Fast furniture is like fast food or fast fashion; here's why you should go slow and how you do it.
Reading Kate Wagner's article in Curbed on buying furniture on a budget, I liked the term she used, "fast furniture", to describe the stuff from IKEA, Wayfair and Amazon. In response I wrote about some of the benefits of "slow furniture", the stuff we buy used or inherit, which TreeHugger's Katherine Martinko had listed in her post Why we love second-hand furniture, but wondered about the etymology of the phrase "fast furniture"- who else is talking about it?
The earliest use I could find was by Jenny Morrill in MindBodyGreen in 2016, in Why Fast Furniture Is Harmful + What To Buy Instead. She wrote:
It’s a fast-paced world out there. Fast food, fast fashion—it seems like all aspects of our lives have been pushed into the fast lane and not always for the best. And now we are squarely in the age of “fast furniture,” characterized by the bounty of cheap, flimsy, and disposable furnishing options on the market. Unlike the furniture of our grandparents, furniture today is often not made to last generations (let alone an apartment move). As a result, furniture is taking its toll on the planet, and our wallets.
She starts with the problems with fast furniture, covering much of the ground Wagner and TreeHugger have covered, including
It's poorly made. "Fast furniture is often made of cheap materials like particle boards that are not meant to weather the age."
It's tainted with toxins – we have mentioned the formaldehyde. There are some boards that are formaldehyde free and it is becoming more common.
It requires a ton of energy to make. "From making the resins that bind particle board to building the boards themselves, particle board production has an extremely high energy cost."
This is one that I had never heard before, and I was not certain it was actually true, so I looked into it and found a Lifecycle inventory of particleboard in terms of resources, emissions, energy and carbon (PDF here) by James Wilson of Oregon State University in 2009. Although the process of making the stuff involves a lot of steps, you could argue this point about it using a ton of energy. For one thing, it is using a waste resource that would otherwise be burned or landfilled, releasing CO2. Wilson found that "Particleboard has favorable characteristics in terms of energy use and carbon store. Of significance for the LCI of particleboard is the large component of embodied energy because of the use of wood fuel, a renewable resource, and its small carbon footprint, which lessens its impact on climate change."
Wilson's LCI doesn't take into account how long Particleboard furniture lasts, but it doesn't last long. According to Morrill, "In 2012 alone, 11.5 millions tons of furniture were added to our landfills. According to a calculation from the EPA, this furniture produced 32.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide."
So what should we do instead?
Here, Morrill has a mixed bag of suggestions. Her first is to buy furniture made from whole materials, including solid wood, which she says "may cost more up front, the resale value is substantially higher down the line."
The problem here is the provenance of the wood. Much of the solid wood furniture sold today is made in China, and much of the hardwoods are illegally cut. The market for furniture grade wood has led to massive deforestation in Myanmar and other Asian, African and South American countries. You can try to use resources like the Good Wood Guide, but it is tough, and they keep changing the names of the woods to confuse the buyer.
Basically, you should avoid solid wood furniture unless the wood is certified with a reputable label.
Buy less and go slow
Then Morrill gets back into TreeHugger territory with Fewer pieces, but ones that are higher in quality. Be a minimalist and use mom's cast-offs until you find something that you really like. She takes months to find exactly what she is looking for; I took thirty years to find dining room chairs that I thought were right.
And of course, buy used furniture. "Estate sales, flea markets, and secondhand stores can be treasure troves of quality, previously owned furniture." These days, one can add online auction sites as well.
It holds its value better
Used furniture holds its value much better than new as well, or even gains in value if you catch the trends; when I downsized I had to sell some classic mid-century modern furniture that I had bought for a few hundred dollars; it had all become so trendy that I received many times what I paid for it.
It can take a beating
That patina of age hides a lot. Since our kids were born we have eaten every meal on our dining room table, a big old 50s office boardroom table. It has been dented, banged, burned and chipped but it still looks good. The leather top of my desk has 50 year old cigarette burns. It all adds character and history. I wouldn't change anything about them.
But be careful
Upholstered furniture can hide bedbugs. Urethane foam cushions dry out and crumble and spill their guts of brominated flame retardants. Paints can contain lead. Scotchguard stainproofing was popular and sheds PFAS.