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Fast Furniture May Be the New Fast Fashion

We swipe through fast furniture options like the Tinder of home decor. But how do we stop the cycle and become more conscious shoppers?

Written by
Brightly Staff

You’ve probably heard of fast fashion, and you’re definitely familiar with fast food. But have you ever considered fast furniture? The impact fast furniture has on our environment is a problem worth discussing.

Here's what fast furniture is, why it's wasteful, and how to switch your furniture shopping habits to benefit the planet.

What Is Fast Furniture?

It’s no secret that our current pattern of consumption (more, faster, cheaper) is unsustainable. In recent years, farm-to-table restaurants and both in-person and online thrift stores have made shopping sustainably cool. Why hasn’t this trend spread to furniture?

When moving into a new apartment or house, one of the most exciting things is the blank canvas you have to start creating your home. It’s also one of the most stressful. Many of us resort to the one-click wonders of big box stores to fill our spaces with what appear to be the cheapest, easiest options.

But apart from the headache of overwhelming options, unreliable deliveries, and painstaking assembly, the reality of mass-produced furniture has a more insidious side effect. What we save out of pocket comes at a significant cost to the environment. Here’s what you should know, and can do, to make a conscious choice for your home.

Fight the Waste

"Garbage in, garbage out”

Furniture is one of the fastest-growing landfill categories. In 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found furniture accounted for more than 12 million tons of municipal waste in the United States. F-waste, as it's not so affectionately dubbed, constitutes the second largest portion of urban waste.

You’ve most likely seen this for yourself when walking down city streets. Have you ever had to sidestep an abandoned sofa or disassembled bed frame? Sometimes furniture doesn’t even make it to landfills. Instead, it ends up as litter on the sidewalk.

Recycling is great in theory, but the mix of materials and chemicals that comprise each item of furniture makes it nearly impossible to process in a recycling facility. For example, particleboard—a material commonly found in cheaper furniture—isn't recyclable or biodegradable because of its chemical resin and plastic laminate. Ultimately, 80% of waste goes straight to the dump, making furniture the least recycled household item.

Save the Trees

“Missing the forest for the trees”

One percent of all of the commercially harvested wood in the world is used by IKEA. This number may sound small, but that’s a lot of trees.

To put it into perspective, 600 tons of wood particleboard is gobbled up each day creating the most popular bookcase on the planet. Particleboard is sometimes considered a green material because it's often (but not always) made out of leftover wood scraps. However, it actually requires more energy to manufacture because the scraps must be broken down, dried, mixed with a chemical adhesive, heated, and re-pressed into usable panels.

Synthetic fibers used in furniture are made from fossil fuels, which also require huge amounts of energy to extract and manufacture. Take into account the water and energy necessary to run furniture factories and transport products around the world, and the carbon footprint of that cheap coffee table skyrockets.

The types of materials and chemicals used in fast furniture take a toll not only on the environment, but on our bodies as well. Particleboard often contains formaldehyde, a carcinogen that can cause health problems when released into the air.

Other chemicals that threaten the quality of our air and water include certain dyes, Scotchgard, leather-tanning chemicals, flame retardants, polyurethane foam, adhesives, and lacquers. We spend 90% of our time indoors; the last thing we want is a home saturated with toxins.

Change Our Cultural Mindset

“I see it, I like it, I want it, I got it.”

Was Ariana Grande providing profound commentary on our current culture of unbridled consumption? Or was she just doing what she does best: Churning out another pop hit that you can’t get out of your head, no matter how hard you try?

In either case, the pop star sings the truth about today’s world of “fast” consumption. With the boom of global e-commerce, an unprecedented world of stuff is at our fingertips, and the pace of production, transportation, and tossing of goods doesn’t seem to be slowing down.

We find ourselves swiping through fast furniture options like the Tinder of home decor. But, we challenge you: How do we stop the cycle and become more conscious furniture shoppers?

Shop for Furniture Sustainably

“What goes around, comes around”

From sustainability-focused brands to rental subscriptions, the world today is welcoming a wave of furniture alternatives. Here’s our list of resources and suggestions for taking small steps.

1. Buy Less, Waste Less

A simple decision is to buy less, but buy for quality and durability. This can reduce your overall waste footprint—and, as we know, every sofa or chair that evades the new-to-landfill cycle counts. When considering where to invest and how to ensure quality, relying on certifications and labels like these can help you find sustainably produced furniture.

2. Donate

If you're looking to hand off your furniture, turn to non-profit organizations or secondhand stores. Take care of your home goods so that their value can extend beyond your hands. In the Bay Area, partners like Habitat for Humanity ReStore and the SF Furniture Bank are outlets for discounting secondhand pieces for the home. One fewer item sent to the landfill is one fewer item that needs to be produced and sold through retail.

3. Rent

Consider it the new circular economy for furniture. For those who don’t want to commit to everlasting furniture, but also don’t want to leave a heavy carbon furniture-print, furniture subscriptions like Oliver Space, Fernish, Feather, and more offer the alternative to the conventional take-make-waste model.

4. Shop Vintage

Give timeless pieces even more airtime. Any timeworn piece can add personality and flair to your interior while saving you another wasteful trip to the fast furniture store. Some may say vintage is "en vogue"—we say vintage is ethical and sustainable.

We all want to be style-savvy and money savvy when furnishing a new space to call home, but being environmentally savvy is more important now than ever. Your sofa will sit a lot more comfortably knowing it’s a greener choice for the planet.