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Fast Furniture Is an Environmental Fiasco

Furniture waste has grown appallingly in recent decades. So have shipping emissions.

Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

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.

The title of Mike Birbiglia’s latest stand-up special, “The New One,” technically refers to having a baby. But the show begins and ends with an equally important addition to the comedian’s family: his couch. In his mid-twenties, Birbiglia tells his audience, he’d finally had enough with sitting on “garbage” hauled in from the sidewalk and decided to buy a real sofa. Then he got to the department store: “I was like, ‘Wait. How much is it? A thousand dollars? Is there going to be a sale? This is the sale? Do you think you might go out of business at some point? You are going out of business?’”

The bizarre truth is that, while a $1,000 sofa remains aspirational for many Americans today, furniture prices have dropped considerably in the last two decades compared to prices of other consumer goods, thanks to cheaper materials, economies of scale, and low wages earned by workers abroad. Thirty years ago, states like Michigan and North Carolina were powerhouses of domestic furniture production. While furniture was expensive, the price of a given piece had a direct connection to the quality of materials and techniques used to fabricate it; the expense was relatively transparent.

Globalization changed that. When Chinese companies began manufacturing furniture for global consumption, Edgar Blazona of BenchMade Modern, a custom furniture company with a Los Angeles–based factory, told Curbed in 2017, “they started training us Americans to believe that you can buy a five-piece sofa collection for $1,299. The materials cost more than that.”

To ensure the price stays right, manufacturers have left the United States and often downgraded their materials. Except for some custom cabinetry in the American Midwest, Haviarova said, “most of the furniture you see here is probably produced somewhere else” to cut costs, with all the murky ethical issues that implies: In developed nations like the U.S., skilled laborers earn about $35 an hour. In China, the rate is closer to $5 an hour. “In Vietnam, it’s half of that,” Haviarova said.

The international supply chain has also increased the distance between the factory and your living room floor. To reduce shipping costs, companies like Ikea have pioneered the use of lightweight materials like particleboard—a filler material that is to the woodworking industry what pink slime is to the meat industry. They’ve also adopted “flat-pack” strategies that simplify shipping and off-load assembly onto the consumer. But even the most efficient supply chain can’t compensate for sheer miles traveled: Transporting both raw materials and finished products around the world significantly increases furniture’s carbon footprint.

It’s tempting to tell people to “invest” in better furniture, with the promise it will pay for itself over time. But as many American environmentalists have started to realize, berating individual consumers for their choices, when their choices are so frequently constrained by the broader industry’s decisions, isn’t the best path to the fast, thorough change the climate crisis requires. As Haley Mlotek argued at The New Republic in December when writing about fast fashion, smarter shopping is only one piece of the puzzle; the other is “demanding that corporations change their business practices.”

In a better world, manufacturers would appropriately price the design of their product, taking into account the life cycle of materials and the durability of furniture. More importantly, and maybe more practically, they would validate (or be regulated into validating) the promised life span of their products—something that would allow consumers to make informed choices about price on their own. Ideally, such radical transparency would also encourage companies to sell stronger furniture in the first place. Right now, Haviarova said, “testing is seldom done, because it is not obligatory in many categories of furniture, and also it is adding cost to the product.”

Companies would also take more responsibility for their furniture after it leaves the warehouse. Jay Reno, the founder of the subscription furniture company Feather, said that his team is using simple strategies to dramatically extend the life span of its products, like an 11-step cleaning process. “We want this thing to last, we want to be able to get it back, to clean it and refurbish it, to generate revenue on it,” he told me. In some parts of Europe, companies like Ikea have piloted repair and recycling efforts, helping customers to fix a cracked shelf in a bookcase or recycle their old mattresses. But such programs are hard to come by in the U.S. To make furniture more fixable, Reno said, companies would also need to prioritize items made of component parts. That way, when something breaks, the owner can simply replace a table leg or couch cushion, instead of throwing the whole thing out.

For people who can afford it, buying locally offers an immediately more sustainable option. While regional woodworkers can’t compete with import prices, they tend to over-deliver on quality. That’s because local producers often eschew low-quality composites in favor of regional hardwoods, which are often a “certified sustainable resource in America,” Haviarova said. “Globally, we are going through deforestation, but it is happening mainly in tropical areas of the world. If you are getting furniture made from U.S. hardwoods, you are safe.”

More than anything, what consumers need is transparency. For a typical piece of furniture today, “that supply chain is so long, you don’t really know who produced that piece,” Haviarova told me. At Purdue, Haviarova evaluates a product’s environmental impact at every stage, from harvesting raw materials to your living room to the landfill. With her online life-cycle assessment tool, she’s working to make these calculations available to the masses. But these after-the-fact approaches are, by nature, suboptimal. For real change, the industry itself will need to help do the hard work of evaluating the true costs of fast furniture and sharing that information with consumers.

Many furniture companies have already invested in sustainability where it’s suited them, but changing the industry in a more sweeping and lasting way won’t be easy. Fortunately, the process, which so often begins with public awareness, is already underway: The problem of “fast furniture” was all but invisible just 18 months ago, Reno said. Now, it has started to pop up in news outlets and environmentalist agendas around the world.

The next step—regulation—will be harder, but there’s precedent for radical change even in the industry. Formaldehyde, a carcinogen, until recently was a common component of wood products from laminate flooring to particleboard tables, especially those imported from China. But in 2010, Congress passed a law to regulate these emissions. After five years of fighting over the gritty details, the EPA finally released its compliance standards in 2015, making the formaldehyde rules a reality. Reducing furniture waste could be just one or two laws away.