Maybe you’re moving into your first apartment and building a furniture collection from scratch. Or perhaps you’ve just moved and realized your existing furniture clashes with your new place. You want your rooms to feel complete and stylish, but the cost of couches, loveseats, bed frames, rugs, coffee tables, and endless other furnishings that make a space homey add up quick.
Considering that a basic bedroom could cost you anywhere from $800 to $2,300 to furnish, you, like 800 million people worldwide, turn to IKEA. Or maybe Wayfair, or another fast furniture company. These retailers offer stylish and affordable furniture shipped to your home in weeks or even days.
But while fast furniture can feel like a lifesaver in your moment of need, these products come at a cost. We’ll fill you in on the pros and cons of fast furniture and clue you in on how to responsibly shop from these retailers.
What is fast furniture?
Fast furniture — like its better-known cousin, fast fashion — involves the design, manufacturing, and marketing of mass-produced, affordable furniture. Retailers ship deconstructed furniture along with easy-to-follow instructions and an Allen wrench to save on manufacturing and shipping costs. In turn, the customer saves money and experiences the joy (and occasional frustration) of assembling their on-trend pieces.
The rise in fast furniture production
When tracing fast furniture’s origin, we can give a fair share of credit to IKEA. The Swedish retailer that produces a Billy bookcase every three seconds has been in business since 1953. For a fuller picture, let’s dive into the key events that enabled fast furniture to rise to its current popularity.
The Industrial Revolution transforms furniture assembly
Up until the 20th century, the furniture business was dominated by craftsmen. The rise of modernization in the late 1800s and early 1900s, however, replaced this highly skilled labor force with systems of mass production. With factory assembly lines, manufacturers could produce furniture cheaper and in greater volumes than ever before.
New materials make furniture more affordable
The development of composite materials — like plywood and chipboard (which rose to prominence in the 1930s) and later, laminate (1930s) — enabled supplying manufacturers with durable, light, and cost-effective materials for even faster production. Plastic (widely adopted during World War II) also played a key role in making furniture cheaper to produce and package.
E-commerce changes the way retailers sell and consumers shop
The advent of e-commerce prompted another radical shift in the industry. With a growing number of consumers active on the worldwide web, furniture manufacturers could appeal to consumers online and ship their products anywhere in the world.
This massive expansion of the consumer market in turn changed the product itself. Retailers needed to prioritize furniture that was easier and cheaper to deliver to its growing customer base, so packability became a crucial element of design.
Enter flat-pack, or ready to assemble (RTA) furniture, furnishings that are designed to be shipped in pieces and assembled by the consumer. While flat pack furniture has been in existence for decades, it was not until the rise of e-commerce that this method of delivery reached its peak—and it is now a $13 billion industry.
The COVID-19 pandemic spurs even more fast furniture sales
The explosive popularity of fast furniture hit an absolute fever pitch in 2020, as more consumers — prompted by COVID-19 stay-at-home orders — sought to redesign their living spaces. This can be seen in the rise in popularity of the search term “ikea” which hit an all-time high in August 2020. It’s worth noting, too, that while many industries experienced a drop in sales, the furniture industry continued to grow at 0.6%, topping $115 billion worth of sales.
Weigh the costs before you buy
The rapid evolution of the furniture industry has come with enumerable benefits for customers: convenience, affordability, and accessibility. But these perks come with considerable costs.
“The insidious reality of mass-produced furniture results in a significant cost to the environment,” says Jen Stark, founder of the sustainable home improvement blog, Happy DIY Home, whose advice has been featured in US News, SF Gate, and Smithsonian Magazine.
“The chemical resin and plastic laminate that comprise each item of furniture exude hazardous fumes and pollutants that make it simply too costly to process in a recycling facility. Not to mention that synthetic fibers used in upholstered pieces are made from fossil fuels.”
So where does that leave you when you’re strapped for cash and sleeping on the floor of your brand new, totally empty home? Executive Director Susan Inglis of the Sustainable Furnishings Council advises shoppers to think long term:
“The environmental impact of any consumer product is spread out over the entire life of that product. Furniture can and should last a long time — generations! Of course, you might not want your grandmother’s dining table. It is fine to get yourself a new one. But please be sure that grandmother’s goes to another home and that your new one could go to a new home when your tastes change yet again. There is a lot of stuff — furniture and otherwise — already in circulation. Let’s keep it in use longer.”
Inglis points out that it’s not about opting out of the fast furniture business entirely. Rather, it’s about making more informed purchasing decisions. Weigh the following pros and cons before you opt for the instant gratification of fast furniture.
The pros of purchasing fast furniture:
Fast furniture is popular for a reason — there are many benefits to buying budget-friendly, ready-to-build pieces.
Fast furniture’s low prices allow you to easily stay within this range and outfit more than just your bedroom without totally blowing your budget. Take, for example, the price of an armchair which, at IKEA, costs only $199. Compare that to a traditional retailer, where a similar chair costs upwards of $2,700 … on sale. If you’re in desperate need of a total interior makeover, affordable fast furniture could be a lifesaver.
Low shipping costs
Traditional online and catalog retailers can charge a fortune for shipping due to the heavy, bulky nature of pre-constructed furniture. Even if you’re buying from your local furniture store, you may have to pay a hefty sum for home delivery. Since fast-furniture is designed to be stored and shipped efficiently, shipping costs a fraction of the price. Once again, if you need to purchase several pieces, the sum of shipping costs could result in major savings.
Fast furniture is designed with end-to-end convenience in mind. You can browse a wide selection of products, order online, and assemble your purchases in a matter of days. For instance, if you search for “desk” on WayFair, you can browse over 100,000 items, with one of the top results arriving as early as six days from the purchase date.
Compare this to traditional brick-and-mortar stores. You shop in a curated showroom with a limited selection of inventory. Even if you find what you’re looking for, you may need to wait weeks for the item to ship from the retailer’s warehouse.
Some eco-conscious options
With a little research, you can make more ethical purchases from fast furniture retailers. Inglis shares that consumer demand for environmentally-friendly furniture is influencing industry changes. For instance, IKEA has recently committed to becoming “climate positive” — reducing more emissions than they create — by 2030. Freedonia Focus Groups, a division of MarketResearch.com, even named eco-friendly furniture as the top trend for the future of the furniture market.
“It is up to us as specifiers and consumers to keep asking questions about what things are made of, how and where they were made,” Inglis advocates. Our concern keeps companies on their toes and constantly pushing to do more.”
Before you purchase fast furniture, take a moment to read up on the retailer or manufacturer’s policies and ethos. Try to only purchase from companies that:
- Use with ethically sourced wood that does not contribute to deforestation
- Reduce use of harmful chemicals in manufacturing and production
- Make products from recycled materials over raw or new ones
- Commit to fair labor practices standards
The cons of buying fast furniture:
Fast furniture helps you meet your short-term furnishing goals, but it comes with costs that impact your interior’s style and our world’s health.
Harmful to the environment
Perhaps the most glaring drawback to fast furniture is the toll it takes on the environment. The damage comes in several different forms:
Fast furniture may include toxic materials
Plywood, MDF particleboard, plastics, and other common mass production materials have a significant impact on the environment. These materials take longer to decompose, leach chemicals, pollute the air, and can even be harmful to your health. For example, many resins used to bind composite materials like particleboard contain formaldehyde. This chemical is a common cause of in-home air pollution and is a known carcinogen (prolonged exposure has been linked to certain types of cancer).
Most furniture waste goes to landfills
Each year, Americans generate 12 million tons of new furniture and home furnishings waste, with an overwhelming majority — nearly 10 million tons — ending up in landfills. Comparatively, only 40,000 tons of waste are recycled each year. Landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the U.S., and a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Methane is more than 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in our atmosphere.
Shipping is a leading cause of carbon emission
A majority of fast furniture is made overseas and is shipped twice — first to a retailer or warehouse, and then to your home. While this is true for some pre-assembled furniture, the impact from fast furniture is double or even triple considering the products’ shorter lifespan; consumers must replace low-quality flat-pack furniture sooner than preassembled options.
The furniture’s initial journey is likely taken by ship, which accounts for 90% of global trade. A large shipping vessel can use 100 metric tons of fuel a day: a truly colossal sum already, and near unfathomable when multiplied by the thousands of vessels making passage every day. The collective toll amounts to the shipping industry accounting for about 3% of global carbon dioxide emissions, according to the Oceana Shipping Report.
The second leg of your furniture’s journey most likely takes place in a medium or heavy-duty truck, as it makes its journey from the warehouse to your doorstep. This is yet another tax on the environment. Medium to heavy-duty vehicles accounts for 23% of all emissions from the transportation sector, right behind passenger vehicles. So, unfortunately, opting to pick-up your furniture yourself won’t help save the environment.
Poor structural quality
The adage buy cheap, buy twice comes to mind. Fast furniture’s reliance on composite materials comes with a major disadvantage: These materials are often less durable than their solid counterparts.
Flat-pack furniture often relies on resin binders which makes them porous and vulnerable to water damage and chipping. This can age a new piece of furniture if it is damaged in the course of use. Furthermore, due to this structural weakness, self-assembled furniture is difficult to move and may be easier to leave by the dumpster than wrangle into a U-Haul.
The cost of this is more than just the inconvenience of having to prematurely replace furniture. When you buy twice, you’re doubling the environmental impact by contributing more landfill waste and shipping emissions.
We’ve all seen the “Nailed it!” memes of flat box furniture assembly gone horribly wrong. The unfortunate truth about many of these pieces is that, more often than not, they look better in pictures than they do in reality.
The causes can be twofold, starting with user error. A level table can be harder to make than one might realize, even if you have all of the tools you need. Flatbox furniture assembly requires a level of handiness that many people aren’t prepared for, which can result in wonky furniture.
Marketing is also to blame for our unrealistic product expectations. When we see these pieces in advertisements online and in stores, they are styled, photographed, and retouched by professionals. That wood laminate that appeared so real in the ad won’t look as convincing in your unevenly lit apartment.
Slowing down fast furniture
With the rising popularity of brands like Wayfair, participating in the fast furniture economy may feel inevitable. But Stark reminds us to keep alternative options in mind:
“We can find balance by purchasing sustainable furniture at thrift stores or with furniture subscriptions at retailers like Fernish and Feather. You can also donate unwanted furniture to the Habitat for Humanity ReStore.”
What’s important to remember is that in the life cycle of furniture, owners have multiple opportunities to make eco-conscious decisions:
- Splurge on the real deal: Buyers can opt-out of the industry entirely by purchasing second-hand or investing in quality-made, slow furniture. You’ll majorly benefit from going this route for primary pieces like sofas, bed frames, and dressers that you use (and wear) more frequently.
- Purchase from eco-friendly retailers: As mentioned previously, today there are a growing number of eco-conscious fast furniture companies and lines. Fernish and Feather, the companies that Stark highlights, are only two in a growing list that also includes certain lines at IKEA, and the Rent The Runway and West Elm collab which allows consumers to rent bedding and accessories.
- Donate, don’t trash: Lastly, consumers can donate or resell furniture in good condition, rather than sending pieces to a landfill.
In the near future, it’s possible that the convenience of fast furniture won’t come at the cost of the environment. In the meantime, we can do our part to make more sustainable purchases and encourage eco-friendly industry practices. The slowing down of fast furniture begins with your next purchase.
Header Image Source: (Michiel Annaert / Unsplash)