The rise of fast furniture

Hello everybody! Although I have previously talked about both ways of decorating a home sustainably, and the impact of Ikea, I have more to say on this matter. I recently moved into a house, me and my partner’s first house, that we bought and during the moving process I have been thinking a lot about how to decorate and renovate in a sustainable way, and that has led me to a longer thought process about the shift in my relationship with home décor and now, here we are. In this video I want to talk about fast furniture, the impact of cheap homeware, the impact of big high street clothing brands branching into the homeware sector, I want to talk about how lockdown has affected our homes and how we as consumers can be more conscious when consuming home goods, so let’s get to it.

also, check out: IS IKEA ACTUALLY SUSTAINABLE? // the impact of fast furniture

What is fast furniture?

In a manner similar to that of the fast fashion industry, fast furniture produces cheap products really fast, and just like with fast fashion, the reason why these products are so cheap is that they come at the expense of both the environment and workers making them. In fast fashion, the materials often used are conventional cotton, a fabric that not only requires massive amounts of water to produce, it also requires pesticides and insecticides – the highest amount for a non-food crop actually. There is also polyester, a material derived from fossil fuels that release microplastic once worn or washed. The same materials are abundant in the world of fast furniture but then we also have issues with materials like particleboard. Lots of cheap furniture is made from this, it is compressed sawdust, woodchips, and resin/glue and it is basically impossible to reuse or recycle, and if it breaks it is very difficult to fix. We also see lots of cheap furniture made with wood illegally chopped down from old-growth forests so that’s great. Aaaaand just like with the cheap clothing of the fast fashion industry, fast furniture also maintains an extremely high pace for when products are introduced to consumers – as such there is a constant influx of new and trendy goods, making last week’s drops obsolete. Both these industries are incredibly wasteful and unethical. But what I would like to talk more about is the rise of fast furniture.

Homeware waste

Homeware wasn’t always something that we bought often or replaced throughout the season, these consumer patterns are actually quite new. And with the rise of cheap products being made available to billions of people (like Ikea, but certainly not only Ikea) we have also seen a change in how we consume these products.

In the US 12 million tons of home goods are thrown away each year, this is a 500% increase since the 1960s. And because homeware is often a complex product, involving many different materials, a fraction of it is recycled, and the rest ends up in landfills. Over 9 million tons of glass, fabric, metal, and leather are thrown away each year as well on top of that as well – also from the furniture.

According to Mintel, the furniture sales in 2021 hit a record high of £17.2 billion in the UK last year, of that smaller items and knick-knacks account for about 75% of those sales. These smaller items are typically prone to be discarded quickly. A survey from the British Heart Foundation, from 2019, found that about 30% of Brits have thrown away furniture, electrical items, and homeware goods in good condition. Moreover, a 2020 survey from Barnardo found that 27% of UK adults binned unwanted homeware – that is more than 14 million individual items ending up in landfills annually, and that’s only UK consumers

also, check out: HOW TO DECORATE YOUR HOME SUSTAINABLY // 10 tips for green decor

High street home décor

Fast fashion high street brands like H&M, Zara, Mango, Primark, and countless others have played a central role in the consumer patterns we see in the fashion industry today. Over the span of about 20 years, the production and consumption of clothing have exploded, because these brands are producing these clothes ultra-cheaply in sweatshops, keeping all production costs down. At the same time, these brands have cultivated new consumer patterns by providing a constant flow of new trends and styles, for instance by introducing 50+ seasons – that will have consumers coming back to stay trendy. Overall these brands have built a business model that is dependent on overconsumption, no matter how many leaves they put on the packaging (that doesn’t mean that you can’t wear their clothes in more conscious ways, but the initial production of them won’t ever be conscious). These fast fashion brands have been doing the same to homeware as they have been doing to clothing – the fact that these brands, H&M, Zara, Mango and more are becoming huge players in the home sector is resulting in a massive shift in how home goods are perceived and purchased. Bigger powerhouses like Ikea and H&M have quite different cultural impacts, in my opinion, none of them have a great carbon footprint obviously, but they produce vastly different products and cater to different consumers, or at least to different behaviors and needs. While they are both cheaply priced, cheaply made, and made in sweatshops, Ikea caters to the basic needs of the modern individual (they also have some more out there trendy goods, but the vast majority of their products have this starter-kit energy). The fast fashion stores are doubling down on trends, fast and half-assed so to speak. They are promoting home goods and décor items as a part of a consumer’s stylistic identity, like accessories. And like accessories, they are often bold and short-lived in popularity. And while there is nothing wrong with preferring a bold décor style, the concept of producing new trends day in and day out results in many consumers buying and discarding home goods, just like many consumers discard cheap clothing – it’s not meant to last, it is meant to add to a very current Instagram-friendly aesthetic for a while. And although Ikea can definitely be said to be the mother of fast furniture – they are certaintly not alone now.

I guess what really grinds my gear about these brands is how they take these unsustainable consumer patterns from the fast fashion industry and apply them to homeware as well. While how we live, and what our homes look like have always been an extension of our personality, especially if you’re wealthy. But with social media, there is an expectation that everything utilizes their home as an addition to their personal style, another way of projecting ourselves, and we have fast fashion turned fast furniture brands to thank for this development as well.

Renters’ economy

There is another aspect that I want to add to this analysis as well, and that has to do with renting vs buying. Both Millennials and Gen Z are experiencing a very different real estate market than that of the previous generations, especially baby boomers – and this has an effect on how we consume furniture as well. According to Berkley, 45% of baby boomers were able to buy their first home between the age of 25 and 34, while only 37% of Millennials are able to do the same, the average has been dropping due to several economic disadvantages, including student loans, a housing market still in recovery from the 2008 crash, and increasing costs of living (while these statistics are from the US, we can see these tendencies elsewhere as well). Baby boomers have created a bottleneck housing market, which makes it really hard for younger buyers to get in, then there are also factors like the different preferences for different generations, both in terms of price, size, style, and location. While Millennials are the largest generation, they are only just getting into the housing market, and furthermore, their buying rates are only just increasing now, on average. According to Forbes, Millennials who own homes are more likely to choose vintage and pre-loved options over fast furniture. And while there might be various reasons for this, drawing on my own experiences, I have had to move around a whole lot when I was renting, I know many people have to do that, so having lightweight furniture, or furniture so cheap that it is easier to buy new ones every couple of years feels convenient – and cheaper than hiring a moving company. I used to live in a neighborhood where people who moved out would leave mountains of perfectly good condition furniture by the dumpsters when they left. I am not saying that this is the only reason why fast furniture has become so widespread, but it might reflect some consumer patterns made possible by the furniture/homeware industry.

also, check out: 20 ZERO WASTE MOVING TIPS // sustainable boxes, paints, decluttering and more

The impact of lockdown

Recently, there has been another reason for the boom in fast furniture sales, in home goods in general. During lockdown, where most of us were cooed up in our homes, many consumers started to feel inspired to change things up, because we were home more, we started prioritizing home décor in a different way, and many consumers replaced old furniture, simply just to feel something. This resulted in a significant increase in sales. British furniture retailers reported a boom in sales from 20 to 100% during the lockdown period. But just like with anything else, furniture has an impact, and throwing something away and replacing it with new comes with a large impact. A new couch emits about 90kg of CO2, and if you enjoy that couch for 30 years, that’s no problem, but if we buy new ones often, it’s suddenly a big problem. 

Fast furniture rep

This industry doesn’t seem so keen on having a reputation similar to that of fast fashion, not that all consumers are aware of the impact of the fashion industry of course, but it is generally becoming more widespread knowledge that perhaps a t-shirt shouldn’t cost less than lunch. Anyway, fast fashion seems to generally be a more infamous phenomenon than fast furniture, that’s all. As such many homeware brands are advertising their conscious business models and circular return systems, which is great, it solves a minuscule part of the problem, however these brands, Ikea, Pottery Barn, H&M home, and you know the lot, do not seem to want to change neither the number of products they put out, nor the pace with which they are put out, and as such the very same issues they are trying to “tackle” by promoting a conscious line or a circular repair program, they are also continuously enabling by promoting overconsumption through the continuous influx of new things. But you know, you can play for both teams, right?

If you want to consume home goods more sustainably, here is what you should do

  • Use what you have – improve, repair, or give your old things a facelift rather than buying new
  • Buy vintage, second hand, thrifted or pre-loved (or dumpster dive for things yeehaw)
  • Sometimes, renting certain pieces is an option and that’s pretty cool as well
  • Make something yourself, get your DIY on, especially if you’re curious about a trend, trying to create it yourself rather than buying these short-lived products, is a better way of exploring new styles
  • When you do buy something, take care of it so it can last you a long time
  • If there is something that you don’t have use for anymore, or don’t want, donate it, sell it or give it away to someone else, don’t bin it, for the love of God, never bin it
  • If something breaks, take the materials apart and use them elsewhere
  • Support small business and artists that makes to order or have smaller supply chains and product lines
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