Ever Heard of Fast Furniture? What It Is (And How to Choose Sustainable Furniture)

Photo by Christelle BOURGEOIS on Unsplash

Fast Furniture: More Popular than Sustainable Furniture?

You’re familiar with fast fashion. But have you ever heard of fast furniture? You know, those flat-packs that you can assemble quickly? (or painstakingly, depending on who you’re talking to).

We’ve relied on these big box brands like Ikea, for years now. They’re far from being sustainable commercial furniture.

But the thing is, they’re cheap, easy to work with, and will arrive in your apartment after just a few clicks. It can be hard to forego these perks in the name of the environment.

The thing is, while we enjoy the convenience it brings, there’s also something majorly wrong with fast furniture: the environmental impact.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), furniture and furnishings totaled to 12.1 million tons in 2018 – about 4% of total municipal solid waste. This is a pretty high increase from just 2.2 million tons in the 60’s.

Granted, the population is bigger now, but there’s no denying that we’ve been creating (million) tons more waste these days compared to previous decades. The waste includes fast furniture that’s easily sourced and easily disposed of as well.

And while there are recycling centers, what we do know about recycling is that there’s only a very small portion of waste that goes in the process. And fast furniture is no different.

Even though EPA reported that almost 20% of furniture and furnishings was combusted for usable heat and electricity, there’s still about 80% of this type of waste to end up in landfills across the U.S.

Why Fast Furniture is NOT Sustainable Furniture

Take a look at what your current home furnishings are. There may be a whole lot of wood. What about glass? Is it no VOC furniture? Do you think they lean towards eco-friendly furniture or not?

Our couches are almost always made of cushioning and textiles. Maybe you’re into the industrial look and have metal details in your space. Or you might appreciate the durability of plastic chairs, perhaps?

It’s surprising how even our small spaces require several pieces of furniture.

And though we can recover and recycle wood, textiles, and metals, the EPA says that currently no measurable data source for these recycling efforts, with the exception of mattresses.

Recycling is great in theory, but it’s hardly done at the scale that it needs to be.

And some materials aren’t even recyclable!

Particle board is one example. It’s commonly used in flat-pack furniture – you know, the artificial wood you see everywhere? It’s made of wood shavings and timber residue mixed with certain plastic resins.

They make for affordable furniture, but the material is non-recyclable and non-biodegradable because of the chemical adhesives and plastic laminate. Oh, and it’s also linked to indoor air quality problems. Yikes.

In another study, researchers looked into the life cycle assessment of three solid wood base furniture: a beech desk, an oak-and-fabric sofa, and a rubberwood wardrobe.

Results suggest that the beech desk had the smallest negative impact.

The reason? Compared to wood, fabrics and other added materials were actually more detrimental to both ecosystem and human health, especially during production.

It’s pretty much the same sad reality like fast fashion. Not only is fast furniture creating a huge waste problem, there are other ethical issues at play, like awful working conditions and wages for workers abroad, and rampant use of raw materials.

How to Choose More Sustainable Furniture

Whether you’re a constant renter, mover, or basically someone who prefers to not spend too much on furniture, you’ve probably been seduced by the sheer affordability and convenience of fast furniture.

We get it. But if you’re looking to add more affordable sustainable furniture when decorating your living spaces, here are a few ways you can try:

Shop Local

Shopping locally is one way to be more sustainable with your furniture. Granted, it usually costs more, but if you can afford it, why not invest?

Eva Haviarova, an associate professor of wood products at Purdue University shared with New Republic that there’s two main benefits to shopping local wood furniture.

One, most of these pieces are made of regional hardwoods, which are considered sustainable resource in the US.

Hardwoods are not only better for the environment and economy, but they will definitely more durable than low-quality composites. And who doesn’t want the option to customize? With local sellers you could opt for personalized designs to fit your space.

In the life cycle assessment study we cited, researchers shared that making furniture more sustainable may involve: reducing the amount of materials (e.g. reduce wood thickness); lessening the types of materials combined in one piece; choosing sustainable raw materials, and considering transport distance when choosing a supplier.

Shop Vintage

Go zero waste and stand out.

When you shop for vintage pieces, you’re not only adding that unmistakable cool in your space, but you’re also helping to lessen what will be dumped as trash.

To give you an idea, new furniture is around 16 times higher in carbon footprint than vintage. And they tend to depreciate while vintage and antiques retain their value over time. So it’s definitely a good idea to add some vintage pieces to your abode.

Take the time to check out online sources, like Amazon, Carousel, Past Perfect, and others. Check out this list of online sites that offer vintage furniture and home accessories. You’ll have access to vintage pieces across price ranges. And you could even participate in auctions.

If you do have the spending power, check out 1stDibs, a premier online vintage marketplace for some of the most exquisite vintage pieces. Want a custom coffee table from Italy? You could just find the perfect one here. Antiques, contemporary furniture and home decors are curated here. These will definitely close the loop on furniture supply, making them the more sustainable commercial furniture.

Rent, Don’t Shop

Sounds unrealistic? Well, if you’re able to relatively take care of your furniture, i.e. no hyper pets gnawing at the sofa, renting furniture seems like a sustainable option, too.

Renting makes house staging possible, but it can also be something you do to save money and save on carbon impact. It’s the new circular model for furniture!

Spruce has made a list of these stores to find your rentable pieces. Shops like CORT, Oliver Space, and Feather offer awesome options as more sustainable furniture companies.

CORT for instance, is well regarded for their quality rentable furnishings. But you’ll also be glad to know that their business model emits 49% less greenhouse gases than other brands that sell directly to consumers. They also sell pieces that have been through the renting cycle at low prices.

And don’t worry about sanitation. Companies like Feather implement an 11-stage cleaning process to make their pieces last long.

Choose Reclaimed

Among furniture materials, wood makes up the largest material category trashed, followed by ferrous metals. Like shopping for vintage, reclaimed and/or upcycled furniture is an opportunity to lessen what ends up landfilled.

One good source of reclaimed furniture is Etsy. Known for handmade and original pieces, the company also collaborates with sellers of upcycled furniture – anything from wall décor to tables made of pallet.

Keep an eye out on the offerings added daily. You might just score a minimalist dining set that’s pretty minimal on the carbon footprint as well.

Brand New, But Made Sustainably

Decorating your sustainable home may require a bit of fact-checking, but knowing where to buy pieces that are sustainable is worth every bit of time and effort.

Our picks include:

West Elm, an international brand for modern home furnishings. Their online and in-store selections now feature ethical production, fair trade practices, and environmentally friendly pieces, with FSC certifications and forest conservation commitment.

Avocado is a brand best known for eco-friendly mattresses, but they also feature reclaimed wood furniture.

Burrow has great options for living room sofas and sectionals. This online store uses responsibly sourced materials for their pieces, all made in the USA.

Joybird features mid-century style designs that provide fair trade for craftspeople in Mexico. Aside from that, for each item sold, the brand plants trees – more than what was used to manufacture the product.

Sustainable Furniture Idea: Just Buy Less

And we arrive at the simplest (but might arguably be) the hardest decision: to buy less!

However you look at it, consuming something inevitably creates waste. Sustainable furniture companies may offer reclaiming and recycling options, and these are great. They prevent the new-to-trash cycle. But it’s still delaying the fact that once manufactured, it will inevitably be dumped.

When outfitting your home, try to just purchase what is really essential for your lifestyle. Make every bit of the space purposeful and sustainably sourced. That way, your space works for you and works for the overall ecosystem too.

How do you decorate your space sustainably? Which one of these ways is the best for you? Any other sustainable furniture tips you can recommend? Share with us what you think.

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