Like fast fashion, ‘fast furniture’ is a problem for our planet

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Like fast fashion, ‘fast furniture’ is a problem for our planet

Written by Francesca Perry, CNN

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Russian designer Harry Nuriev’s latest sofa is made from a pile of garbage bags. Recently seen at the collectible design show 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 bank of 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.

Russian designer Harry Nuriev’s sofa made from discarded clothes. Credit: James Harris for Design Miami

“People have started to treat furniture like a fashion, where we can change our decisions very quickly, move around and buy things,” Nuriev said at this year’s Design Miami, which concluded on Sunday.

While there is increasing consumer awareness of the environmental impact of fast fashion, can the same be said for fast furniture? The chairs and tables that fill many of our homes and everyday spaces are mass-produced, and the cheaper items often end up on a pile of junk destined for landfill.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans threw out more than 12 million tons of furniture and furnishings in 2018 (up from 2.2 million tons in 1960), and more than 80% of that ended up in landfills. Add to that the carbon emissions caused by manufacturing and shipping, and the furniture industry looks like the next big elephant in the climate crisis room.

Buying furniture can be very expensive – and it often takes weeks to arrive. Many of us resort to cheaper, instant brands like IKEA or Wayfair, but what is this doing to the planet? To maintain low price points, manufacturers of affordable furniture often use cheaper yet less robust materials, such as veneered particle board, which is both more susceptible to damage and harder to recycle. When furniture is not designed for longevity or recyclability, it is much more likely to end up in landfill.

With growing calls for sustainability, brands that typically make “fast” furniture are announcing efforts to change – although the impact of these promises 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 reduce emissions to zero. In 2021, the company launched a “buy back and 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 past decade. In a circular system, furniture products would be made without virgin materials, designed to last longer and be fully reusable or recyclable, thus forming a closed loop.

“Longevity has long been a key selling point among more responsible furniture companies,” Katie Treggiden, circular design expert and author of “Wasted: When Trash Becomes Treasure,” said by 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 life even further.”

One person’s trash is indeed another person’s treasure. And, as Tregidden’s book shows, many designers have embraced this idea by turning waste materials into new furniture products, from Bethan Gray’s Exploring Eden series, which is made from scrap shells and feathers, to James Shaw’s ongoing Plastic Baroque furniture series made with colorful recycled plastic.

However, the process of recycling certain materials can result in significant carbon emissions – and it relies on waste to begin with. “We often focus on the symptoms and not on the solutions,” Dutch designer Piet Hein Eek, who is known for making furniture with found materials, said over video call. “It’s broader than recycling.”

Cabinet made from scrap wood by the Dutch designer Piet Hein Eek.

Cabinet made from scrap wood by the Dutch designer Piet Hein Eek. Credit: courtesy of Piet Hein Eek/The Future Perfect

Back at Design Miami, Eek shows off a cabinet made from scrap wood. “I try to be as efficient as possible with what the world offers me,” he said, explaining that his pieces start with the materials on hand – often sourced from lumberyards – rather than ideas for which he then has to find materials. He believes that people’s attitude towards waste wood needs to change in order to see its beauty. “If someone who doesn’t respect materials walks into a lumber yard, they won’t recognize its quality,” he said.

One way to embrace circularity is by simply buying used furniture, Treggiden said. “New furniture emits 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 numerous marketplaces for vintage or second-hand products, there are also designers who restore and reuse old items. In 2017, London-based designer and artist Yinka Ilori—whose solo show, “Parables for Happiness,” is currently on view at London’s Design Museum—collaborated with social enterprise Restoration Station to restore and refurbish second-hand chairs in bright , colorful new pieces.

Yinka Ilori's bright refurbished chairs.

Yinka Ilori’s bright refurbished chairs. Credit: Dan Weill

“With upcycling, you create a unique piece that has its own story,” Ilori said via email. “There’s a layering of meaning and history and you’re going to cherish that piece.”

Buying second hand is one way to get good quality furniture without breaking the bank. But designers like Eek also hope that by working with robust, natural materials, they can create new pieces of furniture that—while not as cheap as budget options—will be more cost-effective in the long run. “If you make something that lasts forever, then obviously your carbon footprint is much less than pieces of furniture that 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 over speed and quantity. This includes not only working with responsible materials, but also celebrating craft and well-being. 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 them.”

"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 truly appreciate them."

“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 them.” Credit: Courtesy Nada Debs

At this year’s fair, the Lebanese designer created a hammam installation for bathroom brand Kohler, using tiles made from manufacturing waste. Craftsmanship – often narrative-infused or regionally specific – is central to her furniture collections, as is the use of natural materials such as straw and hardwood.

Debs previously worked with companies that mass-produced more affordable furniture, resulting in items she admitted were “a really nice, quick buy.” But if consumers “really want to buy a piece of furniture and want to keep it, it makes more sense to buy a real handmade object,” she added. “It feels more authentic. To me, it’s sustainability.”

Building an emotional connection with a piece of furniture means you’re less likely to throw it out – even to repair it when necessary. “Every piece (of furniture) that I buy comes with me wherever I go 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 pieces of furniture are well preserved and respected.”

Designer Nada Debs creates furniture with natural materials such as straw and hardwood.

Designer Nada Debs creates furniture with natural materials such as straw and hardwood. Credit: Courtesy Nada Debs

According to the designers spoken to for this piece, there’s a lot to keep in mind when buying furniture. Look for pieces made with sustainable, long-lasting materials such as FSC-certified solid wood. Look for brands that are committed to circularity, offering help through repair or buy-back schemes. Embrace creativity by repurposing old items you’ve grown tired of. Check out second hand marketplaces that give access to good quality vintage items.

And consider investing in pieces that you will love and keep – and therefore last longer. “We want something quick and cheap, but it’s really worth investing in something more expensive that can last a lifetime and bring joy and a unique character to your home,” said Ilori.

You may not even have to buy: There are many services out there now, especially for those who move around frequently, that allow consumers to rent furniture for as long as they want, before returning it to be refurbished and reused by someone else to become. One such company, Fernish—which serves select parts of the U.S.—claims to have saved 268 tons of furniture from landfill in 2021.

However, the responsibility to tackle fast furniture cannot rest with the consumer alone. Designers like Nuriev, Eek, Debs and Ilori may champion ideas and innovations, but it is manufacturers who have the power to commit to impactful and scalable measures, from responsible material sourcing and circular design to environmental impact labelling, low-carbon packaging and low-emission transport . Should they also just… make less?

Eek believes the downscaling of production will become inevitable due to rising prices. “I think it will eventually become more expensive (to mass-produce furniture),” he said, “because we will find that we have scarcer resources … Right now, because of low material prices, producers are able to make layers. -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 don’t lead the charge will soon start to feel the demand for change from their customers,” Treggiden concluded.

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