Photography & Fine Art Prints: How to Decorate Eco-Friendly?

person Posted By: Ira Golenkova Ferrero list In: Home Decor On: comment Comment: 0 favorite Hit: 2195

Do you love to decorate your home or office with art prints? Are you aware of their environmental impact? This mini-guide should help artwork lovers minimize their carbon footprint in wall decoration.

My search for the most ecological methods to print artwork commenced with my first photographic exhibitions. But I got lost in beautiful descriptions of a huge variety of papers: a list of technical characteristics mostly did not help me out as a dummy in paper manufacturing.

As I finally found time to dwell deeper into the issue, I was lucky to have come across several useful German documentaries on environmental challenges related to paper production. Really helpful was also an online Green-in-Print Guide to environmentally friendly choices in the photographic paper by Dr Joe Zammit-Lucia and the Nature Conservancy.

So if you love art and want to decorate your walls greener, enjoy and share this mini-guide on eco-friendliness of photography and fine art prints:

ZERO ECO-FRIENDLINESS: Plastic-based Prints

When decorating your walls with photographs and fine art, avoid by all means the following “papers”:

• C-Prints - Chromogenic prints, also known as silver halide prints or dye coupler prints,

• Vinyl/PVC prints - usually self-adhesive temporary removable photo and pattern wall prints,

• Any other plastic-based paper prints that use chemical processing (e.g. PE canvas prints).

All these are not papers in any traditional sense but plastics of petrochemical origin. Most of them consist of a polyester base coated with light-reacting chemicals. Their printing process generates environmentally damaging chemical waste.

Unfortunately, there are still pretty many museums, commercial galleries, private companies and artists who order chemically processed prints. According to researchers, they are simply unaware of their zero ‘eco-score’. There is absolutely nothing inherently superior in such prints in terms of functionality!

So let’s now move on to more eco-friendly alternatives of inkjet printing.

MODERATE ECO-FRIENDLINESS: Wood Pulp Fibre-based Prints/Alpha-Cellulose Paper Prints

Wood pulp fibre-based papers (often referred to simply as “fibre-based papers” or “alpha-cellulose papers”) account for around 95% of all papers on the market. To manufacture high-quality printing papers that are unlikely to break or discolour, the pulp gets obtained by digestion or cooking of wood with chemical solutions like the sulfate (kraft), sulfite, and soda.

It is well known that continuing deforestation is today one of the main causes of climate change. Wood production is responsible for more CO2 emissions than all cars and trucks put together! Therefore, a wood pulp fibre-based paper should only be sourced from sustainable forests with good forest management practices and certified by credible entities like FSC. The Forest Stewardship Council is acknowledged as the world’s most important eco-label for wood products and papers.

But in the 2019 documentary film by the first German channel ARD „Die Ausbeutung der Urwälder” (English: “The Exploitation of Virgin Forests”), the investigative journalists Manfred Ladwig and Thomas Reutter questioned even the FSC certificate! Having spent months filming at the global hotspots of deforestation, they concluded that the FSC does not always deny its seal to those companies accused of processing illegally harvested wood. The journalists investigated the case of a company that was condemned for illegal logging in the Brazilian rainforest but continued to use the seal of sustainable forestry. An investigative film also reveals the problem of the expulsion of forest dwellers. Consumers also have to beware of pseudo-environmental labels on papers.

For the reason of deforestation, the amount of post-consumer recycled content in wood pulp papers has to be over 30%. Unfortunately, most fibre-based photographic papers usually do not contain any recycled content as they have more surface imperfections and aren’t very white. It’s more difficult to achieve their cleanliness, colour consistency and necessary surface formation due to varying sources of recycled pulp.

And the last but not the least: when used in photography and fine art printing, many fibre-based papers are coated with speciality chemicals (metallic coating, etc). The least eco-friendly ones are resin-coated photo base papers (RC). To look and feel like traditional photo lab papers, RC papers are coated with polyethene (PE) layers on both sides and cannot be recycled. When coated with naturally occurring chemical non-toxic compounds – clay-like minerals, alpha-cellulose papers can be recycled.

HIGH ECO-FRIENDLINESS: 100% Cotton Rag Paper Prints

A good but also the most expensive choice for environmentally-conscious consumers is 100% cotton rag paper. In old times, actual rags were used to make papers. The term “rag” is outdated but is still used to describe purely cotton paper. The term fine art paper generally means a pure cotton rag paper. Cotton papers last longer and hold up better under repeated handling and various environmental conditions than paper made from wood pulp.

The environmental impact of cotton paper production as such is rather low. No cotton is grown specifically to make cotton paper: it is always made of a recycled by-product during textile production. In its initial phase, the seeds get removed from the cotton plant. They are the source of the cotton linters - fine, silky fibres that are used to make cotton paper. If the cotton paper were not made, linters would be a waste by-product.

Though the challenge is that traditional cotton textile production process itself is damaging to the environment due to large amounts of pesticides used to grow cotton. Unfortunately, the production of organically grown cotton stays rather limited to be able to produce enough linter by-product for organic cotton paper production. The production of fair trade cotton is also currently too low to make it a viable source of fair trade certified cotton paper production.

So how can you improve this situation as a consumer? Purchase exclusively home and clothing textiles from organic cotton or genetically modified cotton. Such consumer behaviour will help contribute to a faster shift to organic and fair trade cotton production.

Papers made of 100% cotton also sometimes have a top protective coating with a gloss range extending from subtle gloss (satin) to mid lustre (pearl) through to high gloss (satin, metallic, pearl, baryta). Usually coated with naturally occurring chemical non-toxic compounds – clay-like minerals, such papers can be recycled.

HIGH ECO-FRIENDLINESS: Alternative Tree-free Fibre-based Papers

Many manufacturers are actively promoting alternative ‘tree-free’ fibre-based papers such as bamboo, sugar cane, the Japanese rice papers of mulberry and hemp fibres, etc. These plants do offer big potential due to their rapid growth and the ability to harvest the same plant repeatedly. However, it is crucial to check whether they come from sustainable plantations. The challenge is that many paper manufacturers do not inform on their exact origin, harvesting methods and the social conditions of workers involved. So question papers labelled as eco-friendly simply because of their ‘tree-free’ fibre.

To sum up, if you plan to decorate your walls with photography and fine art prints and the environment does matter to you, then pay your attention to the following:

• Composition
Give priority to prints on 100% cotton rag papers or alternative tree-free fibre-based papers with fibres from properly certified plantations. Avoid chemically processed prints,

• Surface finish
Give priority to uncoated matte prints, ideally without OBAs (Optical brighteners are synthetic chemicals added to make the paper appear whiter and negatively affect the longevity of prints). Avoid photo base papers (aka Resin Coated, PE Base) – they cannot be recycled unlike other papers,

• Framing
Give priority to recycled frames or reuse the ones you already own. Avoid plastic and low-quality frames. Don’t hesitate to confront resellers, artists or printing companies with the following checklist. The more information you get from them, the greener your choice will be.

Your Checklist for Sellers:

✔ Paper Production Standards
 Are all manufacturers in the production chain ISO 14001 (or equivalent) certified? Keep in mind: none of these standards refers to the source of paper but internal quality standards like proper environmental practices in the production processes.

 Primary Paper Base
What is the primary paper base? Is it 100% cotton, wood-pulp fibre, alternative fibre, polyester or other synthetic material, etc.?

✔ Paper Coating
Does the paper contain a resin base or plastic coating?

✔ Certification
Is the paper certified with full chain of custody documentation? Who is a certifier?

✔ For fibre-based papers
Is production method chlorine-free? What is the proportion of post-consumer recycled content?

Remember that your choice as a consumer will directly impact not only your home but our Planet!

If you wish to reuse the content of this article, please cite the source using a direct link to to avoid plagiarism. 


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