Each year, Americans throw out more than 12 million tons of furniture and furnishings, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Only a small percentage is recycled, thanks to the diversity of materials in most items—upholstered furniture and mattresses are particularly hard to clean and reprocess. As a result, more than 9 million tons of wood, metal, glass, fabric, leather, and foam waste ends up in a landfill.
It wasn’t always this way. In 1960, Americans threw away only about 2 million tons of furniture and furnishings. The growth in furniture waste has far exceeded the country’s population growth in the past six decades. Green efforts, like Restoration Hardware’s emphasis on reclaimed wood, or Joybird’s tree-planting initiative, are dwarfed by the rise of “fast furniture”—a term for home-goods companies that manufacture many different styles quickly and cheaply, similar to the way brands like Zara and H&M produce “fast fashion.” But the fashion industry, at least, has started to recognize its sustainability problem. The day of sofa reckoning has yet to dawn.
As with fast fashion, fast furniture’s environmental problems are closely tied to ethical issues: the transfer of domestic manufacturing overseas where companies can pay lower wages. But production changes have also collided with the much-discussed lifestyle of a new and nomadic generation. Perpetual renters with meager savings, millennials—or anyone with low income who moves frequently—understandably opt for cheaper alternatives such as Ikea, where the most cut-rate couch is $149 (“more like a hammock,” one reviewer warns), or Wayfair, the e-commerce giant known for its knockoffs. When it’s time to relocate, it’s often more convenient to toss your decaying armchair or banged-up bookcase and start over from scratch than pay to move a large item to a new home.
Everyone claims to have a solution to our decorative crisis: Consumers should buy less, buy differently, or, in the logic of the fast-growing furniture subscription industry, not buy at all. Sleek websites like Mobley, Fernish, and Feather, which will lend you a stylish couch for a monthly fee, have quickly replaced neon-lit Rent-A-Centers and skeevy Aaron’s storefronts in the minds of many millennials. These companies offer flexibility, convenience, and an aura of sustainability: If you don’t actually own a couch, you can’t throw it away.
But this six-piece sectional-size problem defies easy solutions. “Everything is changing very fast,” Eva Haviarova, an associate professor of wood products at Purdue University, told me. As with so much of modern life, the supply chain for a love seat, ottoman, or coffee table is longer and more complicated than an Ikea self-assembly manual. While many producers tout their eco-conscious cred, shoppers, on the whole, either haven’t been willing or haven’t been able to afford the premium for more sustainable products. Like the rest of “conscious consumerism,” eco-friendly furniture is pitched at the wealthy—a fig leaf, frequently, for an expansive lifestyle with a much larger carbon footprint than that of poorer individuals buying less sustainably. Even those ready to pay a premium are stymied by a near-total lack of transparency, making informed purchases almost impossible. Kicking back on the couch has never been more fraught.