At Dalhousie University’s School for Resource and Environmental Studies, Tony Walker studies how companies and consumers can more efficiently use earth’s precious, finite resources. Single-use water bottles are a particular concern. “Bans often sound like they will be really successful,” he says. “Often times, it’s more important to educate people about the effects of their choices. When people know the consequences, they often make better decisions.”
From his personal life, however, he knows how hard it can be to maintain strict sustainable principles during the COVID-19 lockdown. Stuck at home, lonely and fretting about the future, many of us are looking for diversions. Sometimes simple things suffice, such as baking more scones and sourdough than is possible to eat. But it can also mean scanning the living room, getting bored of seeing the same old sofa and chairs, and deciding to go on an online shopping spree. “Just last week, my wife got the bug to replace some furniture,” Walker says. “Of course, I didn’t want her to do that. So she did it anyway.”
What’s wrong with a splurge to change a room (other than the risks of racking up big credit card bills as the economy slides into the abyss)? Potentially nothing. “Intergenerational furniture – the kind of thing you plan to pass to your grandkids – is fantastic,” Walker says. “Unfortunately, many things are simply not built to last. And as with anything we affix with the word “fast” – fast food, fast fashion and now the term fast furniture – there’s an over-exploitation of resources, precious minerals, metals, forestry products, to make the product. And then you’ve got another issue at the end of life. Most of it just gets thrown out.”
Canada doesn’t track the amount of furniture that ends up in landfills. But in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency says that approximately 9.7 billion pounds of furniture, from couches to credenzas, are sent to junkyards every year – roughly the same amount as clothing, and a 38-per-cent increase from 2005. “Even if some of the furniture is recycled, recycling takes a lot energy,” Walker says. “Not that recycling is always possible anyway. The glues that go into fast furniture can make such pieces hard to separate into reusable parts.”
Montana Labelle, a Toronto-based interior designer, understands the urge to update a space right now. “I’m shopping online all the time,” she says. That doesn’t mean she’s spending mad bills at Pottery Barn and Wayfair. “My favourite is vintage,” she says. “I love looking for incredible treasures that have already stood the test of time. I recently found my own 1960s, Mario Bellini sofa on Facebook Marketplace. It’s 60-odd years old and still looks amazing. I don’t think I could say the same in 60 years for something from CB2.”
To Labelle, a benefit of looking for unique one-offs is that you’ll end up with things that aren’t "in 75 other people’s Instagrams,” she says.
Another benefit of buying a solid piece of vintage is that even if it’s not your ultimate dream addition, you still have something well-made and durable that has survived many moves, and can typically be moved on to someone else. Conversely, one big problem with ordering fast, low-quality furniture online is that the pieces can arrive damaged, and damaged pieces tend to be thrown out by their manufacturers, simply because it’s the cheapest, easiest option.
“The industry average of items damaged in transit is somewhere around three to five per cent,” says Duncan Blair, director of marketing of Article, an online furniture retailer that has seen a strong demand of late, especially for home office products. “Obviously, that’s not good for customer experience. But there’s also a huge environmental cost of delivering, removing and replacing damaged items.”
Article, which does not like being called fast furniture – “We deliver quickly but also obsess about quality,” says Blair – has reduced its damage rate to below half of one per cent. The company tries to be more sustainable by offering as many replacement parts as possible, so that instead of having to deliver a whole new chair, they might just replace a wonky leg or cushion. “I’d say on balance that helps with customer retention,” Blair says. “But unfortunately there’s sometimes a cultural expectation that the pinnacle in customer care would be to simply send a whole, brand new item.”
Maia Roffey, owner and principal designer of Black Sheep Interior Design, suggests that one way homeowners can focus their furniture shopping is to identify little spruce-ups. “Fast furniture is sometimes fine for accents,” Roffey says. For example, now is a great time to refresh a credenza you already have by buying new hardware. But beware that smaller does not necessarily equal more sustainable, especially if the item is made of plastic and tossed out quickly. The potential plus is that compared to larger purchases that tend to be sat on, eaten at, pawed over and used often, something that’s mainly visually won’t pill, breakdown or tear as quickly.
For homeowners eager to do a revamp, Roffey offers 30-minute e-design sessions for $100 (with $50 from the fee going to a charity for at-risk youth called Eva’s Initiatives). Recently, a client bought a sofa from CB2. “It wasn’t good quality and had to be shipped back,” she says. “Upholstered items are generally not something to skimp on. Cheap ones always fall apart. And they are next to impossible to buy online. I always recommend sit-testing a sofa before buying it.”
Not all fast furniture is verboten. According to Roffey, “IKEA makes the best carcasses, the best bones in terms of big-box kitchens and storage,” she says. Although she recommends upscaling any IKEA cabinetry with custom doors and counters (“some of their doors are particularly good at showing finger smudges,” she says), the basic frames are highly durable – a smart way cash-strapped homeowners can save money. Plus, the structures are fabricated from fibreboard. Though the material is often derided because it’s not solid wood, it’s relatively sustainable as it is composed of the bits and pieces of wood and sawdust left over from other industrial processes, remnants that would otherwise end up in the garbage.
Even Dalhousie’s Walker is impressed with aspects of IKEA’s operations, particularly because the Swedish company has committed to being a so-called circular business over the next 10 years. By 2030, IKEA intends to produce no waste, reincorporating as many materials as possible throughout its supply chain and offering programs for customers to return old items to be reused rather than simply tossing them out.
“If IKEA can do it and still make a profit then I’m sure other players in the marketplace can do the same,” Walker says. “Until then, I think as consumers, we also have a choice. We can buy things that are more sustainable. Or we go with the absolute cheapest product. But it will probably be made with not very nice materials, with very little environmental oversight, and last longer in the landfill than it did in our homes.”