One of the unintended consequences of the pandemic lockdowns and work-from-home paradigm shift is the fact that designers and specifiers were suddenly faced with ordering and storing material samples in their homes. Rather than housing samples in a firm’s centralized design library for all to share, designers are ordering them directly to their doorsteps, in effect multiplying the number of samples ordered exponentially.
Even prior to the pandemic, the amount of material sampling waste was an enormous problem with a significant carbon footprint. Ordering samples from multiple manufacturers directly amounted to thousands of shipments to firms every year. And while online sampling programs have made it easier to bundle samples from more than one manufacturer into a single box, not every specifier is ordering in bulk, and overnight shipping is a questionable practice, at best.
Is there a more sustainable way to approach material sampling? Will digital samples ever replace physical? Are there things designers can do to minimize their impact on the environment with their sampling practices?
i+s recently sat down with Ray Sayers, founder and president of Mercato Place—a new online sampling solution for the A&D community that boasts a highly curated platform with a paperless fulfillment center, shipping and packaging materials made of recycled materials and eco-friendly shipping options, as well as a return and recycling program available for all of its material samples—to answer these questions and more.
i+s: What role does material sampling play in the sustainability conversation for the interior design industry?
And so it’s this big monster of, how do we source it? How do we make the samples? How do we get the samples to the designer? How do we get the samples back once they’re used? It’s just this whole big thing that, as sampling has gotten more sophisticated, and now there is the ability to order samples essentially in real time and get things overnight. It’s a different deal than in the past. It would be a library in a showroom that the designer would have something messengered to them locally, and they’d get it in a day or in three days. And so, as everything is just ramped up, there’s more of an impact from an environment and sustainability side.
i+s: How big of an issue is waste as far as material samples are concerned?
RS: The volume of it is significant. Hopefully, designers will be able to keep these things for future projects and continue to reuse [them]. You can talk about sampling, but it’s really just an overall question of, how are we going to live our lives in a sustainable way? Sampling is one portion of it, but how are we going to order other things? Does everything have to be Amazon Prime? Can we ship things ground? Can we do things to make some smarter decisions? Sampling is no different from that.
i+s: Material samples are an important part of the design process, but what’s preventing designers from relying on digital samples?
RS: There’s a lot of manufacturers and textile suppliers that have tried to provide more of a digital option and really go almost exclusively digital. And every time they tried, there’s pushback. And part of the reason is a sustainability story, but also there’s a cost story from the manufacturer and distributor side. If you ask any of them, I would say that other than people, other than labor, sampling is their second largest operational cost to run the business. It is a hugely significant dollar amount that they spend to support their business. A lot of times it’s their first and maybe only impression that they have with the designer or with the client, so they have to be able to make a statement.
They have tried to go digital, but at the end of the day, again, it’s a very tactile experience. And one of the reasons I think we’ll always be in business forever is that designers need to see and touch [the products]. It might be, how does a drapery fabric drape properly and is the finish on it going to make a difference with the color? And what is the pile on a velvet and mohair like? As good as digital samples are, it’s just not the same. Ultimately, they’re specifying product that could be, literally, hundreds of thousands of dollars of product. But if it doesn’t really work, then it’s a bigger issue of waste than just a sample.
i+s: What practical steps can interior designers take to help reduce the environmental footprint of their samples?
RS: Whether it’s sampling or just overall in how they lead their lives, it’s the same thing when I go to order something on Amazon. It is hard to do, but you can plan ahead. Hopefully, you can order for multiple projects at the same time. You can order in essentially bulk, so more things come at once. Or you can make choices as far as shipment, so you can choose to get things ground vs. next day. Then, you can treat these samples as if they’re borrowed and not owned. So, assume they’re going to go back or assume you’re going to keep them for another job at a later time. Maybe don’t cut a piece out of it. Don’t write on the tag, don’t rip off the tag and put it up on a board. If you treat them like gold and they’re able to be reused and repurposed, and you can extend the life of that sample, it just aids in the whole sustainability story.
So, I think as far as what they can do is, we want to make sure to get these things back, but I think in a smart way. You could argue that just taking a single memo and sending it back in an envelope truly isn’t sustainable, when you look at what the carbon footprint is to send one memo back on a truck and then a plane and then on a truck. Bundle these things up, send things back in significant quantities so that it truly makes sense from the sustainability side.