hardwood, and tends to be cheaper. There is also the option of using recycled wood, available from most salvage yards.

Wood is apparently a sustainable product, due to its lifecycle. Trees are a natural and renewable product, which can last for long periods of time. At its end of life, wood can be recycled or broken down and put back into the soil. However, it must be noted that not all wood sold is classed as sustainable. Wood which is sourced from sustainable forests is marked with the letters FSC (Forest Stewardship Council). Hence make sure that logo is there. Beware of reclaimed wood in bathrooms however as it is more susceptible to the constant steam and damp, which can cause the wood to crack and swell.

Bamboo is a sustainable plant which has the ability to grow back within three to five years. Bamboo is generally grown in Asia, and is considered to be harder wearing than oak flooring. It is water resistant, therefore decreasing the possibility of mould or mildew and it is considered to be a good flooring to install for those with allergies due to it being inhospitable to dust mites. But make sure to buy it from a reputable seller. While as long as no chemicals have been used in the manufacturing process, palm wood can either be re-used or put back into the soil as biodegradable waste.

Natural stone is an organic and sustainable material. Found in various locations around the world, it is excavated from the earth and requires no additional by-products in its manufacturing process. It’s also long lasting, and like wood can be recycled or put back into the ground. Obviously check if VOC products are being used during the sealing process.

Tiles are great because a variety of them are sustainable. Ceramic tiles are sustainable because they’re made of sand clay and other natural substances, whilst recycled tiles can be made from old glass bottles. Porcelain tiles can also be made from a type of clay. Just like before, check that when installing, eco-friendly processes and materials are used.

I learnt the most remarkable thing about cork from this book. Fowler writes that cork has been used in interiors since at least 1904, and is great as a wall covering. Cork comes from the bark of a cork oak tree and removal of the bark does not actually compromise the life or health of the trees as it is able to re-grow. Cork interior products are also made from the leftovers of the wine cork industry, making it actually a re-purposed waste material. Cork’s natural composition creates a toxin-free and eco-friendly space and can last up to 50 years, is biodegradable and promotes a clean, healthy and humane environment. It’s also great at absorbing unwanted noise and can help insulate a space, making a room more energy efficient, and it is also waterproof. Hence it is my new favourite material.

There’s even mushroom based materials for walls and floors made by the Italian company called Mogu, who convert it from fungal mycelium.

Sustainable and humane carpets consist of natural or recycled materials. This can include recycled plastic bottles, old carpets and disused fishing nets found at the bottom of our oceans. I’ve even seen park benches and bags been made out of this. Banana silk carpets are a natural product made from the wood pulp of the banana plant. Fowler says they are 100% ecofriendly and are biodegradable, depending on the dyes, backings and adhesives that have been used in its manufacturing.

She writes when it comes to buying furniture, think of it as an investment. Spending more money today will save you money in the long run. Ask yourself do you need to change the furniture and is the furniture animal friendly?
She also recommends buying sustainably certified second-hand because not only is it a sustainable option, but it could help to reduce the off-gassing of furniture in your house.
And she adds if it is advertised as being natural or organic but is not certified it may be greenwashing.

One method for identifying whether fabrics such as cotton are sustainable is to look for the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certification. The aim of the standard is to define world-wide recognized requirements that ensure organic status of textiles, from harvesting of the raw materials, through environmentally and socially responsible manufacturing up to the labelling in order to provide a credible assurance to the end consumer. There’s a lot of animal friendly alternatives made from plants such as hemp, nettles, and even mushrooms again.

Either way, it’s worth taking a hard look at what we have around the house.

Our next book is from MIT Senior lecturer in Behavioural and Policy Sciences. The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World looks at the mentality needed to fight for a more sustainable world. Here he is speaking to the Waters Foundation.


In December, 2015, when the Paris Agreement, a legally binding global climate change deal, was signed at the Paris Climate Change Conference, people all over the world took to the streets to celebrate. But many of the underlying causes of climate change haven’t changed or are changing too slowly hence the author says it’s time for a revolution.

Dr Senge believes the necessary revolution is a shift towards environmental sustainability. In 1972, a report called “Limits to Growth,” published at the global-sustainability think tank The Club of Rome, laid out the necessity of acknowledging mankind’s limited resources. Since then, public concern about our unsustainable industries and economy has grown.

Hence the necessary revolution impacts all humans, and must be conducted on an individual, political and economic level. By raising public awareness through word of mouth, and by sharing studies and initiatives on social media, the individual plays the first crucial role in the necessary revolution.

He says companies should also get involved in the necessary revolution by shouldering corporate social responsibility. A concept that’s been around since the early 2000s, CSR weaves social causes into the objectives of companies.

Finally, the government must support the necessary revolution by subsidizing sustainable corporate initiatives and by implementing effective laws and policies. The Kyoto protocol, an international contract for sustainability signed in 1992 by nearly all world leaders, is a landmark example of governmental support for a greener future.

The first step is realizing that, in spite of everything, we aren’t helpless. It doesn’t take a national government or transnational organization to create radical change. Indeed, small groups constantly prove themselves capable of shaking up the system.

For example, the owner of a Ford dealership in Sweden, Per Carstedt was a keen environmentalist and contributor at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992. His idea? To bring ethanol cars to Sweden.

Through commitment and perseverance, Carstedt was able to convince more and more gas stations to install ethanol pumps. By 2007, Carstedt’s team had reached 1,000 stations, a quarter of the entire national network.

But Senge says it all begins with fostering a positive mindset. From anti-nuclear groups to anti-smoking protests, a negative focus creates a complain-and-protest mindset, rather than a push toward constructive action.

Take the green start up company Original Unverpackt in Germany for example who allow customers to buy their groceries without packaging. This strategy not only drastically reduces costs but also minimizes ecological damage. And the company isn’t anti-packaging; it’s simply pro-sustainability. Hence small groups as well as individuals will play an instrumental role in creating change.

And without a doubt, corporations hold a powerful hold on our society. Thanks to certain legislation, corporations have what’s called limited liability. This means that, if a business fails, the business owner owes nothing to their investors. Furthermore, business owners are more or less free to damage the environment, so long as their business is economically successful. This is especially true if the products provided by the business are deemed vital for the people where the business is located.

On top of this, the way we measure a corporation’s success is in dire need of an update. Return on investment (ROI) is a basic metric that defines success as getting the most out of what you’ve put in. And corporate social responsibility simply isn’t implemented effectively enough to create any real change. This is because according to CSR expert Steve Lydenberg, businesses tend to use social initiatives for short-term financial gain, rather than for implementing long-term strategies of social and environmental responsibility.

However, some do take it seriously and are willing to reshape their entire strategies in the process. Take the Deutsche Post DHL Group, for example. They have been distributing medicine to developing countries free of charge, as well as donating to educational initiatives in developing countries.

So we’re all part of this revolution. As consumers, we have an incredible influence on the economy. After all, we determine the demand that industries must meet. One of the greatest strengths of the necessary revolution is that the environmental benefits it creates overlap with personal benefits. Take our diets, for example.

Dr Senge talks about the biggest food study in history, The China Study, which examined the relationships between a range of diseases and human diet. Its findings were pretty straightforward: staying healthy means eating healthily. And that means having a diet that is around 90 percent vegetarian. If we all ate less meat, CO2 emissions would drop and there’d be less clearing of forests for livestock. It’s a win-win: improve your health and help the environment, too.

Our final book is from American architect William McDonough and German chemist Michael Braungart with The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability—Designing for Abundance. Here is McDonough speaking at Dartmouth.


The Upcycle explains that eco-conciousness and economics needn’t be at odds. In fact, ecological sustainability is good economics. The authors argue a hands-off approach to the natural world is not an ecological way of engaging with the world.

That’s because influencing nature doesn’t necessarily mean destroying it. There are countless ways that we can live in harmony with the environment. What if we think of the entire natural world as a garden. Just as gardeners care for and cultivate each plant, helping it survive and flourish, we can care for and cultivate the entirety of the natural world.

It’s just a matter of building stable, productive environments that give flora and fauna the best chance of survival.

And we can learn to do this from the best teacher out there: nature herself. One lesson is of particular importance. We’ve got to upcycle – that is, recycle waste products to produce something new. Think of how the natural world deals with feces, for instance: once they hit the soil, they’re acted upon by micro- and macroorganisms and, eventually, they’re turned into humus, a nutrient-rich substance that feeds other forms of life, like mushrooms.

When people hear “environmentally conscious products,” usually one thing comes to mind – pricey. But this common assumption is far from true. That’s because, when done right, ecological product design is more efficient, and therefore cheaper, than more mainstream production.

For instance, there is technology being developed that will make buildings extremely energy efficient, by using artifactual lighting – lighting that’s part artificial, part natural; buildings equipped with this technology would require artificial lighting for a mere 40 days out of the year.

Consider Thomas Edison, who searched long and hard for a natural substance to use as lightbulb filament. He eventually found that bamboo would work best, and even had a botanist grow and import it for him.

The authors even claim that we don’t have an energy problem, we have an efficiency problem. We just need to learn how to harness it in a sustainable way. For example, wind energy, an omnipresent source, is becoming more and more accessible thanks to ongoing research. Not just that, but some US states are even trying to help their citizens profit from it.

Consider the University of Maine, which is developing floating offshore wind turbines, the combined potential of which would exceed the output of 150 nuclear power plants! Hydropower is another key source of clean energy that’s available worldwide. However, it’s still essential when building hydro that every aspect of the construction is as green as possible because renewable doesn’t always mean green.

However, the energy problem could be drastically diminished in another way: reducing the insane amount of power that we waste every day. Producing meat for human consumption uses over 70 percent of the agricultural sector’s energy. In fact, growing a single kilogram of meat produces over 30 kilos of CO2, uses several thousand liters of water and over a dozen kilos of grain.

The Hannover Principles are – a rulebook for people or businesses aiming to support a green economy. First established for the 2000 World’s Fair in Hannover, Germany, these guidelines provide an orientation for designers of all types on how to support nature and human welfare while also advancing technology. Crucial to the list is the need to concentrate on the interdependence of the economy and ecology.

One of the most essential principles is number six: “eliminate the concept of waste.” This point is crucial because it pushes people to search for ways of upcycling literally every by-product on Earth.

NASA managed to build a space station that endeavored to consume 90 percent less fossil fuel than older stations. They set a huge goal because they were determined to do the best for the people and the planet. So it’s crucial we don’t shy away from big design projects.

So to sum up:

Fowler says in My Happy Place that sustainable design involves designing your space in a manner which is not detrimental to the environment, both socially and economically. This means considering the full lifecycle of all products involved with the design and build process of a building, including:
• extraction of all raw materials out of the ground;
• manufacturing methods;
• transportation; and
• the end life (i.e. can it be re-used or recycled or is it biodegradable?). So think carefully and look carefully into what you are buying.

Dr Senge says in The Necessary Revolution that we can create the change our planet needs by adopting an empowered mindset. Indeed, many pioneers are already leading the way, but they need our help to build momentum!

McDonough and Braungart say in The Upcycle that protecting the environment goes hand in hand with a strong economy, and the future is one of harmony between humans and nature. That’s because ecological products are actually more economical. By thinking creatively and ecologically, humans can build an advanced world that nourishes, instead of depletes, the natural world. So take note of your next big purchase’s ecological footprint.

While I’m not forcing anyone to go out and stop eating meat as that’s not my place to say, it’s definitely an idea in helping. I became pescatatian in 2013, but I know I can do a lot more including looking at reducing plastic usage.

To end the show, here’s MBA candidate for Psychology and Customer Success Manager for Igloo Software Amelia Cranford and Sian Young, Founder of © Sustainable Success Coach and CEO of © The Centre for Sustainable Action on their thoughts. And if you enjoyed this, please hit subscribe!


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