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The ethical novice meets: ethical paint

Colin Birch starts his journey off with ethical paint in his new, light-hearted guide to trying, and sometimes failing, to be ethical.

It’s that time of year to paint the house – An annual occurrence resulting from the fact that all the sticky tape I put my daughter’s recent birthday decorations up with usually pulls half of the paint off the walls.

Now, I’d never really considered the existence of ethical paint before – I’d always assumed that all paint was dangerous for the environment based on the fact that every time I tried to drink some while doing art at infants’ school, my teacher would throw a board rubber at me (different times!)

Obviously, I know that it’s not a natural product – regular paint is filled with unsavoury things like synthetic dyes, petrochemicals, formaldehyde, ammonia and titanium dioxide, which should be avoided whenever possible unless ammonia and titanium dioxide go really well with your living room curtains.

But, having done some research, it turns out paint is, quite simply, one of the evilest substances known to man. It contains Volatile Organic Compounds (V.O.Cs) which harm the environment, which was news to me as I’d always assumed the letters “V.O.C.” on the tin stood for “Very Obnoxious Colour”. Paint’s production also involves creating huge amounts of toxic waste and, most frightening of all, it smells awful.

Obviously, I need to switch to something more ethical ASAP, but I’m wondering whether the eco-paint alternatives will be as good. Well, if some of the names of the colours are anything to go by it’s at least the equal of the traditional stuff.

Shades available included: “Hopscotch”, “Mittens”, “Donkey Ride”, “Ballet Shoe”, “Fiddlestick”, “Rocky Horse” and “Trumpet”, which, when read together sound like the track-list to the worst indie band album of all time. I also found traditional “Eggshell”, which was slightly disappointing as I was hoping you could at least get a free-range version.

In comparison to traditional paint, ethical ones will make you feel much better about using them – or less bad if you hate painting as much as I do. Some contain virtually no V.O.Cs; some are produced in a carbon-neutral way; some even contain milk products (hopefully the white ones).

One producer even claims its paint is so non-toxic you can eat it. Where were you when I was five years old?

However, although improvements are constantly being made, there are still some issues with eco-paint: it can take longer to dry; something of a problem if, like me, you like to start on the second coat before completing the first one has made you lose the will to live.

And, although eco-paints are breathable they tend not to be washable, so whilst decorating your child’s room with them means they won’t be seriously harmed by the paint, they may well be seriously harmed by you, once you’ve seen what they’ve spilt on it.

Then, as with every ethical alternative, there’s the thorny issue of cost. Eco-Paints tend to be priced at the higher end of the market, so I find it tempting to save money by buying a cheaper, more toxic paint and then spend the extra cash on something else that will minimise the health risks to me … like a painter who isn’t me.

Having all this new knowledge to inform my decision is a real boon, as my previous paint choices haven’t been the best – I once hired a surrealist face painter for my daughter’s 4th birthday party and many of the kids who attended are still in therapy.  

And the colours I’ve picked haven’t just been bad for the health of the planet – they’ve tended to give everyone looking at them sickening migraines too.

However, it’s also made me realise that whatever you buy, all paint will have some kind of environmental impact, which is something I’ll keep stressing to my partner in what’s likely to be a futile attempt to get out of doing this laborious DIY task again.


Maybe I should just bite the bullet, choose a paint and get on with it? In the course of my research, I discovered that there’s actually an air-purifying paint you can buy that removes contaminants from the atmosphere – I think that’s the one for me, as I’m certain to turn the air blue whenever I start using the stuff.

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