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Slowing the pace of fast furniture

Trend-driven design meets poor quality, unhealthy materials; an ill-considered combination ultimately destined for landfill.

While lockdown measures ask us to embrace a slower pace of life and give us cause to consider the quality of our interior spaces in more detail than ever before, we take a moment to consider the impact of the ‘fast furniture’ phenomenon…

Just like fast fashion, fast furniture is made for a season; this cheap, mass-produced commercial style is designed to be “on trend” encouraging the replacement of items in good condition in response to rapidly changing interiors styles. It is made to be used for a short time, often from poor quality materials like chipboard and the majority will be consigned to landfill within a short time where they struggle to degrade thanks to their plastic coating.

Heirloom furniture

Image: Wall Street Journal


Once upon a time…

In the not-so-distant past, furniture was made and bought to last. Handed down through generations, cherished, repaired and moved from home to home. Dining tables, sofas, chest of drawers and wardrobes became an integral part of family history, witnessing the highs and lows of life along the way, embedded in our fondest memories.

It was a time when we used to place value on our furniture because it had intrinsic value. An investment of time and development of knowledge and experience was imbued within each piece. And it’s that elusive element we connected with and appreciated – the care, time and skill endowed in the end result.

And because we valued it, we looked after it.

Silly Billy

Today, home décor has evolved to follow in the footsteps of the fashion industry with built-in depreciation via trends justifying the compulsion to discard our furniture every two or three years in favour of the latest styles.

The family dresser passed down through generations has become a vanishing commodity in a market transfixed by modern, transient design. We have come to overlook any need for quality furniture in favour of staying on-trend. When furniture used not to be cheap – or fast – a clash of styles in our living rooms as a result of handed-on heirlooms and hand-me-downs mattered less than it did in our wardrobes. Today, a plethora of media will tell you otherwise and remind you that minimalism, maximalism and everything in between is so last year.

Consequently, fast furniture is produced (like it is consumed) in the express lane. An Ikea Billy bookcase is made every three seconds and more than 60 million have been produced (nearly one for every 100 people). In fact, this bookcase has become so ubiquitous it is has been used as an economic index. Accordingly, the Swedish furniture giant has become the unwitting mascot for fast furniture. But with a third of people admitting to throwing away furniture that they could have sold or donated, the cheap furniture boom comes with a heavy environmental price…

The ultimate cost

Fast furniture landfillThroughout its journey from manufacture, through your home and on to disposal, fast furniture doesn’t tread lightly.

It can begin with unsustainable or illegal logging, followed by energy-intensive milling and production in giant factories. The use of composite materials, chemical treatments and plastics is more than likely. And then there are the emissions of global shipping.

And, once at home, this furniture can introduce quite the chemical cocktail. From dyes, Scotchgard, leather-tanning chemicals and flame retardants to polyurethane foam, chipboard, adhesives and lacquer, our furniture can be emitting toxic and carcinogenic volatile organic compounds (compounds that become vapours or gases), polluting the air in our home for years.

Finally, when the time comes to move on, furniture accounts for a huge (and growing) proportion of landfill waste. A situation perpetuated by the manufacture of furniture from the afore-mentioned composite materials such as chipboard (glue-bound wood chips usually laminated with plastic) that are complicated and costly to recycle. Incineration or landfill become the most straightforward means of disposal.

Fast forward…

Library bookcase with secret door and ladder

But there is hope. An industry slow to face its environmental impact is seeing a gradual change in demand.

Carefully considered, well-designed products with proud, environmentally-friendly credentials are emerging as the preferred option to save up for, and invest in, for the long term. And this is key. In order to step out of the fast lane and revisit (one might say) a better quality of life, the furniture on offer has to be more desirable than its fast friends.

Step up bespoke and sustainable brands. Those embracing good design whilst keeping a close eye on their environmental impact. Furniture that has been designed and handmade for a specific space and purpose, made with care and attention to detail, using environmentally friendly finishes alongside sustainably sourced materials.

Furniture that minimises its environmental impact and will last for generations, not seasons.

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Categories:Interiors & Lifestyle