Fast furniture: what’s wrong with it and 7 ways to make better choices (for you and the planet)

Written by – Heidi Bischof and Reposted
Sustainability educator & activist, founder @ Earth Ethic

Sadly, today most of the furniture available to us is cheap, mass-produced and low quality, designed to be disposable, because that’s the kind of society we live in now — one that consumes a lot and throws away a lot, all under the label of ‘convenience’. Everything has to be convenient because we’re so busy. It can’t possibly be any other way.  Life in the fast lane seems to be the modus operandi for most people. We always seem to be rushing around, and usually going for the cheaper and more convenient option. Fast furniture is yet another element of our modern life. It makes sense to buy cheap and fashionable furniture because if we change our minds or see something we like better next week then it’s no biggie (it seems we’ve become as flimsy as our furniture).

What’s so bad about fast furniture?

It doesn’t last. 

A lot of fast furniture is made from particleboard covered in laminate or veneer. If the surface gets damaged it can’t be sanded back and re-painted like solid timber, and if exposed to moisture the particleboard swells and rots. The laminate is also prone to splitting at the seams and peeling away. Furniture made from particle board is unlikely to last more than a few years, especially if it is subject to any wear & tear (including disassembly and reassembly during a move). So while it might seem like a good deal at the time, if we need to buy a new bookshelf or dining table every five years, it adds up (probably to WAY more than what you’d spend on a decent quality piece that would last you decades).

But it’s probably good that it doesn’t last because chances are we’d chuck it out anyway. You could be forgiven for thinking a headline like “These trends are officially so 2018” is out of the latest fashion magazine. But actually it’s from a home décor magazine. So it appears home décor has become akin to fast fashion, and suddenly it’s OK to discard our furniture every two or three years in favour of the latest trend.
According to House Beautiful, simplistic furniture is out for 2019 and art deco is in. But I just finished furnishing my house in ‘simplistic’ furniture — oh, what am I to do now (spoken in my best ‘damsel in distress’ voice)? These types of articles make me SOOOO angry because a: they promote and perpetuate the consumer throw-away culture we’ve fallen prey to and, b: do they really think I give a damn if some random designer happens to decide art deco furniture deserves a comeback? (NO, I DON’T!!!).

It’s over-produced

Fast furniture is produced like it is consumed, in the express lane. Ikea makes 15 Billy bookcases a minute (veneer-covered particle board, by the way) and more than 60 million have been produced. I’m betting most of these are in landfill now. In fact, this bookcase has become so ubiquitous it is now used as an economic index.  Yeh ok, so they’re cheap, but they’re also CHEAP. And do you really want mass-produced furniture that tens of millions of other people also have in their homes?

It’s SOOOO wasteful

Furniture accounts for a HUGE and growing proportion of landfill waste. On average each Sydney, Australia household disposes of around 24kg of wooden furniture per year (comprising about one-third upholstered and two-thirds other wooden furniture). This is the equivalent of 800,000 three-seater sofas or 3.4 MILLION coffee tables, thrown away by Sydney households EVERY YEAR. It also doesn’t help that a lot of furniture is difficult to recycle because it is made of composite materials, e.g. mattresses, sofas, and laminated particleboard.

It uses SOOOO much timber

A lot of furniture is made from wood, whether it is solid or pressed timber like plywood or particleboard. IKEA uses almost 1% of the world’s commercially-harvested wood, which is NOT an insignificant amount! While IKEA aims to source all its wood, paper and cardboard from more sustainable sources by August 2020, the phrase ‘more sustainable’ is a bit vague. And aside from IKEA, many other fast furniture retailers continue to use wood from unsustainable sources.

It’s REALLY toxic

Much fast furniture is made from particleboard, which not only doesn’t last but contains toxic chemicals like formaldehyde. It is also not recyclable or biodegradable due to the plastic laminate coating and the chemical resin binding the wood particles.

Some furniture, particularly beds and sofas, contains quite a chemical cocktail. From dyes, stain repellents, leather-tanning chemicals and flame retardants to polyurethane foam, particleboard, adhesives and lacquer, our furniture can be emitting toxic and carcinogenic VOCs and polluting the air in our home for years! Some of these chemicals are persistent in both the environment and our bodies.

We spend a third of our lives in bed and most of us spend quite a bit on the sofa too, so don’t we want these to be safe and healthy places to be?  Some limited and piecemeal action has been taken around the world to ban certain flame retardant chemicals, but many toxic chemicals still continue to be used in furniture manufacturing.

How I’ve made eco-friendly choices on a budget

I have never allocated a huge budget for furniture but I’ve always chosen the best quality I could afford, so pretty much all our furniture is solid sustainably-sourced timber and some is second-hand.  We have a few second-hand antique items including a hall stand and dining chairs, both solid timber and well-made. We also have some IKEA furniture (more than I care to admit!), including solid pine shelving in our pantry and storage room, a solid timber bookcase, TV unit, and sideboard and nesting plywood coffee table/side table. Our sofa and dining table are fairly basic and pre-owned from friends/family members, as we are planning a major renovation to our house in the near future and didn’t want to buy new or expensive items now when they may not fit into the new space.

And as for our bed? Well, I spent years (actually more like a decade) searching for the perfect bed. After previously owning two futon-style mattresses (which were great at first but became compressed and uncomfortable after 1–2 years), I FINALLY discovered it.

Our bed, which we purchased in 2013, is our single biggest investment in an item of furniture so far. Made by Austrian company Samina, this award-winning ‘sleep system’ is orthopaedically and bioenergetically designed to ensure a restful and regenerative sleep. It is hand-crafted from sustainably-sourced, natural, chemical-free materials and is 100% biodegradable. So while we paid several thousand dollars it has been well and truly worth it, as we know it will last, hasn’t harmed the planet (and won’t in the future).  Plus we don’t want to skimp when it comes to health & well-being.

In reflecting on all our furniture, I have to say the items I love the most are the antiques and our bed, because I know they’ve been hand-made with care, and built to last.  And knowing that our bed was made with natural, organic and sustainable materials, with minimal harm to the planet, and that when it no longer functions it will completely biodegrade rather than taking up space in landfill alongside billions of other beds & mattresses that are filled with particleboard frames, polyfill, and toxic flame retardants, makes me feel REALLY GOOD.

Once we’ve completed our renovation we’ll purchase a high quality, sustainably-made sofa and dining table.

How to ditch fast furniture for smart furniture

If you can’t imagine never setting foot in IKEA again, don’t fret. Having more conscious furniture does not mandate that we never buy another IKEA item, it just requires that we are more mindful if we do. Here are some tips for buying longer-lasting, healthier and more eco-friendly furniture:

  1. Buy fewer items of better quality. As we’ve come to realize a home cluttered with stuff doesn’t really bring us the fulfillment we once thought, there has been a widespread shift toward simplifying our lives. A home with less furniture is more spacious and much easier to clean. And if you buy less furniture, then you can afford to spend a bit more on the stuff you do buy and know that it will go the distance and probably save you money in the long run.
  2. Buy for life. Let’s create family heirlooms again! These don’t have to be dark walnut-stained antiques that require six men to lift, but if you invest in a quality piece of solid furniture that you LOVE, that sees your children from their first words to their first date and beyond, why shouldn’t you want to keep it in your family?

  3. Buy timeless and stylish instead of the latest trend. Choose classic and timeless styles that won’t ever go out of fashion. Explore second-hand and vintage shops where you can find beautiful and quality furniture and pick up some great bargains, or buy upcycled furniture from places like Etsy. Ignore fickle, fleeting trends and discover what YOU like. If you have two left feet when it comes to home décor then hire an interior designer to help you create interior spaces that work from a design perspective but also that you LOVE and won’t be ‘SO last year’ in a week’s time.

  4. Know exactly what you’re after and don’t compromise. Before you buy new furniture first ask yourself if you really need it. And if you do, don’t rush in.  Allow yourself time to first get clear on exactly what you’re after and then find the perfect item,; one that meets all your criteria for size, style, materials, quality, and budget. And if you can’t find it then get it custom-made. As a result of not giving enough thought or patience to previous furniture purchases, I’ve ended up with items that weren’t exactly what I was after and I hence ended up getting rid of. I now have the same rule for furniture as I do for clothing — it needs to be useful and I need to love it.

  5. Seek out furniture companies that use toxic-free and sustainable materials. Some furniture manufacturers, such as IKEA, have been very proactive in phasing out toxic chemicals and moving towards sustainably-sourced materials, but there are also a few new companies appearing on the scene who manufacture truly safe and sustainable furniture. US brands include Stem, Cisco Brothers and Savvy Rest. In Australia, there’s not a lot of choice at this stage but from what I can tell Jardan is a leading manufacturer of sustainable and chemical-free furniture, including sofas. Also, look for 3rd party certification like GECA.
  1. Before you buy, ask yourself where your furniture will end up. Think in terms of recyclability and biodegradability. Choose furniture made from solid materials, like sustainably-sourced timber, metal or glass. Single, not composite, materials make recycling easier at the end of its life, and solid materials are longer lasting, more natural, and less toxic than veneer.

  2. If fast furniture is unavoidable, be selective. While I recommend avoiding cheap, mass-produced furniture as much as possible, being realistic, most of us will purchase cheap furniture at some point in our lives. I don’t believe we need to avoid fast furniture retailers altogether.  Many of us can’t afford designer furniture anyway and just because it’s ‘designer’ doesn’t mean it’s sustainably made. But we can still be discerning about our choices. Avoid cheap and toxic materials like particleboard and choose companies who are taking actions to reduce their environmental impact.

Our planet cannot support our fast furniture obsession. How many millions of Billy bookcases do we think it can assimilate? We need to start caring more about our furniture, about its lifecycle, where its materials came from, where it will end up, and how soon its usefulness will be over.

We also need to value our furniture again, which means we need to slow down and take time:

  • to find furniture we LOVE,
  • to buy it second hand or from someone who took time and care to make it sustainably, and
  • to look after it and to repair it, as needed.

Written by – Heidi Bischof
Edits by – Deborah Nicholson