Author: Megan Friedrich
ABSTRACT: Fast furniture has become one of the most flawed retail practices over the past sixty years. Today, furniture companies reach for cheap disposable materials instead of resilient and sustainable choices. Money-driven corporations such as Ikea, Structube, Pottery Barn, and so forth have proven time and again that they care more about profit than their impact on the environment. Fast furniture has been proven to have several negative impacts on the environment, including, overproducing carbon, destroying forests, and creating waste.
Fast furniture can be determined by a furniture manufacturer choosing cheap, poor quality production practices and materials, ignoring sustainable and ethical production practices. The overproduction of cheap, accessible furniture leads people to over-consume and disregard any value in the item (Cummins). Fast furniture companies are responsible for producing and selling cheap, temporary pieces of furniture, which results in Americans alone producing more than twelve million tons of furniture waste annually (Delgado). The problem, however, is not just the consumer’s fault, it can be difficult for a lot of people to resist the affordable price tag and trendy design that comes with fast furniture. Additionally, since little investment is put into producing these pieces of furniture, they are not built to last and tend to have a very short lifespan. When the item breaks, it’s easier and cheaper for the consumer to simply throw the object away and purchase another, than to attempt to fix it. Another issue that prevents consumers from seeing the disastrous true colours of fast furniture is greenwashing marketing techniques. Greenwashing is performative activism. It occurs when a brand uses a false identity to portray its production practices. They do this by providing consumers with misleading information, tricky word choices, and marketing to falsely convey that the company is environmentally friendly and mindful of their consumption and impact (Kenton).
Fast furniture and its damaging manufacturing effects are responsible for negatively impacting the climate, producing chemical toxicity, waste, deforestation, and so much more (Research Gate). Instead of manufacturers appropriately assessing the value and longevity of products and materials, companies go as far to innovate new materials to lower production, labour, and shipping costs. A great example of this is particleboard. Particleboard is formed from pressed resin and wood chips. This product was popularized when companies began producing overseas, and they desired cheaper, lighter shipping materials (Science Direct). There are endless issues that impact both us and the environment in this single product. To begin, in order to produce particleboard, an abundance of energy is required, which produces carbon. For those who work with producing particleboard, respiratory issues are common, as the resin and dust produced contain carcinogens. Due to its lightweight nature, particleboard is not durable and is easily broken. (Maier). This leads people to throw away damaged furniture instead of restoring it, simply because they do not see much value in the item.
The attitude towards fast furniture, and items in general, is why we have such a large issue with waste management and disposal. As previously mentioned, Americans were responsible for producing twelve tons of furniture waste in a year, where if you compare to the 1960s, two tons of furniture waste was produced (Delgado). The reason why an increase in waste occurred is the development of cheap, basically disposable furniture. Prior to this, people placed a high value on furniture items. Furniture was seen as an investment, rather than a fast-paced design trend (March). In antique furniture, you can often see high-quality materials, timeless designs, handcrafted solid wood, displaying more value. Slow furniture does still exist, however, people are often turned off by the price, because they have become accustomed to impossibly low and unethical standards. The Environmental Protection Agency conducted a study from 1960 to 2018 to determine the increase in furniture waste and production that has occurred over the years. As you can see, there is a drastic increase in furniture production, as well as furniture waste. Not nearly enough materials are being salvaged and reused, as the recycling category is alarmingly low. This manufacturing process has the world stuck in a cycle of taking more than we need, then tossing it away and taking more than the earth can provide us.
The issues of fast furniture, unfortunately, go beyond cheap materials and waste. Deforestation is one of the most prominent issues in producing fast furniture. Next to burning fossil fuels, deforestation is one of the largest contributors to climate change. Forests are essential in fighting climate change. In one year, forests absorb over two billion tons of carbon dioxide, however, if more forests keep rapidly disappearing, so will this benefit (Maier). It is very difficult for consumers to become aware of the impact deforestation has because most companies source their timber from overseas, and hide the destruction they have caused. Although there are timber sourcing policies put in place to prevent drastic deforestation and provide transparency, most companies choose to ignore these policies (Maier). Since these pieces of furniture are made from wood overseas because it is cheaper, they are also produced overseas because it is cheaper. This raises two areas of concern, unethical labour practices and greenhouse gas emissions from shipping furniture. China is a primary country where cheap labour is sourced. In this workplace, employees face unethically low pay, little to no benefits, and a hazardous work environment (Kulish). Furniture is shipped to retailers most commonly through cargo ships, which use heavy fuel oil and have a large carbon footprint (Maier). Additionally, as cargo ships run, they release harmful chemicals into the ocean which affects the marine environment, water quality, and our health. A study was conducted on the carbon emissions of shipping furniture. Three percent of total greenhouse gas emissions are from shipping furniture, and it is predicted to rise to twenty percent if proper lifestyle practices are not put into place (Dynamo Ventures).
In the case of fast furniture production, harmful chemicals are released into the ocean, as well as our homes. Chemicals such as formaldehyde, benzene, vinyl acetate, and phthalates are often used in the production of fast furniture or are embedded in the materials used. These chemicals are known to cause cancer, respiratory issues, reproductive issues, kidney issues, and problems in fetuses (The World Counts). There is a lack of care and sustainability in the fast furniture industry. Companies are more concerned with making a quick profit, than honouring all of the resources the earth provides us. This leads big corporations to take advantage of natural resources, pollute the air, produce and dump toxic chemicals, and create an abundance of greenhouse gasses. If major lifestyle, production, and consumption changes are not made, we will see the fast furniture industry continue to produce carbon, and destroy the planet.
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Megan Friedrich is a Fashion Communications student at Toronto Metropolitan University. In the Fashion Communications program, she specializes in sustainability, illustration, costume design, and art direction. Megan aims to make a positive environmental impact on the fashion industry by educating others and herself on the changes that need to be made within the fashion and design industry.