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.