Fast Furniture: How Much More Sustainable is Your Wardrobe Than The Clothes Inside It?
The sustainability community talks a lot about the dangers of fast fashion, both ethical and environmental, but rarely do we hear about the potential pitfalls of fast furniture. In fact, issues that plague the fashion business, from cotton sourcing to deforestation, are just as, if not more, prevalent in the world of furniture production.
What is fast furniture?
Cheap, trendy, usually low-quality furniture that can be ordered with a simple click to arrive on your doorstep within days. Like fast fashion, these items aren’t designed to last or be passed on as hand-me-downs, they are made of cheap materials, like chipboard, to encourage customers to restock every few years. Think of brands like Ikea, Wayfair, Made.com, and other similar outlets.
What are the problems with fast furniture?
There are issues with every aspect of the fast furniture supply chain, so breaking these down into the categories, 1) production, 2) demand, and 3) disposal is helpful.
Illegal logging plagues industries from fashion to publishing, but furniture retailers are undoubtedly the most affected. In June 2020, Ikea were found to be using illegally-sourced timber from ancient forests in the Carpathian region of Ukraine in some of their most popular products. The Carpathian forests run through Ukraine, Slovakia, and Romania, and are home to Europe’s endangered lynx and brown bear populations. Illegal logging simultaneously runs rife through these regions, thanks to the corrupt state-owned forestry enterprises that own them, and Ikea is the world’s largest consumer of wood, with its consumption doubling in the last decade to 21 million cubic metres of logs as of 2019. However, Ikea isn’t solely to blame – WWF’s 2019 Timber Score Card, which measures sustainability among UK timber buyers, found that Wayfair, Made.com, Sharps, Harvey Nichols and SCS all scored in the red, either maintaining or regressing to 0 trees. According to the WWF, this means:
“These companies have failed to show any progress on sourcing sustainable timber and timber products. They have communicated little if any useful information as to their purchasing policies, and the proportion of certified or recycled product purchased or the source of their timber products. These companies urgently need to change their timber and timber product sourcing reporting practices, if they are going to keep up with their competitors and become responsible corporate citizens. There is no excuse for inaction.”
Environmentally, the toll is already being felt in eastern Europe, as logging has been blamed for worsening floods in Ukraine – tree roots absorb water, and thus fewer trees means more water runs down slopes, causing floods and destroying infrastructure such as roads.
Along with timber, the fibres used in furniture production have numerous negative impacts. Textile production is responsible for 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, which is more than the annual carbon impact of flights and shipping combined. While synthetic fibres, like polyester and polyamide, are a large part of this, being manufactured using fossil fuels, natural fibres are often not much better. Cotton, often praised for its durability and organic nature, is extremely water intensive, with one kilogram of cotton needing as much as 10,000 to 20,000 litres of water to produce. Modern slavery and forced labour are also endemic problems in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, some of the world’s largest producers of cotton, perpetuated by a corrupt government. Once these materials are sourced, dyeing processes pose another threat to the environment and the people living in close proximity to textile factories:
“In the fabric and dye industries that continue to flourish in India and China (due to their low labour costs and our local high energy and labour costs), it’s possible to predict the colour of the fashion season upcoming simply by looking at the colour of the rivers due to the toxic runoff.”
Dyeing also makes the production process even more water intensive, putting excess stress on communities, predominantly in the Global South where the textile industry is mostly based.
Production, of course, is driven by demand, and the last few decades have seen a shift in consumption patterns. While a 2015 study found that 66% of global consumers were willing to pay more ‘sustainable products’ (or 72% for millennials), “people’s desire to get nicely made stuff that is sustainable only goes so far”, according the Tim Smith, Head of Create Furniture in Tottenham. There’s also no denying that sustainable, first-hand furniture isn’t accessible to all due to its high cost, with prices often reaching the thousands for basic items like a table and chairs. With the country on the brink of economic recession, it’s very unlikely that consumers will be able to afford to splash out on home furnishings, so as much people claim to want to spend sustainably, fast furniture may be the only achievable option.
Getting rid of furniture is often not as simple as re-selling clothes or taking them to the local charity shop. A recent BHF survey of 2,000 first time buyers revealed that one-third of them had thrown their old furniture away when it was in perfectly good condition. This tendency to throw away is likely due to lack of storage space in smaller homes, or the need to get rid quick due to moving schedules.
Recycling is always an option, but since most timber furniture is made of chipboard coated in plastic, the mixed nature of the materials means it is more expensive to process. As a result, incineration or landfill is often the simplest route. In the US, furniture is the least recycled household item, where around 12 million tons of home furnishings end up in landfill (while still being in good condition) per year. When comparing this to figures for 1960, when only about 2 million tons of furniture was being binned, this says a worrying amount about our global consumption habits.
Luckily, it seems there is some good news to report. Ikea looks set to achieve its 100% renewable energy pledge, as the company aimed to produce more energy than it consumes by 2020. This involved setting up wind farms, solar panels in stores and warehouses, as well as solar parks. The company also aims to be 100% circular by 2030, which would involve collecting products once customers are finished with them, rather than leaving their disposal up to the consumer.
What can you do?
The most sustainable furniture is what you already own, so think twice before taking something to the tip or trying to sell it online – ask yourself, ‘can I upcycle this?’ and ‘can I fix that?’.
When it is time to invest in a new piece, buysecond-hand where you can through your local charity or antique shop or second-hand sites like eBay, Etsy, or Preloved. Some companies specialise in upcycling old furniture, such as The Furniture Recycling Shop based in Buckinghamshire, or Reviive which is based in the Midlands. While most new sustainable furniture is too expensive for the average consumer, brands like Wearth London, West Elm, Harrison Spinks, USM, Woodmancote Retro and more are bound to satisfy those with a little more to spend. Buy locally where you can, to minimise shipping emissions. Be aware of greenwashing - when buying new ensure that you ask the seller for their FSC or PEFC responsible timber certificates, and if they don’t offer you one, you can search for yourself. You should also be checking the company’s status with the International Labour Organization, Verité’s Commodity Atlas, and the Global Slavery Index. You can also check the individual carbon footprint of household furnishings here.
As well as adjusting your buying habits, you should also be actively putting pressure on those brands who aren’t doing enough, like Made, Wayfair, and SCS – you can check WWF’s Timber Score Card to see the full list of companies in the ‘red zone’. Tell them why you no longer buy from them, what you want from them, and when you want to see it, to ensure that your boycott is effective and not just passive.
This article was created in partnership with Christopher Webb, Head of Sustainability & Environment at TP Bennett, a London-based architectural firm that that focusses on sustainable development.
Image by: Phillip Goldsberry