12 Sustainable Materials To Know

Updated: Feb. 07, 2024

Producing and using green materials is one way to keep our planet clean and healthy. Here are some materials that get high sustainability points.

Generally speaking, a construction material is sustainable if you can produce and dispose of it with minimal impact on the environment. And rather than having only two possibilities — it is or it isn’t — sustainability is a nuanced characteristic that takes a number of factors into account.

Wood is generally considered a sustainable building material, but some types are more sustainable than others. Take our property, thick with redwood and tan oak trees. Both produce usable lumber, but that’s where the similarity ends.

To harvest one redwood, you need permits, expensive heavy equipment and specialized labor, and that tree won’t be replaced by a new one for 50 to 100 years. On the other hand, a single worker can fell an oak tree that’s easier to mill, and a replacement will grow back in 10 to 20 years. So oak lumber is more sustainable than redwood.

Building materials don’t have to be new and innovative to be sustainable. Wood is one example of a sustainable material that people have been using forever. However, many sustainable products on the market today are the products of innovation, offering exciting new possibilities for builders and homeowners alike.

What Are Sustainable Materials?

Plastic granulate in a plastic recycling factoryRene Notenbomer/Getty Images

Sustainable materials are also sometimes called green materials. All have these characteristics to varying degrees:

  • They come from natural resources that are plentiful or which regenerate in a short time;
  • A minimal amount of energy is required to obtain and process them, with minimal environmental impact;
  • They include recycled materials, and/or they themselves can be recycled;
  • They’re non-toxic;
  • They’re durable and last a long time;
  • They come from the general region where they’re used.

When you consider all these qualities together, some materials that seem sustainable aren’t as green as they first appear. Concrete is made from easily sourced and abundant natural materials, but Portland cement processing consumes large amounts of energy while creating waste and pollution.

Another example: Some types of composite decking boards may be made from recycled plastic, but they aren’t recyclable themselves, so that plastic eventually winds up clogging landfills anyway.

These examples aside, there are plenty of building and design materials on the market that score highly on the sustainability scale. More are becoming available every day.

Sustainable Building Materials

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Wood will always be a sustainable option for structural uses, and poured concrete is also a more or less sustainable. But there are alternatives for both.

Engineered wood

Rather than making beams, sheathing and other structural members from solid wood, it’s less wasteful to laminate smaller planks to make glulam (glue laminated) beams or cross-laminated timber sheets (CLT) like plywood for floors, roofs and walls. The laminations give the product extra strength and resistance against warping.

Concrete slabs

Precast concrete slabs are factory-formed and shipped in bundles to be assembled on-site. The overall process is easier and less expensive than building forms and pouring concrete. Concrete is durable with good insulation value, making the slabs suitable for foundations, walls and floors.

Natural clay

A time-tested material, natural clay is abundant, long-lasting and cheap. Mix it with straw to make cobb or adobe bricks. You can pack clay into a pre-assembled frame or use it as a covering for bricks or cinder blocks walls.

Recycled plastic

Combining recycled plastic with wood fibers to produce polymeric timbers (composite wood) is one way to solve the ever-growing problem of plastic waste. Another way: Compressing the plastic into building blocks like RePlasts that can substitute for concrete blocks.

Straw bales

Straw bales have seen a resurgence as a building material because they’re inexpensive, easy to use and locally sourced. They create well-insulated, durable structures that can withstand fires, earthquakes and hurricanes.

Sustainable Design Materials

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Design materials include doors, windows, interior and exterior trim, flooring, wall coverings and furnishings.

Stainless steel

Stainless steel is extremely durable and can be recycled over and over again. It resists corrosion and some alloys are hypoallergenic, so it’s an ideal material for kitchen and bathroom fixtures. Production has a low environmental impact because most new stainless steel is made from recycled material, and electricity provides heat for smelting.


Bamboo is a grass that grows incredibly fast, and factories laminate strands to produce timber, flooring and even plywood. It’s possible to build an entire house, cover the floors and provide all the furnishings using only engineered bamboo products.


Cork scores highly on every criterion for sustainability. It’s easy to harvest, durable, hypoallergenic and grows back quickly, In the building trades, it’s most commonly used as underlayment for wood and laminate flooring, but it’s also available as standalone flooring tiles.

Reclaimed wood

Typically sourced from demolished old buildings, reclaimed wood finds its way into the home as flooring, interior trim and furniture.

New Sustainable Materials

Cement Pouring from a Mixer Truck Chuteduckycards/Getty Images

Innovations focus on finding new uses for abundant materials, and reusing materials that would otherwise add to the world’s pollution problem.


In 2021, the Center for Regenerative Design & Collaboration (CRDC Global) opened its first facility in the U.S. to produce Resin8, a concrete additive derived from recycled plastic. The company says it increases the integrity of concrete and asphalt while reducing plastic waste.


Ferrock is a cement substitute made from waste steel dust and recycled glass. When the steel dust reacts with carbon dioxide, it turns to iron carbonate, making a binder many times harder than Portland cement.

Because it absorbs carbon dioxide, it’s a carbon-negative material. But at present it isn’t suitable for large projects because it can only be produced in small quantities.

Mycelium-based building insulation

Mycelium is the underground fungal network where mushrooms sprout. Ecovative, a startup founded in 2007, has found a way to combine it with hemp — another abundant, underused resource — to make building insulation that works as well as fiberglass but is completely biodegradable.