It’s a fast-paced world out there. Fast food, fast fashion—it seems like all aspects of our lives have been pushed into the fast lane and not always for the best.
And now we are squarely in the age of “fast furniture,” characterized by the bounty of cheap, flimsy, and disposable furnishing options on the market. Unlike the furniture of our grandparents, furniture today is often not made to last generations (let alone an apartment move). As a result, furniture is taking its toll on the planet, and our wallets.
What's wrong with fast furniture, anyway?
It's poorly made.
Fast furniture is often made of cheap materials like particle boards that are not meant to weather the ages. Particle board is particularly prone to falling apart during disassembly, reassembly, and moving. The limited life span of these pieces leads to increased waste in landfills and more frequent trips to the store to replace broken furniture. Over a lifetime, this repeat buying can add up to a substantial amount of cash.
It's tainted with toxins.
The particle board in most fast furniture often contains harsh chemicals like formaldehyde—a potent toxin that is classified as a human carcinogen.
It requires a ton of energy to make.
From making the resins that bind particle board to building the boards themselves, particle board production has an extremely high energy cost.
As with other inexpensive excess, cheap furniture is produced at warp speed. Ikea makes 15 Billy bookcases a minute and sold 41 million units of the ubiquitous shelves by 2009. If you were to line up all of these bookcases, they would be over 43,495 miles long—almost long enough to wrap around the equator twice.
It adds up in the landfill.
Particle board, though sometimes made of recycled wood, is not recyclable because of the resin that binds it. Furniture as a category represents the second largest portion of municipal waste, behind food and yard scraps. In 2012 alone, 11.5 millions tons of furniture were added to our landfills. According to a calculation from the EPA, this furniture produced 32.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.
So what should we look for instead?
Furniture made of whole materials
As consumers, we have the ability to nix this reliance on fast furniture by making better, more informed purchases.
Pick furniture made from whole materials like solid wood, glass, and/or metal. While solid wood furniture may cost more up front, the resale value is substantially higher down the line.
It can be tricky to tell the difference between solid wood and veneer (particle board), but here are a few questions that can help you differentiate between the two:
- Is it finished on all sides? Veneer is finished on every side, while solid wood pieces are often unfinished on hidden sides (like the underside of a table or the back of a cabinet).
- Are there carved details? Only wood can be carved (not veneer or laminate), so this is an easy way to spot the difference.
- Can you feel the grain of the wood? If the surface is perfectly smooth, it is likely veneer. With solid wood, you can feel the grain, and you can see the grain cross over from the sides to the top.
- Is the surface peeling anywhere? If you can see the surface peeling up at any corner or edge, then this is veneer, not solid wood.
Fewer pieces, but ones that are higher in quality
Invest in fewer, better-quality pieces that will be with you for a longer time. Owning less can go a long way when it comes to making your home feel more spacious. The legendary textile designer William Morris put it best when he said, “If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” More recently, Marie Kondo, the author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, has inspired people the world over to keep only what “sparks joy” and nothing else.
In my own personal hunt for the perfect pieces, I can take months to years to find exactly what I’m looking for. Instead of buying the first piece that catches my eye, I wait to find a piece that checks all my boxes: budget, style, quality. While I hunt for each piece, I choose simple, well-made secondhand items to do the trick in the interim—ones I know will retain resale value so I can sell them down the line when the right piece for me comes along.
Upgrade with used furniture
Shop secondhand to find higher-quality pieces in your budget. Estate sales, flea markets, and secondhand stores can be treasure troves of quality, previously owned furniture. You can also find recent pieces from your favorite contemporary brands at a fraction of the cost if you know where to look. My company, Move Loot, features vintage treasures and pieces that are just a couple of years old, so you can create exactly the look you’re going for without breaking the bank or buying fast furniture.
Add to this system by selling your unwanted furniture or giving it away to friends instead of adding it to the landfill. Classifieds sites and message boards are great resources for giving away items to neighbors, or you can contact a local charity to arrange a curbside pickup of furniture in need of a new home.