Everyone needs home decor, and if it’s affordable and trendy too, all the better, right? Sure. Fast furniture items from IKEA, Wayfair, and Overstock fill houses around the world and have changed the way customers buy furniture in recent years.
As convenient as this has been for consumers, it’s a disaster for the environment. Fast furniture’s sustainability is virtually nil. It’s time to look at how fast furniture is destroying the environment and what the average consumer can do about it.
What Is Fast Furniture?
Fast furniture, as the name suggests, is furniture and home decor that’s mass-produced quickly and not built to last. Typically made of low-quality materials, such as plastic laminate and chemical resin, products in this category are cheaper and more likely to break than their standard counterparts. They’re also easier for consumers to purchase online, shipped with minimal fees, and put together at home. Because fast furniture is built with low-quality materials, its life cycle is shorter than high-quality furniture and it needs to be replaced more often.
These discarded furnishings end up as waste in landfills and have an environmental impact that lasts decades, if not longer, especially in the case of plastics. Depending on the material, harmful chemicals can leach into the soil and groundwater, where they affect aquatic environments and agriculture.
Also depending on the material is furniture’s ability to biodegrade. Certain materials, such as wood, biodegrade more readily than plastic laminate and chemical resin, but the vast majority of fast furniture is not made from pure wood.
The rise of fast furniture
Fast furniture is a relatively new phenomenon driven by advances in manufacturing techniques and innovations in world supply chains. The speed at which it’s grown has been staggering, with two million tons of furniture being produced in the United States in 1960 and doubling by 1980. It reached 12 million tons by 2018, and fast furniture shows no signs of slowing down. The environmental impact associated with home furnishings has increased accordingly, with an estimated nine million tons of furniture being thrown out in 2018 in the US.
People around the world shop at stores like IKEA for many reasons. From low cost to convenience, fast furniture has no shortage of pros:
- Low cost
- DIY friendly
Despite its benefits, fast furniture has several serious drawbacks that come at significant cost to the environment and even the consumer.
- Natural resources
- Fossil fuels
- Carbon emissions
- Low quality
- Shorter lifespan than class styles
- Limited style options
With such significant downsides, it’s worth digging deeper into specifically how fast furniture affects the environment.
Fast Furniture’s Impact on the Environment
Americans do love their stuff, don’t they? Millions of pieces of mass-produced furniture are thrown out every year, with the Environmental Protection Agency finding that Americans threw out 12 million tons of waste in 2018 alone, with furniture waste being the second-largest driver of this waste. Because furniture is usually made from a combination of materials, it’s difficult to recycle. In the United States alone, furnishings account for 12 million tons of waste. Classic furniture that lasts a long time can easily be donated when users tire of it and want a new look, but since fast furniture breaks easily and doesn’t last, to the landfill it goes. Few people would be unfamiliar with the sight of a sofa or other piece of furniture discarded along the side of the street. That furniture waste needs to go somewhere, and it all ends up in the same place.
Also contributing to waste are the microplastics generated by synthetic textiles and other plastics in furniture. Less than 5 mm in length, these are flooding the oceans and have become part of aquatic food chains. Microplastics contain toxic chemicals—to varying degrees depending on what product the microplastic came from—and absorb new ones as they move through the environment. As they enter waterways they poison and kill fish, reducing their food intake and delaying growth, and they ultimately end up in the human food chain.
One percent of all commercially available wood is used by IKEA in their products, usually as particleboard. To put that into perspective, over 600 tons of wood particleboard are used every day to meet the demand for one of the brand’s more popular bookcases. To make matters worse some of this wood is illegally obtained, purchased from logging firms that flout international logging standards.
Industry-wide, this fuels deforestation, with 18.7 million acres of forest being chopped down every year. While not all of this is for furniture, it does comprise a significant portion of it.
The catastrophic consequences of deforestation are innumerable, from wildlife habitat destruction—leading to extinction in many cases—and soil erosion to mass flooding and climate change.
Because only 0.3% of this furniture ends up recycled, and the rest sits in landfills, it adds to methane gas emissions as it slowly degrades. Wood, an organic material, is the primary driver behind this, with the methane emitted from such landfills absorbing 84 times more heat than carbon dioxide and fueling the worldwide climate crisis. Those numbers are in addition to the carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and other emissions landfills are known to cause.
Research shows that furniture production and waste are some of the largest drivers of carbon emissions, which result from the burning of fossil fuels. The average piece of furniture emits 47kg of carbon dioxide equivalents, which equates to burning over five gallons of gasoline. Sofas are the worst offenders—they emit an average of 90kg of carbon dioxide during production—with 40% of these emissions coming from foams and other fillings.
The shipping of furniture items also contributes to carbon emissions. The world shipping industry is one of the worst contributors to greenhouse gases, and if it were “a country, it would be the sixth-largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions.”
The creation of fast furniture involves a host of chemicals, many of which are proven to be dangerous, both for the environment and human health. Formaldehyde, for example, is found in most pressed woods and adhesives, and is linked to nausea and skin irritation. People exposed to formaldehyde long-term, such as those who manufacture fast furniture, are at an increased risk of developing cancer, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which classifies it as a carcinogen.
Other dangerous chemicals found in furniture:
- Acetaldehyde—a “probable human carcinogen”
- Benzene—a chemical found in dyes and known to cause cancer
- Vinyl acetate—may cause cancer, although it’s currently not categorized as carcinogenic
- Hexabromocyclododecane—a flame retardant that has adverse neurological and developmental effects
Fast Furniture Alternatives
With the impact fast furniture has on the environment, it’s vital to avoid it as much as possible. Minimizing its impact—if not avoiding it completely—and thereby lowering your carbon footprint isn’t as complicated as you might think. Alternative options abound.
Choose long-lasting material
Looking at furniture as a long-term purchase rather than something quick and convenient is the first step you can take. That means avoiding furniture made out of low-quality materials, such as particleboard, that is easily broken and more difficult to repair than furniture made out of more long-lasting materials, like oak or other types of wood.
Avoid plastics and other synthetics as well. These materials harm the environment by releasing carbon emissions and chemicals into the environment. That’s also the case with synthetic fibers like nylon and polyester, both of which are found in fast fashion and furniture. These release microplastics into the environment.
There are fewer environmental consequences with a long-lasting and natural material, making it a more sustainable option. Furniture items made from natural material and renewable resources last longer and need to be replaced less often, which reduces the cyclical damage of fast furniture.
Extend its lifespan
Choosing long-lasting materials isn’t the only way consumers can minimize the impact furniture has. There are more than a few ways to extend an item’s lifespan.
Repair broken pieces instead of immediately replacing them. Not only does this prevent waste and save you money, it also provides income to small businesses and skilled craftspeople who are becoming their own endangered species in the age of online shopping and fast consumerism.
Most furniture can be fixed quite easily and affordably, in some cases even by you! Tears can easily be sewn shut, your sofa can easily be reupholstered. By taking a repair-over-replace mentality, consumers can eliminate a lot of waste.
There comes a point where many people will want to replace their furniture. Throwing it out is far from the only option available—there’s always donating to charities or secondhand stores. Or you could sell it, provided it’s still in good enough shape. Websites such as OfferUp and CraigsList are popular venues for selling used furniture.
If it’s not in good condition and you ultimately can’t donate it to any secondhand stores and you do need to discard it, drop it off at a recycling facility. Some, though perhaps not all, furniture can be recycled, depending on what material it’s made from. Check with your local recycling facility to find out.
Be mindful with purchases
Making sustainable purchases may be the safest way of minimizing fast furniture’s impact on the environment.
Prioritize new furniture that’s likely to last years, if not decades, and ensure any purchases are made from an eco-friendly and sustainably-sourced material. Aim to purchase a new piece of furniture only when needed and try to purchase secondhand pieces.
When you do need to shop for new furniture, choose brands that are certified environmentally friendly (see the certifications I list below).
Being deliberate and careful about your next sofa purchase is one of the easiest ways to ensure you don’t fuel fast furniture’s impact on the environment.
Buy sustainable brands
Perhaps the only sure-fire way to undo fast furniture’s impact on the environment is to choose sustainable alternatives, and you can start by choosing local manufacturers that use sustainably sourced and built furniture. You’ll at least save on shipping costs. If buying local isn’t an option for you, here are some large brands that manufacture eco-friendly furniture:
Make your own furniture
I know, I know, not everyone is Ethan Allen, but hear me out. With a few honed skills and hard work, making your own furniture is hands down the most sustainable way to obtain furniture. Even if it’s a bit wobbly, you’ll enjoy that homemade table, probably cheaper, probably more durable. No chemicals, no shipping emissions, no unsustainably sourced resources.
Some furniture companies, even fast furniture companies, are more environmentally friendly than others and have been certified as such by various programs and organizations. Look for the following certifications to minimize—if not outright eliminate—the impact that the production process has on the planet.
FEMB, better known as the European Federation for Office Furniture Associations, focuses solely on environmentally friendly and sustainability standards within the industry. Founded in 1972 with that goal in mind, it’s since expanded to include companies outside of Europe. Its primary goal is to streamline the accreditation process while developing and maintaining a standard of best practices when manufacturing furniture.
To achieve this certification, which ranges from level 1 to 3, companies must pass a facility inspection and an overall business inspection to ensure they meet environmental standards. This process determines whether companies work in a socially responsible manner and whether they have any health or environmental implications.
Created by the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association—an industry nonprofit—BIFMA level certification develops industry standards and puts sustainability at the forefront of its efforts. Products that pass are rated 1 through 3 based on multiple criteria, with those rated BIFMA Level 1 being the more environmentally friendly options. In addition to eco-friendliness, BIFMA accreditation also takes health impacts into account.
As part of the Underwriters Laboratories Environment division, Greenguard’s programs work to advance manufacturer standards across multiple industries. The standard accreditation focuses on certifying that an item’s production process has minimal carbon emissions.
Then there’s Greenguard Gold, which goes beyond chemical emissions and includes health-based criteria. It certifies that a product emits fewer than 360 volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and is suitable for use in buildings used by vulnerable populations, such as elderly people.
MAS Certified Green
Products containing plastic or metal may be eligible for Materials Analytical Services (MAS) Certified Green certification, provided the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the product are below a maximum threshold. Companies that earn this accreditation combat the risks these compounds can have on people and the environment by ensuring the VOCs don’t enter the environment.
A US-based nonprofit, Green Seal works with American companies to help them earn environmental certifications and focuses on ensuring the manufacturing process has as minimal an impact as possible. Since being founded in 1989, it has developed 33 sets of standards across over 400 types of products. The organization continues to refine and enhance this criteria and encourages manufacturers to maintain compliance with green standards.
Forest Stewardship Council
A leading environmental organization, the Forest Stewardship Council focuses solely on the impact that brands have on forests, as the name implies. Accreditation from the FSC guarantees that companies follow sustainable forest management best practices, with the nonprofit continually updating its standards and working with firms to encourage increased sustainability. IKEA is one company that works with the FSC to minimize its contribution to deforestation.
Fast Furniture Harms the Environment: Wrapping Up
Fast furniture—like its counterpart fast fashion—is actively hurting the environment. The results are in and there are no two ways about it. Fueling this fast furniture problem is consumer demand for convenience and cheaper stuff while sacrificing quality and longevity.
The only way to stop this is to stop fueling fast furniture’s growth. With various alternatives, each boasting multiple benefits beyond being environmentally friendly, fast furniture can be stopped, provided the average consumer—that’s YOU—jumps on board.