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FAST FURNITURE Cheap, stylish and clogging American landfills

 

By Debra Kamin

The New York Times

Americans bought piles of furniture during the pandemic, with sales on desks, chairs and patio equipment jumping by more than $4 billion from 2019 to 2021, according to a market data company. And a lot of it won’t survive the decade.

Fast furniture, which is mass-produced and relatively inexpensive, is easy to obtain and then abandon. Like fast fashion, in which retailers such as Shein and Zara produce loads of cheap, trendy clothing that’s made to be discarded after only a few wears, fast furniture is for those looking to hookup but not settle down. It’s the one-season fling of furnishings.

Many of the Ikea beds and Wayfair desks bought during the COVID-19 lockdown were designed to last about five years, said Deana McDonagh, a professor of industrial design at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. “I relate to fast furniture like I do to fast food,” McDonagh said. “It’s empty of culture, and it’s not carrying any history with it.”

Ikea of Sweden said in a statement that “life span estimation may vary” for its furniture, and customers are encouraged to repair, resell or return products they can no longer use. Wayfair said through a spokesperson that “we sell an extensive range of furniture products across all styles and price points,” adding that some are meant to “last for generations as well as furniture that meets customer needs for affordability.”

Increasingly, renters and homeowners are opting for fast and cheap, or as Amber Dunford, style director at Overstock.com, defines it, “furniture where the human hand is missing.” And they don’t keep it long. Each year, Americans throw out more than 12 million tons of furniture, creating mountains of solid waste that have grown 450% since 1960, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Bits of tossed furniture can be recycled, but the vast majority ends up in landfills.

“It’s quite a big problem, both spatially and also because of the way a lot of fast furniture is made now, it’s not just wood and metal. The materials don’t biodegrade or break down,” said Ashlee Piper, a sustainability expert and author. “We’re creating this Leviathan problem at landfills with the furniture that we get rid of.”

The e-commerce furniture market alone was worth more than $27 billion in 2021, and projected to reach more than $40 billion by 2030, according to a report from Next Move Strategy Consulting. Ikea is opening an average of 50 new locations per year; Amazon, the world’s largest retailer, now has two privatelabel furniture brands, the midcentury-modern Rivet and the more farmhousechic Stone & Beam.

For all of its flaws, fast furniture offers millions of homeowners the opportunity to live in a stylish home at an affordable price point. As young people contend with skyrocketing housing prices and economic anxiety, even those who would prefer to browse antique markets or shop for custom pieces simply don’t have the resources to do so.

Sebastien Long founded Lodgeur, which rents shortterm furnished apartments in Texas, in 2019. He does the design for the apartments in-house, and relies almost exclusively on retailers such as Wayfair, Target, West Elm and CB2.

“We do this because of fast turnaround times required on many of our projects, but also because we’re able to create stylish and comfortable apartments,” he said. The durability of the furniture doesn’t concern him much, he added, because of his business model. “Fast furniture is more likely to get damaged when you move it around in a U-Haul,” he said. “That’s why we leave it inside the apartment and instead move people in and out.”

But even for those who swore they would never bring low-end furniture in their homes, necessity can be the mother of exception. During the pandemic, Georgia Zikas, owner of Georgia Zikas Design, worked with a client in New Jersey, furnishing and decorating a multimillion-dollar house that would be used as their second home. They closed in November 2020 and wanted to be able to use the backyard pool by spring, but global production and shipping bottlenecks meant that custom-made furniture pieces were delayed by months.

“They had a deadline,” Zikas said. “So I went to one of my designers and was like: ‘What can we have in eight weeks?’” The entire home was outfitted with ready-toship pieces from Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel and Ethan Allen, vendors that have higher price points, use higher-quality materials and all have sustainability pledges. But environmentalists like Piper still consider them fast furniture because their pieces are mass produced. It was a choice, said Zikas, that a few years ago might have surprised her. But since the pandemic, and its ripple effect on the global supply chain, all bets are off.

“It’s definitely affecting where we’re shopping,” she said.

Sometimes, however, homeowners have a change of heart. Doug Greene, 34, bought a 200-year-old row house in Philadelphia five years ago, and after doing a gut renovation, found he didn’t want to bring massproduced furniture into a space he had so painstakingly restored. So he taught himself how to make furniture, and he and his girlfriend, Ashley Hauza, now have a home where he handcrafted nearly every stick of furniture from solid wood. There’s a western red cedar waterfall bench. There’s a white oak bed frame with a hand-cut bridle joint.

“It’s all much more solid pieces of furniture than anything I could have picked up from a store on a shelf,” he said. “I used to pick up an Ikea desk every time I switched apartments. I just thought that was the way people did it. I now have a much greater appreciation for creativity and design.”

Over the past decade, a number of sustainability-focused companies have entered the market.

Kaiyo, an online marketplace for pre-owned furniture, was founded in 2014 and says it has since kept more than 3.5 million pounds of furniture out of landfills. Those with furniture to unload can offer it to Kaiyo, and if the company accepts — Alpay Koralturk, the CEO, said the company purchases about half of the pieces offered to them — it will get picked up for free and the seller will get a check. Buyers can shop the online marketplace, and know that items shown online are always in stock.

“Everyone has a ton of furniture. Few products are as ubiquitous,” Koralturk said. “I was trying to imagine what the 21st century solution should be.”

Fernish, a rental furniture subscription service, allows customers to pay month-to-month for items from brands like Crate & Barrel, always with the option to buy outright. The service says it has saved more than 1 million pounds of furniture from landfills.

“We recognize that furniture is generally an unrecyclable good,” said Michael Barlow, Fernish’s CEO. “The way to give it a second life is to put very quality product into circulation in the first place, and build a supply chain,” he said. “The demographic that we’re built for is people in their 20s and 30s.”

Big retailers, facing pressure from customers and environmentalists, are also saying they will do better.

Wayfair, which saw sales deflate this summer after a pandemic boom, pledged in its most recent corporate responsibility report to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — mainly created by the production and shipment of its products — by 63% by 2035.

“We don’t claim to have everything figured out, but we’re working to address big problems and set strategies with an approach that’s true to Wayfair,” founders Niraj Shah and Steve Conine wrote in the report.

And Ikea has laid out bold climate goals in its sustainability strategy, vowing to become fully circular — using only recycled or renewable materials, and creating zero waste — by 2030.

“Keeping prices low is a cornerstone of our business,” Ikea of Sweden said in a statement. “But this must never come at the expense of people and the environment.”

 

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