Is it just me or has the quality of new furniture really gone downhill lately? I remember back when antique furniture pieces could be passed down through a family for generations! I even have a hutch that came from my grandmother — still in our family and going strong!
But when I shop at the store these days, all the furniture feels cheap, lightweight, and not made to last at all. So what is going on? This is fast furniture at work, my friends! Today we are going to answer: what is fast furniture and what kind of impact is it leaving behind on our planet? Let’s find out.
What’s the definition of fast furniture?
By definition, fast furniture is furniture that is made to last for a very short time (usually only a few years at best). Fast furniture is made of cheaper, plastic-based materials. While low in price, fast furniture comes with some pretty dire environmental impacts.
As The Spruce pointed out in their article, fast furniture really came as a response to a new wave of consumers who - unlike the generations before them - were much more mobile. These days, many of us shift from home to home (or rental to rental) and have the constant urge to update our home design choices and decor.
To put it into context, we buy enough furniture worldwide equivalent to the total economic output of Sweden — $18,000 USD every second!
Social media platforms have really helped catalyze this new trend. I always see home decor and redesign TikTok and Instagram posts where someone is re-doing an area of their home simply because they were bored or needed a change.
While everyone is entitled to redo their home for whatever reason they want, throwing out perfectly good furniture and home decor items simply for a change of scenery is not sustainable for our planet!
We asked for more, cheaper furniture, and brands like IKEA and Wayfair were all too happy to answer the demand. The thing that really grinds my gears about all of this is these kinds of brands count on us to keep buying cheap junky furniture from them.
We buy something cheap, it breaks, we are back to IKEA to replace it within a year… and the cycle continues. Instead of offering furniture repair services, these companies know it is cheaper and easier to just buy new ones again. It is their whole business model.
And with so many different furniture materials to pick from these days (some natural, some plastic), it can be confusing to dispose of properly and most of it ends up in landfills as a result. In fact, the EPA estimates Americans throw out over 12 million tons of furniture a year! That is WILD.
But this isn’t the only issue I have with fast furniture…
What's the problem with fast furniture?
While the impact of a fast furniture item really depends on the item itself (e.g. a couch vs. a pillow) the negatives of fast furniture outweigh the positives by a landslide if you ask me. From human rights abuses to clogging up our landfills, the impact of fast furniture is pretty bad.
Old-growth forests around the world are dying at the expense of the fast furniture industry. Every year, 7 billion trees are cut down and not replaced, wood is a limited resource after all!
While some companies claim they plant new trees to replace the ones they cut down, the replacement is often a monoculture plantation which is hardly considered sustainable since regenerating forested land to its original state can take decades. This is why FSC-certified wood is the way to go (don't worry, I will get more into certifications later).
Supply chain issues & Human rights abuses
We have much stricter laws in North America and Europe when it comes to manufacturing furniture. But in countries like India, China, and Bangladesh you are likely to find some serious issues in the supply chain.
For example, workers might be exposed to toxic chemicals, are paid unfair wages, or might find themselves in other dangerous situations. Until we have more accountability and transparency in the supply chain, this is something we always need to be thinking about as eco-conscious shoppers.
You might be surprised to learn that it takes a LOT of water to make fast furniture. A huge part of this happens during the dying process if the furniture piece has some kind of fabric component. When you consider it takes 22 gallons of water to make one pound of plastic, just imagine how much water we use to make all of this plastic-based furniture!
I am sorry to say fast furniture and toxic pollution go hand in hand. In fact, that new comfy couch you just bought is likely filled with polyurethane foam, which is extremely toxic and can shed VOCs (volatile organic compounds) into your home.
You can also often find flame retardants in fast furniture. A very common flame retardant is PBDEs (polybrominated fire retardant) and it can release toxic dust into your home (PBDEs have even been found in breast milk).
I also want to mention for my new or soon-to-be moms out there that PBDE has been shown to have a particularly bad health impact on children, so please shop for your nursery with this in mind!
I have tips on how to minimize your exposure to PBDEs in my article on sustainable couches!
With most fast furniture being made from plastic, this presents a huge problem when we think about waste. Plastic takes years to break down and can release microplastics/microfibers and harmful chemicals into the environment during the breakdown process.
Take rugs for example... About 94% of rugs are made from plastic such as polypropylene which can stay in the natural environment for a very very long time if not disposed of sustainably.
Speaking of rugs, do you remember that smell that new rugs tend to give off? That is likely the smell of VOCs like benzene, toluene, and 4-PC being off-gassed from the product. That's why choosing a non-toxic rug is the better choice.
At the end of the day, all of this plastic and synthetic materials come from fossil fuels like oil and gas, both of which we know contribute to global warming. This is because when oil is extracted and processed, a massive amount of carbon dioxide (the most common greenhouse gas) is released into the atmosphere.
The carbon dioxide traps heat in our atmosphere and this leads to some pretty drastic changes to our climate (think more droughts, hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes).
What To Look For When Buying Sustainable Furniture?
Unsustainable furniture options can feel impossible to avoid when you are working with a small budget… I get it! But trust me when I say there are options out there that are sustainable, stylish, and better yet, won't break the bank.
Here are some of the criteria and brands you should be looking for when interior decorating sustainably:
1. Natural or organic fabrics & materials
Always look for the most sustainable material you can find! When thinking about furniture, this means looking for bamboo, organic cotton, wool, silk, hemp, reclaimed wood, and upcycled fabrics. Stay far away from formaldehyde, Acetaldehyde, Vinyl Acetate, Benzene, PDBEs, stain-repellent furniture, and polyurethane foam!
Also, if the material is plastic-based (like particleboard) it is always better for it to be made partially or fully from recycled materials… it is better than nothing!
When in doubt, you can always look for these sustainable materials certifications:
- Better Cotton Standard
- Fair Trade
- Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)
- Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
- Oeko-Tex 100
- Organic Content Standard (OCS)
- USDA-Certified Organic
Purchasing products with these certifications can help you avoid greenwashing! Sustainable bed frames? Yes, please!
2. Ethical sourcing
This point refers to the practices and standards a brand uses throughout its supply chain and operations. Here I would ask questions like how were the textiles produced. Were the workers who made them paid fair wages? Were high-level labor standards enforced? Ethical sourcing is VERY important.
3. Corporate Responsibility
Last but not least, we need to also consider a brand's corporate responsibility! Corporate responsibility (or CR for short) is all about a company’s social, economic, and environmental impact.
When thinking about a brand's CR, I like to look for initiatives like carbon offsets, biodiversity protection, plastic-free shipping, etc. If a company is a certified B Corporation you are off to a great start when it comes to CR.
What are the solutions for fast furniture?
Some companies are trying to close the loop on the fast furniture factory to landfill process. Green Standards, for example, has created programs where you can donate, resell, or recycle old office furniture pieces. To date, they have resold and diverted over $15 million dollars worth of office furniture and equipment!
Habitat for Humanity is another one to be on the lookout for (and one I use personally). Here in Canada, most Habitat for Humanity locations offers pickup or furniture donations as well as other large items like appliances and building materials.
Your furniture item is taken back to the Habitat ReStore and sold to someone else in your community that will give it a second life (and proceeds go toward providing families with affordable homes). It really is an amazing program I love to support when I can.
Another option is to thrift furniture! Not only can you donate furniture items to your local thrift store but you can find some hidden gems, even sustainable lighting!
I might be a little biased but I think shopping for secondhand items online really is the best - it is no secret that is how I get most of my clothes!
Last but not least, you can rent your furniture! Why buy something new that you might only need for a short time? If you are planning to live in a location for less than a year I would definitely recommend renting furniture from sites like CORT or Feather.
A final word on fast furniture
I hope you have learned today that sustainable home decor is not out of reach! Fast furniture is not your only option if you are on a budget, thrift online, or visit your local habitat for humanity next time you are in need of a new furniture item! And remember, living a more sustainable life is about progress, not perfection. Good luck!