Credit: Pauline Shapiro
Like fast fashion, 'fast furniture' is a problem for our planet
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Russian designer Harry Nuriev's latest sofa is made from a pile of trash bags. Recently on show at the collectible design fair Design Miami, the Trash Bag Sofa was inspired by garbage on the streets of New York, and Nuriev wants it to draw attention to how we use and waste things.
The piece builds on an idea he first explored at the same fair in 2019, when he presented a sofa made from discarded clothes. As well as commenting on the fashion industry's waste problem — much of which is generated by cheap, trend-responsive "fast fashion" — the project also drew a direct line between waste and the furniture industry.
"People have started to treat furniture like a fashion, where we can change our decisions very quickly, moving around and buying things," Nuriev said at this year's Design Miami, which concluded Sunday.
While there is growing consumer awareness about the environmental impact of fast fashion, can the same be said about fast furniture? The chairs and tables that fill many of our homes and everyday spaces are manufactured on a mass scale, and the cheaper items often end up sitting in a pile of trash destined for landfill.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans threw out over 12 million tons of furniture and furnishings in 2018 (up from 2.2 million tons in 1960), and over 80% of it ended up in landfill. Add to that the carbon emissions caused by manufacturing and shipping, and the furniture industry is looking like the next big elephant in the climate crisis room.
Buying furniture can be eye-wateringly expensive — and it often takes weeks to arrive. Many of us recourse to cheaper, instant brands such as IKEA or Wayfair, but what is this doing to the planet? In order to maintain low price points, manufacturers of affordable furniture often use cheaper yet less robust materials, such as veneer-covered particle board, that are both more susceptible to damage and harder to recycle. When furniture is not designed for longevity or recyclability, it's much more likely to end up in landfill.
With growing calls for sustainability, brands that make typically "fast" furniture are announcing efforts to change — though the impact of these pledges remains to be seen. In its current sustainability strategy, IKEA commits to using only renewable or recyclable materials in all its products by 2030 in an effort to practice "circular" design and cut emissions to net-zero. In 2021, the company launched a "Buyback & Resell" scheme through which unwanted pieces of used IKEA furniture can be returned, refreshed and given a second life.
The concept of circular design has gained increasing traction over the last decade. In a circular system, furniture products would be made without virgin materials, be designed to last longer and be fully reusable or recyclable, thus forming a closed loop.
"Longevity has been a key selling message among more responsible furniture companies for a long time," said Katie Treggiden, circular design expert and author of "Wasted: When Trash Becomes Treasure," over email. "But we also need them to embrace the rest of the circular economy, by designing out waste and pollution, offering repair and reupholstery services and take-back schemes to extend lifespans even further."
One person's trash is indeed another person's treasure. And, as Tregidden's book showcases, many designers have embraced this notion by turning waste materials into new furniture products, from Bethan Gray's Exploring Eden range, which is made using waste shells and feathers, to James Shaw's ongoing Plastic Baroque furniture series made with colorful recycled plastic.
The process of recycling certain materials can, however, come with significant carbon emissions — and it relies on waste to begin with. "We are often focusing on the symptoms and not on the solutions," said Dutch designer Piet Hein Eek, who is known for crafting furniture with found materials, over video call. "This is wider than recycling."
Back at Design Miami, Eek is showcasing a cabinet made from scrap timber. "I try to be as efficient as possible with what the world offers me," he said, explaining that his pieces start with the materials at hand — often sourced at lumber yards — rather than ideas that he must then find materials for. He believes people's attitudes towards scrap wood need to shift toward seeing its beauty. "If a person who does not respect materials walks into a lumber yard, they won't recognize the quality of it," he said.
One way to embrace circularity is by simply buying second-hand furniture, said Treggiden. "New furniture releases the highest concentration of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the first year of its life, so buying second-hand is not only good for the planet, but good for your health," she explained.
As well as myriad marketplaces for vintage or second-hand products, there are also designers who restore and repurpose old items. In 2017, London-based designer and artist Yinka Ilori — whose solo show, "Parables for Happiness," is currently on at London's Design Museum — collaborated with social enterprise Restoration Station to repair and upcycle second-hand chairs into bright, colorful new pieces.
"With upcycling, you create a unique piece which has its own story," said Ilori over email. "There's a layering of meaning and history and you're going to cherish that piece."
Buying second-hand is one way to acquire good quality furniture without breaking the bank. But designers like Eek are also hoping that by working with robust, natural materials, they can create new furniture pieces that — while not as cheap as budget options — will be more cost-effective in the long term. "If you make something which lasts forever, then of course your carbon footprint is far less than pieces of furniture which are thrown away one or two years later," he said. "For me, quality is one of the most important themes."
The emerging "slow design" movement reflects this focus on quality and longevity overspeed and quantity. It encompasses not only working with responsibly sourced materials, but also celebrating craft and wellbeing. If anything can beat fast furniture, is it slow design?
"A phrase I always use is: 'Slow is the new fast,'" said designer Nada Debs at Design Miami. "When you take time to do things, you really appreciate it."
At this year's fair the Lebanese designer has created a hammam installation for bathroom brand Kohler, with tiles made from manufacturing waste. Handcraft — often narrative-infused or region-specific — is central to her furniture collections, as is the use of natural materials such as straw and hardwood.
Debs has previously collaborated with companies that mass-produce more affordable furniture, resulting in items that she admitted were "a very nice, fast buy." But if consumers want to "really buy a piece of furniture and keep it, it makes more sense to buy a real handcrafted object," she added. "It feels more authentic. To me, this is sustainability."
Building an emotional connection with an item of furniture means you are less likely to throw it out — even repairing it when necessary. "Every piece (of furniture) I buy comes with me wherever I'm moving because I have a personal attachment to it," said Ilori. "The object is like a vehicle to create and collect memories... I make sure all my furniture pieces are well kept and respected."
According to the designers spoken to for this piece, there is plenty to keep in mind when shopping for furniture. Look for pieces made with sustainable, long-lasting materials such as FSC-certified solid wood. Find brands that commit to circularity, offering help by way of repair or buyback schemes. Embrace creativity by repurposing old items you've grown tired of. Look to second-hand marketplaces that give access to good-quality vintage items.
And consider investing in pieces that you will love and keep — and thus will last longer. "We want something quick and cheap, but it's really worth investing in something that is more expensive, that could last a lifetime and will bring joy and a unique character to your home," said Ilori.
You may not even need to buy: There are now plenty of services out there, particularly for those who move around regularly, that allow consumers to rent furniture for however long they want, before returning it to be freshened up and reused by someone else. One such company, Fernish — which serves select parts of the US — claims that it saved 268 tons of furniture from landfill in 2021.
The responsibility to tackle fast furniture, however, cannot be the consumer's alone. Designers such as Nuriev, Eek, Debs and Ilori can champion ideas and innovations, but it is manufacturers that have the power to commit to impactful and scalable measures, from responsible material sourcing and circular design to environmental impact labeling, low-carbon packaging and low-emission transport. Should they also just... make less?
Eek believes scaling down production will become inevitable due to rising prices. "I think it will become more expensive in the end (to mass-produce furniture)," he said, "because we will find ourselves having scarcer resources... Right now, because of low material prices, producers are able to make low-cost pieces. But if wood is expensive, which it should be, you have to add more labor and quality to it to be competitive."
Perhaps environmental crises will force the furniture industry's hand — both in terms of dwindling resources and changing consumer priorities. "Companies that aren't leading the charge are soon going to start feeling the demand for change from their customers," concluded Treggiden.