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Ethical Home – Paint

‍‍‍It goes without saying that paint is a concoction of chemicals, but what is never really disc‍‍‍losed about those chemicals is how much damage they can cause to the environment and to human health. This chapter looks at some of the environmental claims behind conventional and ‘natural’ paints that are used to decorate interior walls (emulsions) and woodwork (glosses), and how safe they are in manufacture, application and disposal.


Mod‍‍‍ern paints are complex chemical concoctions, but most contain petroleumbased by-products from the oil industry, a sector not renowned for its commitment to environmental protection. Indeed, two of the largest paint companies on the table, Azko Nobel and ICI, are thought to be amongst the most environmentally damaging in the world.

Paint production is hazardous and uses a lot of energy. Making just one tonne of paint can produce up to ten tonnes of waste, much of which is toxic. However, the main issue with household paint is that of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These occur in gloss paint more than emulsion. They evaporate during use, and can contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone. Several major paint brands now have a voluntary labelling scheme, which states the level of VOCs in their products using five categories from ‘minimal’ to ‘very high’. Ethical shoppers in high-street stores looking to avoid high-level VOCs are usually offered new generations of water-based gloss paints. These contain extra chemicals, so the ecopaint producers argue that it may be better to buy a solvent-based gloss paint from an environmentally aware company.

Conventional paints can emit an alarming array of noxious gases, including known carcinogens such as toluene and xylene. But the fumes given of‍‍‍f by natural paints can also be noxious, so both types of paint may get a similar VOC rating. Other concerns are the use of synthetic alkyl phenols, alkyds and acrylics, and whether the product is biodegradable.

Titanium dioxide is used to improve the coverage or ‘opacity’ of the paint, and is also an important ingredient of many ‘brilliant white’ paints. Despite being in plentiful supply, titanium has a significant environmental impact because of the amount of energy used in its manufacture, which has led some companies to offer a choice of paints either with or without titanium.

15 to 25 per cent of paint sold in the UK is never used, so if you have waste paint at home contact your Environmental Health Department for safe disposal or recycling. Remove paint from brushes before rinsing and don’t pour it down the drain.

Ethical Home – Natural paint?

‍‍‍‍‍‍The ‘natural’ paints on the market claim to be both safer to use and kinder to the environment than conventional products. Not all ‘natural’ paints are the same; some contain only organic ingredients, and several are based on traditional formulations that have been in use for centuries, whilst others, although free from VOCs, may contain synthetic ‍‍‍alkyds, usually in order to improve their performance. Some also contain a small percentage of white spirit, sometimes labelled as ‘aliphatic hydrocarbons’. The most common ingredients found in ‘natural’ paints are linseed oil, lime, turpentine, d-limonene, natural earth and mineral pigments, chalk, casein and borax.

Osmo receives the highest Ethical Ranking within our Ethical Paint research (see the tables above and below).‍‍‍

Pity the poor painter

Many ethical shoppers are turning to eco-friendly and ethical paint, not only for the environmental benefits but also out of concern for their own health. In 1989, the World Health Organisation’s cancer research agency found that professional painters and decorators faced a 40 per cent increased chance of contracting cancer, and went so far as to deem painting and decorating to be a carcinogenic activity by definition.

Key Research

Below you will find links to the key sections of our ethical research in Home & Office:

We have created ethical comparison rankings for the following brands, based on the activities of the company group (see above tables): Osmo, Aura, B&Q, Biofa, Casa, Green Paints, Keim, Lakeland Paints, Livos, Nutshell, Craig & Rose, Fired Earth, Farrow & Ball, Wickes, Focus, Johnstone’s, Leyland, Mangers, Crown, Dulux, Homebase, Benetton,

Disclosure:  Some of the links above are affiliate links, meaning we earn commission if you click through and make a purchase. Placement and use of these links has no bearing in terms of the ethical scores that we give to a brand.  All commission earned by The Good Shopping Guide is re-invested into the research carried out by The Ethical Company Organisation.

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