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Fast Furniture Continues to Drown Our Planet in Trash

Posted by Elizabeth Burton on

Fast Furniture Continues to Drown Our Planet in Trash

2020 Was a Garbage Year in More Ways than One!

Site visits to retailers in the home furnishings' category saw record high visitation

"Site visits to retailers in the home furnishings' category saw record high visitation numbers in 2020,” Anne Flynn Wear for Furniture Today

2020 has been a breakout year for more than the COVID-19 virus. Anne Flynn Wear writes in an article for Furniture Today that 2020 was a record-breaking year for online home goods sales. Many of these sales easily fall in the “fast furniture” category. We at Living Deep have definitely noticed a sizable increase in fast furniture advertising over the past few months. Wear writes that -- according to Comscore data -- “site visits to retailers in the home furnishings' category saw record high visitation numbers in 2020.” Economic uncertainty across the globe in the early part of the year due to the pandemic has not dissuaded consumers. In fact, online furniture production and purchases rose precipitously in early April. Since then, they have maintained a steady climb through December. Following the month of April, each month this year has outperformed the same months in both 2018 and 2019 -- comparing unique site visits. The initial April spike emerged from the need of many remote workers to upgrade or newly outfit their home offices. The steady increase has likely been bolstered by the fact that -- according to an October 2020 Gallup poll -- almost two-thirds of American workers currently working remotely at home due to the pandemic plan to continue post-pandemic.

Fast Furniture Companies Cash During the Pandemic

Wayfair's shares soared during the COVID-19 pandemic

"Wayfair shares surge[d] 37% as [the coronavirus drove] sales of office furniture and home decor,” "Wayfair shares surge 37% as coronavirus drives sales of office furniture and home decor," Lauren Thomas, CNBC

Unfortunately for the planet -- but not so unfortunately for shareholders -- many of these purchases appear related to fast furniture companies. In fact, in April -- according to Lauren Thomas in an article for CNBC -- “Wayfair shares surge[d] 37% as [the coronavirus drove] sales of office furniture and home decor.” Purchase prices for factory-made, lightweight furniture have plummeted and far outpaced the production and availability of sturdy, eco-friendly furniture. As such, fast furniture stands to dominate the industry for decades to come. Without intervention, our planet will continue to drown in the VOC-emitting cast-offs of our frivolous fast furniture buying. Follow below to learn more about fast furniture. Discussed below will be its impacts on our homes as well as its damaging effects on human health and the health of our planet.

Man-Made Products Now Outweigh the Earth’s Biomass

Manmade stuff now outweighs the biomass of earth

"The amount of new material added every week equals the total weight of Earth’s nearly 8 billion people,” "Human ‘stuff’ now outweighs all life on Earth," Erik Stokstad, Science Magazine

The 11 December episode of NPR’s Science Friday podcast reviewed new evidence that man-made “stuff” now outweighs all biomass on earth. Interviewing Sophia Bushwick, Dankowsky discussed the parameters of the study published by Nature. Shockingly -- notes Erik Stokstad in an article for Science Magazine -- “the amount of new material added every week equals the weight” of all people. Though much of this material does not go straight to landfills -- after all, it must live out its useful life -- much of it will. A heartbreaking example of this is the amount of furniture generated in the US each year and the amount that heads to landfills.

The March 2020 World Happiness Report -- assembled by Christian Krekel Assistant Professor at London School of Economics and George MacKerron Senior Lecturer at the University of Sussex -- assessed data from a recent Gallup poll. The Gallup poll -- entitled “Environmental Attitudes Around the World” -- reported that “when given the choice, 62% of respondents say they would prioritize environmental protection over economic growth.” Why then are Americans and other consumers around the globe still flocking to online quick-ship fast-furniture producers? Is it a lack of education about the harmful effects of synthetic materials and dirty manufacturing? While we might not know the motivation of consumers, Jason F. McLennan sheds light on those of manufacturers and designers releasing fast furniture and other eco-antagonistic products. In his article “The High Ideals of the Living Building Challenge,” McLennan -- the CEO of the International Living Future Institute -- explains that “their products and services, which are harmful both to people and the environment, will lose market share as sustainable design becomes fully mainstream.” As such, by pushing thousands of cheap, immediately available styles of fast furniture -- from sectional sofas to office chairs -- these companies can keep the populace distracted for a little while longer.  

Furniture Production Has Sextupled -- Despite US Pop Only Doubling -- Since 1960

The US contributes over 9 million tons of furniture to landfills each year

"The amount of furniture and furnishings taken to a landfill rose from 7.6 million tons in 2005 to 9.69 million tons in 2015, and the rate of increase is accelerating,” Jeff Andrews in “Nine million tons of furniture go to landfills every year. This company has a better plan" for Curbed LA

The EPA’s brief “Durable Goods: Product-Specific Data” -- which aggregates data from the Department of Commerce -- outlines the amount of furniture and furnishings generated, recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery and landfilled each year from 1960 to 2018. The data presents in tons. While there have certainly been improvements in recycling and repurposing of furnishings and furniture over the years, much still heads to landfills. The data presented by the EPA and Commerce Department notes that 2,150 tons of furniture were produced in 1960. The same amount was landfilled that year.

In 2018, however, 2,400 tons was repurposed or properly disposed of without being sent to a landfill. Sadly, the amount of furniture and furnishings produced has sextupled since 1960, despite the fact that the US population has not even doubled. The US population in 1960 was approximately 179 million while today’s population hovers around 331 million people. Nearly 9.7 million tons of furniture and furnishings were landfilled -- of 12 million tons generated -- in 2018.

The Effects of Fast Furniture Production on Human and Home Health

Emissions from fast furniture can cause health issues

"The types of materials and chemicals used in fast furniture take a toll not only on the environment, but on our bodies as well. Particle board often contains formaldehyde, a carcinogen that can cause health problems when released into the air,” "You’ve Heard of Fast Fashion – What About Fast Furniture?," Brightly.eco

Because fast furniture is often made from lightweight, partially or fully synthetic materials, it can be shipped quickly and cheaply around the globe. This makes the overall purchase price for most units much cheaper than handmade, bespoke or simply naturally-made products. The inclusion of plastics, manufactured woods and other synthetic materials result in cheaper armchairs, desks and dining tables. They also create a number of health and safety issues. During a time in which many of us -- around the world -- are particularly concerned about the air we breathe and the health of the objects we fill our homes with -- the harmful effects of fast furniture have broken into the mainstream consciousness. However, many consumers find themselves caught between affordability and safety, sacrificing one in favor of the other. Unfortunately, the significant negative health impacts posed to individuals, homes and the environment are enough to give anyone pause. Despite this, the effects of fast furniture remain constant threats to home, human and planetary health.

VOC Emissions Exposure Leads to Short-Term and Long-Term Illness

VOC exposure can cause irritated mucus membranes and so much more

"Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors. VOCs are emitted by a wide array of products numbering in the thousands,” "Volatile Organic Compounds' Impact on Indoor Air Quality," EPA

Fast furniture components like synthetic upholstery, particle board, some paints and coatings -- particularly toxic flame retardants -- plastics and manufactured wood are all prone to off-gassing. Off-gassing -- a potentially harmful occurrence -- results from the swift and easily-triggered transition of unstable materials -- VOCs or Volatile Organic Compounds -- from solid to gas. When some chemicals off-gas -- like formaldehyde -- they have dangerous effects. These effects range from mild skin reactions to cognitive issues and caners in extreme cases after prolonged or intensive exposure.

In her article “What You Need to Know About Off-Gassing” for Architectural Digest, Audrey Gray explains the insidiousness of off-gassing in poorly-made furniture. She quotes the executive director of the Sustainable Furnishings Council Susan Inglis in her article. Gray writes that “harmful chemicals [in some furniture] are persistent and linked directly to health problems, and we can keep using them forever!” Gray notes that antique and vintage items -- aside from those made of plastics like vinyl -- as well as eco-friendly, responsibly-made furniture are the best choices when it comes to avoiding the effects of VOC off gassing. To this end, “one of the best arguments for incorporating vintage pieces in design...is that they are far safer from an off-gassing perspective.”

This is also true of recycled building and furniture materials, as -- even if they employed materials prone to off-gassing -- this lifecycle has likely expired. The best choice consumers can make to avoid VOC off gassing, however, is to use “solid wood instead of composite furniture.” Second best is “sourcing fabrics without chemical stain repellents." Third is "making it a practice to add recycled or vintage pieces (which off-gassed long ago) to a design plan.”

Fast Furniture Poses a Direct Physical Danger

Fast furniture is rarely as sturdy as solid wood furniture

"There have been 186 reports of Malm dressers tipping; 91 of them resulted in injuries. In addition, there have been 113 reports of other dressers tipping, 53 of them causing injuries. In all, eight children have died from injuries from recalled dressers since 1989, according to IKEA." "Eighth child death from fallen IKEA dresser prompts recall reminder," Debra Goldschmidt, CNN

 

In her article for AD, Gray writes of those especially at risk of severe impacts from exposure to VOC off gassing. The most at risk are “babies and school-age children, whose physiological systems are still in development.” Sadly, these appear to be the people most at risk of physical injury when using fast furniture. Unlike traditional furniture constructed from sturdy, natural materials, fast furniture is often constructed -- as mentioned above -- from lightweight, manufactured materials like MDF. This is why many fast furniture items -- e.g. bookcases, armoires and plant stands -- come with wall fasteners. Unfortunately, many fast furniture pieces are sold without these safety considerations. They leave the consumer to determine who can safely use the product without sustaining injury. This painful reality has perhaps been no clearer than in the recent lawsuits against affordable Swedish furniture giant IKEA.

In a 2017 article for CNN, writer Debra Goldschmidt reported eight child deaths from tipped Malm dressers -- a style designed and produced by IKEA. Several of these deaths resulted from the child being pinned after the “three-drawer chest that was not fastened to the wall” tipped over. In addition to these deaths -- as of 2017 -- “there ha[d] been 186 reports of Malm dressers tipping; 91 of them resulted in injuries.” On top of this startling number, there had also been “113 reports of other dressers tipping, 53 of them causing injuries.”

The Long-Lasting Impacts of Fast Furniture on the Health of Our Planet

Just like fast fashion, fast furniture is made for a season

"Just like fast fashion, fast furniture is made for a season. It is made to be used for a short time and then moved on so you can bring a new chair into your home, one that is 'on trend,’” "What the Heck is Fast Furniture and Why Does it Matter?," Dr. Helen Edwards, Helen Edwards Writes

Eleanor Cummins outlines its impacts on the health of our planet in her article “Fast Furniture Is an Environmental Fiasco” for The New Republic. Cummins writes that while “the fashion industry...has started to recognize its sustainability problem...the day of sofa reckoning has yet to dawn.” The mass cast-off of fast furniture into landfills negatively affects the environment -- including the diminishment of overall habitability. It also harms our planet throughout manufacturing and delivery. Even worse -- perhaps -- are the inhuman circumstances -- e.g. low wages, horrible working conditions, etc. -- under which fast furniture is produced around the world. Cummins writes that “furniture prices have dropped considerably in the last two decades compared to prices of other consumer goods." This is in "thanks to cheaper materials, economies of scale, and low wages earned by workers abroad.” These lower prices reduce the likelihood that Americans will take care of their furniture and choose quality furniture in the first place. We have been trained -- writes Cummins -- to believe “a five-piece sofa collection [costs] $1,299…[even though quality] materials cost more than that.”

In coming years, more and more fast furniture will be produced through harmful processes. These may include mass deforestation, unethical labor practices and high-emission production. Fast furniture pieces will also continue to and gather in landfills, devastating our environment further. We might place the blame on consumers -- for repeatedly choosing cheaper yet more dangerous and less healthy furniture. However, many argue that the onus should be on governments and companies. Many hope that government intervention, company transparency and public pressure will lead to the decline of fast furniture. Above all, we at Living Deep -- and so many like-minded others -- hope that ethically-produced, thoughtfully-designed furniture -- created to last a lifetime -- will become the norm once more.


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