A sustainable therapy space, designed for tranquility

"We are at a unique stage in our history. Never before have we had such an awareness of what we are doing to the planet, and never before have we had the power to do something about that." 
David Attenborough

“Even the smallest businesses produce carbon emissions – it could be through your building, your vehicles or your suppliers.”
Business Climate Hub

Introduction & Background

We all know that our planet is in trouble, that ‘sustainability’ has become a buzzword of late & that society & business need to respond quickly to help preserve our environment for future generations. It’s a complex area & the more you dig into it, the more complex it seems. Trying to make the right choices can be tricky when information is scarce. It’s never as simple as replacing one thing for another. So everything in this account is based on my search for the most eco-friendly choices, but because of the complexity, there may be areas where I fall short, or get it wrong. The blog shares some of my experiences of making greener choices in my therapy practice over the past 15 years & with particular focus on my sustainable therapy room, set up 2020-2021.

Since the beginning of working as a holistic therapist over 15 years ago, I’ve been making choices that reflect my love of nature. For example, these are what I call 'easy wins' that are fairly straightforward:

  • Choosing recycled paper/card
  • Decorating with flowers from the garden / window box / homegrown in pots
  • Using an ethical bank
  • Choosing cruelty-free
  • Recycling

“I love your ethical and sustainable approach which adds another relaxing element to the experience, knowing that the visit I’m enjoying is also one that is kind to the planet.” 
Steph Roberts, Somerset 

I then took it one stage further, producing natural, handmade skincare products for a decade for use in treatments & eventually to a wider audience. With my own product range these were just some of the eco-friendly measures I took to try to help reduce any negative impact on the environment:

  • Glass & aluminium, not plastic - although this is a complicated subject & it's unclear as to which is really the best choice as there are many different arguments online. You decide!
  • UK suppliers, independents
  • Acid-free tissue paper made in the UK
  • Recycled boxes
  • Reclaimed packing materials
  • Raffia ribbon

There were many reasons why I decided to cease production of my skincare line in 2021. Number one was waste – essential oils & plant oils, like food, have a shelf life (I had to order in bulk to keep costs down but the unpredictability of sales meant that some ingredients would go to waste).  

I still make my own face & body oils for use in treatments but the packaging can be minimal & I no longer need to buy in bulk. So in many ways, it's more sustainable to take this approach. 

What was new for me at this time was thinking about my business & finding a permanent base to work from, having been travelling to various clinics for a while. I had the opportunity to convert my garage for use as a therapy space. This is where I really had to up my sustainability game. 

As the building work progressed, I watched the rubbish pile up in the skip – cellophane, plastic bags, polystyrene & cement. One day I stopped & stared at this ugly sight on the driveway & thought, what am I creating here? What will happen to all this waste?  

As I began to source what I needed to create a beautiful, tranquil interior, I set myself a challenge: to create a dedicated, eco-friendly therapy space, with sustainability & ethics at its heart, for clients visiting for holistic treatments.

My aims:

  • To create as little damage to the environment (& therefore to the natural world) as I could, while still progressing my small business
  • To avoid goods where human beings or animals were exploited
  • To actively seek out suppliers with strong ethical standards

I looked to the Cambridge Dictionary to try to understand the terminology that I was hearing & using & then used those definitions as the core of my project to create a green interior.

sustainability: "the quality of causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time."

ethics: "the study of what is morally right and wrong, or a set of beliefs about what is morally right and wrong."  

Questions

There are so many ways that businesses talk about sustainability & you have to start to dig deep to understand what is real & what is just greenwashing.

I realised quickly that the only way to fulfil my aim was to ask questions, both of myself & of others – small businesses, large corporations, makers & sellers. 

“Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.” 
Anna Lappé

Some questions to ask yourself before voting with your money:

  • Do I need to buy it?
  • Can I upcycle/repair
  • Borrow?
  • Find pre-loved?
  • Make it myself?
  • Where is it made?
  • What is it made from?
  • Who made it?
  • How far has it travelled?
  • What will happen to it at the end of its useful life?

Digging deeper, the questions kept on coming. Some examples: 

  • Do I really need to use disposables?  
  • Is it made from recycled materials? 
  • Can it be recycled when I've finished with it?
  • Are people being exploited in the sourcing?
  • Who is profiting from it?
  • Is there a business-wide ethical stance?

I realised that there were a whole host of issues to consider. As time went by, if I couldn’t find (or couldn’t afford) the best-case scenario, then I compromised. If it ticked one or more of my criteria, at least that was better than not trying at all.

So I’ll give you a summary of my experiences, the successes & the pitfalls, in the hope that it may help make your own choices easier.

How to Choose Materials

I wanted to know how much the seller knew about their goods, how close they were to the provenance. I contacted many suppliers to ask about sustainable sourcing policies for products made from natural materials. I started to look for certification marks for wood, paper, cork, rubber, cotton. I found that although many small independents are unable to afford certifications, often they do source responsibly. My questions evolved as my search progressed & I started to seek out the materials that appeared to be more sustainable (it's complicated). These included:

  • organic cotton
  • bamboo
  • FSC certified wood (made with materials that support responsible forestry).
  • linen

I also asked: “Where is this product made/from?" If the product was made in the UK or the EU, I (rightly or wrongly) made the assumption that businesses were following certain codes of conduct in treatment of workers. If made further afield, I would dig down into the details to see what the company’s ethos was in this regard.

I was seeking a sign for outside the studio & began to realise how sourcing was far from straightforward. I wanted slate, a natural, hardwearing material. But I discovered that a lot of cheap slate is sourced from the Far East & brought to the UK. I started to question who dug that slate out of the ground? How many miles did it travel? It’s easy to assume that an ethical choice is buying from a small business in the UK, but as my search progressed I realised that this is too simplistic. If a UK maker uses slate from China, is this a good choice? I’ll leave you to decide. What I did discover, which was a real insight, was this: that we have become so sanitised as a society that a small independent business in the UK has to source their slate from Portugal (instead of locally), because it is smoother, so as not to offend their customers with little imperfections in the material! This is just one example of the complexities of sourcing sustainably.

Another lesson I learned was to be careful when sourcing anything made of fabric – towels, blankets, uniforms... At the beginning of my journey (before I became an obsessive label-inspector!) I bought towels labelled “Sustainably Sourced Cotton.” I assumed that meant 100%. Later, I realised they were a poly-cotton mix. Polyester, from my research, is a real “baddie” as it requires huge amounts of energy & harmful chemicals to create. When discarded it can sit around for tens to hundreds of years, gradually decomposing & releasing harmful gasses into the environment.

So a tip is to look carefully at the tiny labels attached to products. 

I came across misrepresentation often – for example, polyester pedalled as linen, “rattan effect” plastic furniture, and silver-coated plastic labelled “chrome”. These type of sellers rely on us making choices quickly, without question, so will say whatever they can to make something sound appealing & secure a sale.

I was also seeking sustainable workwear – something durable & simple made to stand the test of time. Industry-standard polyester is not sustainable & ethical options are rare in the spa & beauty industries. I now source from independent, ethical clothing shops instead. It took me 6 months to find something suitable. I also found ethical footwear, jewellery & hair accessories eventually. I often waited for sale reductions to make these choices affordable.

So when you’re looking around for a new uniform or towels or even a notepad or pen, here are some sourcing tips:

•Test your suppliers – how much do they know, can they answer your questions about sustainability?  

•Try independent shops & small businesses who often have more transparency & knowledge than large customer care departments

•Choose charities & ethical businesses – for a feelgood factor. You’ll know your money is helping people or planting trees or building toilets for those in poverty.

•Look for the follow-through (e.g. do you receive the ‘sustainable’ goods wrapped in plastic?

•Beware greenwashing  e.g. ‘handmade by artisans' - it means nothing unless backed up by fair pay & workers' rights.

As you can see, this was a journey with ups & downs, both emotionally & in practical terms.

My task  could have been made easier if shops were designed with clever signposting towards their ethical/sustainable goods, or with a clear statement of their sourcing policies. In many cases, the only way to discover the truth behind a product was to make direct contact & ask those questions. It seemed that in many larger businesses, customer care teams had little knowledge of the issues I was interested in. I have certainly changed my go-to retailers as a result.

With ethical independent makers & small businesses, it was a different story. They often made the purchasing process so much more rewarding & crucially they made it easy. Instead of a disjointed process, the whole thing would flow, from the customer care to the biodegradable*, recycled packaging & tape. It is this holistic approach that is lacking in the retail sector as a whole. It was counter-intuitive to me, to sell a product which preserves our natural world for the future, but to pack it in reams of plastic.

*A note on “biodegradable”. The Cambridge dictionary states that this means “able to decay naturally and in a way that is not harmful.” When you start to look closer at biodegradability, it is another complex area. Biodegradable packaging certainly helps to limit the amont of harmful chemicals released into the atmosphere. But some materials which are biodegradable do release harmful gasses. The clearest message currently is that single-use plastics are extremely harmful to the environment & should be avoided. By making conscious choices, we send the right message to manufacturers & retailers & help to drive change.

To continue. Some of my purchases would also help charity or people in poverty, which was an added feel-good factor. Examples included planting a tree for every purchase (even sending you the geographical coordinates of said tree) & building toilets for those in poverty. Others would invest in communities, empower their artisan workers & help to keep craft traditions alive. 

With my limited knowledge & budget, it felt, at times, an impossible task to find sustainable goods. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve been caught out buying something that isn’t what it seems.

Heartwarming Discoveries

Yes, the good stuff does exist!

“I just love the fact that you you have thought about every possible impact your treatments, products & therapy room has on the environment and you have done everything possible to reduce any negative impact.”  Amy Cook, Somerset 

The most rewarding times were when I found something that could be re-used, upcycled or re-purposed.  

For example:

  • My therapy couch was still good as new after over a decade, so could be re-used. 
  • I upcycled an old desk, sanding it down & painting with eco-friendly paint, adding a new metal handle. It matched a new sideboard perfectly as I'd managed to source exactly the same paint.
  • Instead of discarding a disintegrating seat, I covered it with pure linen & it looks good as new.
  • Instead of buying more decorative objects, little vintage bottles & a vase from my childhood now glitter in the candlelight. 
  • A vintage plate is used for my clients’ jewellery.
  • An old pot has been re-purposed & works perfectly as an umbrella stand. 
  • A perfect little side table was found in a local charity shop

Over a 6 month period of researching & searching, I mostly found what I needed with credentials of one or more of these criteria:

  • Made from sustainable materials
  • Made in the UK or EU
  • Made ethically with workers’ rights in mind

I looked on auction sites, scoured charity shops, signed up for newsletters & looked for discount codes to help make some of these choices more affordable.  

Here are some examples of what I found:

  • Pencils made from certified wood - FSC (made with materials that support responsible forestry) / PEFC (promoting sustainable forest management) - which at the end of their life can be planted into the ground, as each contains a seed
  • Handmade in the UK, re-usable bamboo cleansing pads
  • Unbleached couch roll, made from 100% recycled drinks cartons
  • Non-toxic paint, made in the South-West, providing a beautiful, ambient nuance to walls, ceilings & woodwork.  
  • Doormats, blankets & rugs made from recycled plastic bottles* in UK by a small business  
  • Recyclable, hand-forged curtain poles made in the South-West 
  • Authentic Linen curtains, to which I then added linen ribbons sewed with organic cotton thread
  • A mirror, made in Britain, purchased from a South-West business
  • A responsibly-sourced, FSC/PEFC wooden basin unit, handmade by a family firm in Nottinghamshire
  • An FSC certified wooden sideboard handmade & painted in Yorkshire
  • A metal floor lamp handmade by an independent small business in London
  • Hand-woven natural willow key fobs from a local, independent, small business
  • A UK handmade business card holder from FSC certified wood which I then painted to match the desk I’d renovated
  • Hand painted signs made locally from reclaimed wood
  • A hand-woven natural willow basket made in the South West
  • A 100% recycled paper basket by an individual maker using non-toxic dyes
  • Sustainable bamboo flannels, from a South-West business
  • A sustainable rattan chair from an independent UK business
  • Plastic-free wall decals made entirely from FSC certified paper, from a tiny independent business in Finland
  • An FSC/Vrish certified shelf made by a socially & environmentally conscious small business based in London, who also give to charity
  • Candleholders, shelves, a stool, coat hooks, a lantern, from a socially & environmentally responsible, fair trade independent business based in the South West with impeccable credentials & customer service
  • Recycled glass tumblers made in Spain, bought a mile up the road from a small business
  • Vases by a Somerset maker, from a local shop focusing on local, handmade goods
  • Handmade ceramic & metal bird feeders, from a local gallery
  • A birchwood tray made ethically in small communities in Sweden, from a small business in Scotland
  • Certified organic cotton sewing threads from a small independent South West business, sourced from the EU. 

*Plastic, when washed, sheds micro-plastics into the water supply that will end up in oceans. I’ve since found a bag being marketed as a solution for this, which apparently collects these micro-plastics so they don’t go into the water supply when washing. But. The micro-plastics do still go into landfill. The bag itself is made from synthetic nylon. I'm still thinking about that one. 

“The fact that you consider all aspects of sustainability and eliminating toxic products is part of creating a wonderful space. The products you use are amazing and the fact you have thought about all aspects - the ethics, uniform, hand wash, skin products, therapy bed covers, etc. all are very important in feeling that the whole experience is a positive and caring one. That careful care oozes through in the experience you provide.” 
Mary Chisholm, Somerset 

Outside the therapy room, I’m making the area as wildlife-friendly as possible & also growing plants, herbs & flowers to use in the therapy room. Whether it’s a primrose in a vintage teacup, or a daffodil in a handmade vase, my clients love to see these little touches when they visit. The upside is that I can grow without herbicides or pesticides & peat-free; there are no air miles & no plastic wrapping. One of my favourite things is to cut fresh, green leaves & flowers to bring the outside in. I’ve also created log piles outside the studio, which not only look pretty & rustic, but also provide a home for insects. 

I also use the herbs in other ways. Sometimes to scent the warm mitts I use in treatments. Sometimes to flavour the water my customers drink. Sometimes just to decorate the therapy couch. It all sends the same message about the well known link between nature & wellbeing. It’s this holistic approach that I love the most.

An added bonus is that with the growth come birds who can be heard trilling away in the background during treatments! 

Not only does making conscious choices send the right message to retailers & manufacturers that people really do care about the planet, but it also creates an intangible sense of wellbeing in the therapy room itself. So it’s a win for your customers, too.

Clients really appreciate the thought that has gone into their space.  

In summary, if you’re not sure where to start, here are my top tips:

  • Learn the language – what do the words that are being used actually mean?
  • Ask questions
  • Ask more questions
  • Be prepared to compromise – sometimes you just can’t find what you’re looking for
  • Give yourself credit – don’t get disheartened if something isn’t perfect. You’re trying & you care. That’s what drives change.
  • Still unsure where to start? Be practical:
  • Set your criteria (what do you want to achieve?)
  • Set aside time (then double it!)
  • Set your budget (be realistic)

Or just take 3 small steps. For example:

  • next time instead of buying a plastic biro, choose an FSC certified pencil
  • switch to a green energy company
  • reduce your use of disposable cotton wool pads & invest in some reusable ones
  • Or even just plant a seed.

“No one is too small to make a difference.” 
Greta Thunberg

Lucy Stevens, Somerset 2021

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