From the chemicals to the lifespan to the landfill, it suffers many of the same problems as fast fashion.
Kate Wagner, AKA @mcmansionhell, writes in Curbed about buying furniture on a budget from the usual suspects, and wonders, "Even if our budgets don’t allow for much choice, is buying from these places the ethical thing to do? And if not, what are our alternatives?"
She lists all the usual problems with what she calls "fast furniture," a clever phrase I had never heard before. TreeHugger Katherine talks a lot about the problems with fast fashion, and many of the same ones (waste, short lifespan, toxic materials) apply here. Wagner explains why people used to keep their slow furniture forever: it was expensive and was built to last.
And those sofas did last forever. Even in the 1990s, I remember my parents explaining that furniture was an investment. They redecorated in the early aughts with that mindset, reupholstering their old furniture instead of buying new. My parents didn’t buy new furniture until I was halfway through college.
Unfortunately, a lot of those pieces are big and heavy. It costs more to hire a mover than it does to buy a new flatpack sofa from IKEA. They are also often "brown" - heavy, old-fashioned styles that nobody wants, and too big for modern apartments and smaller rooms.
Wagner also notes some of the benefits of buying second-hand, the TreeHugger favourite choice: "It’s better for people to give a distressed paint job to old dressers than to throw them out. Buying used furniture is generally not only cheaper, but it also keeps trees in the ground and stuff out of the landfill."
But there are other reasons to buy second-hand; TreeHugger Katherine listed a few in Why we love second-hand furniture, including that if it has lasted this long,
It is probably high quality stuff.
Because a piece of furniture is second-hand, it has already survived the test of time. Really good furniture should last for decades, even a century or more.
It is more community-oriented.
Kate Wagner notes that many of the companies selling fast furniture have ethical issues. It is often a different story with second-hand furniture, as Katherine notes:
Some people might protest that buying second-hand disadvantages local business owners, but I think that buying second-hand is simply another way to support a local economy. The folks selling their stuff online are ordinary individuals hoping to make some money or declutter their homes. Many second-hand stores are privately owned or run by charitable organizations that give back to the community. Any refinishing or reupholstering work that needs to be done will likely be done by a local craftsperson.
But I have always bought used furniture because it is usually healthier. It is made from solid wood rather than particle board and any outgassing of volatile organic compounds from its manufacture or finishing happened years ago. Upholstery may predate the use of urethane foams that are full of flame retardants or anti-stain products full of PFCs.
Buying vintage isn't totally problem-free; I have a pile of broken Eames chairs where the rubber pucks dried out, and people today are heavier than they were 50 years ago, which has been hard on my vintage dining room chairs. You should probably keep away from old painted furniture unless you are willing to test the paint for lead.
But buying used furniture is still generally cheaper, the stuff is usually better quality, and it is probably keeping your bucks in your community. Let's add Slow Furniture to our long list of Slow movements.