The Ceramic Industry: Is a Little Green Better Than None at All?


It wasn’t the answer I had hoped for, in fact it threw me. And when I finally landed it was clear I had my next topic for EcoSalon. Is ceramic an eco-friendly material?

Not really.

Ceramic is certainly not 100% eco-friendly, although it does boast an honest list of good intentions.

But first the aforementioned answer, which comes from Whitney Smith, a ceramic artist on Etsy. I asked her about the eco-friendliness of her work. Here’s what she said:

Hi Kim, I wouldn’t consider my process eco-friendly. Pottery production uses a lot of energy, and many of the ingredients in glazes and the clay body itself are toxic and cancer-causing in their raw form, and are mined from the earth. I take steps to reduce harm to the environment and myself and employees in my relatively low-production studio, but as a general rule it is impossible to make eco-friendly pottery, though I have seen people make that claim. As far as energy usage, I know some people have employed solar panels to reduce usage, but kilns use so much energy that solar panels are a minor offset at best.  Wood burning and gas fired kilns pollute the air. I know PG&E, my energy provider, claims that over 50% of the energy provided to Northern Californians is wind energy, but who knows? Thanks for asking!  Whitney

I’ve heard the term “eco-friendly ceramics” tossed around by at least a few of the artisans whose work we’ve featured here at EcoSalon. (Perch! and Heath Ceramics, to name just two.) What do they mean and how can they claim eco, while Smith speaks of the polluting process and a serious footprint?


Needless to say, I was stumped. I wanted to reply with, “But, but, but”¦other people say their ceramics are eco?” Instead I bit my tongue and hit up Google.

It took me just under 5 minutes to find an environmentally friendly ceramic memo board and this ceramic teapot made with “sustainable materials.” Really?

Clay is an organic substance, for crying out loud. It comes straight from the earth, but as I’ve learned, this doesn’t mean it’s anything near green. Can any object made of clay, baked at degrees in the realm of the thousands ever be considered remotely green?


For instance, what if non-toxic, low-impact glazes are used? What if the artist’s studio is footprint-free? And what if there’s a type of clay (there is) that only requires one fire in the kiln rather than two?

That, we can fairly say, is progress. Perfection? Does it really matter, as long as there’s an authentic and consistent path toward better, cleaner, safer?

Upon further investigation, I found this post by Laura Zindle, an artist based in Vermont. She states – emphatically, I might add – that her own work is not even the lightest shade of green and further, she’s infuriated that that others are making such preposterous claims.

Zindle has done some of her own research, asking her most knowledgeable colleagues to comment. Their thoughts show candor and passion about the art of ceramics, their own green leanings and how difficult it is to make ceramics 100% sustainable.

What most of them do agree on is the importance of staying informed and educating oneself about the options. The problem, which seems to be a common thread through any and all movements working toward sustainability, is that changes cost money.

John Hull, one of Zindle’s colleagues and a “lifelong educator and potter,” responds to her inquiry with the pragmatic suggestion that “being more green is better than less green.”

You and I work at home. We don’t drive to work using fuel…that’s green.
Your products are functional and don’t get thrown away…that’s green.
When they get broken and are disposed of, they don’t have a negative environmental impact…that’s green.
Your construction process doesn’t use energy (electric potter’s wheel, ram press, etc.)…that’s green.
You fire to a relatively low temp in an efficient kiln emitting no harmful gases (as in reduction)…that’s green.
Your kilns help heat the house and work space…that’s green”¦.and on and on,
BUT…energy use, mining and transporting of materials and all that is a question.

Actually, most of the ceramic artists I have researched claim some level of lessened environmental impact, ranging from total eco-friendliness to simply using non-toxic glazes. For example, Steve Harrison and Janine King have lived and worked green in Australia for years. Davistudio, Emily Murphy and, of course Amy Adams and Perch! are also on the path.

Zindle’s website now claims her work is “hand built and slip cast with low fire white earthenware and glazed with non-toxic low fire glazes”. Even a cynic can see the light.

There’s plenty of greenwashing going around, and the world of ceramics is hardly unique in this. A consistent definition of what it means to be green in ceramics needs to be established.  That being said, an honest dialogue is occurring within the ceramics community, which is clearly a move in the right, green direction.

Unquestionably, ceramic is better than plastic. Ceramics are also handmade, and therefore tend to be high in quality. Ceramics are recyclable and artists like Sarah Cihat prefer to use the old and make something new. Vintage ceramics from companies like Bauer are collectibles and are very functional. Personally, I’d rather have Bauer than anything new from Neiman’s.

But I still would love a Whitney Smith cake stand (second image).

Main image: lepiaf.geo