The rise of fast furniture – and the environmental cost

Homeware sales boomed during the pandemic but as with fast fashion, our planet pays a price

Fast furniture
Fast furniture is fuelling global deforestation and rises in harmful greenhouse emissions
(Image credit: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

While most consumers are now aware of the environmental impacts of fast fashion, the risks associated with so-called fast furniture are less well recognised.

Covid-19 lockdowns triggered a surge in interest in home improvements and demand for cheap trend-led homeware, with sales soaring by 42% in the first half of 2020, according to the Office of National Statistics. A survey for retailer found that 68% of more than 1,000 respondents had shopped online for homeware at least once a month during the pandemic.

“Spotting an opportunity”, fast-fashion brands including Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing and Missguided “got in on the game” by launching their own homeware lines, said Dazed. But amid warnings about the price paid by the planet, “some consumers are beginning to think more carefully about their homeware habits”, the style magazine added.

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How does fast furniture impact the environment?

“Mass-produced and relatively inexpensive”, fast furniture is “easy to obtain and then abandon”, said The New York Times.

But the amount of waste producing by “the one-season fling of furnishings” is staggering, the paper continued. In the US alone, consumers are throwing out “more than 12 million tons of furniture” a year, “creating mountains of solid waste that have grown 450% since 1960”.

“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 sustainability expert Ashlee Piper, author of Give a Sh*t: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet. “We’re creating this Leviathan problem at landfills with the furniture that we get rid of.”

As well as landfill waste, fast furniture is fuelling global deforestation and increases in harmful greenhouse emissions.

According to sustainable furniture brand Forti Goods, many cheap furnishings “use materials sourced from tropical areas of the world”, contributing to deforestation – a leading cause of climate change. The transport emissions created are also considerable, because “the furniture is shipped at least twice – once to get the materials from the tropical areas to the manufacturer, and again to get the final piece to the consumer”.

And the shipping industry as a whole “is responsible for a significant proportion of the global climate change problem”, said Oceana. The conservation charity calculated that “if global shipping were a country, it would be the sixth-largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions”.

How can consumers shop more sustainably?

And growing awareness of the environmental impact of fast furniture, increasing numbers of consumers are buying second-hand homeware. Environmental news site edie reported that searches for “eco furniture” and “sustainable furniture” on eBay rose by 123% and 171% respectively in 2020 from the previous year.

Buying sustainably is “not about saying no to new or mass-market products completely, but about finding a balance and choosing wisely”, said Hannah Rouch, chief marketing officer at eBay-owned classified ads platform Gumtree. “We need to change our mindsets so that heading straight for mass-produced items does not become the default.”

Brands involved in mass-producing furniture have also begun to respond to sustainability concerns. Flat-pack furniture giant Ikea launched a buy-back system in 2021, and has pledged to use only recycled and renewable sourced materials and to “send zero waste to landfill” by 2030.

But problems remain. While producers are increasingly keen to “tout their eco-conscious cred”, many shoppers “haven’t been willing or haven’t been able to afford the premium for more sustainable products”, said The New Republic.

And those able to pay out “are stymied by a near-total lack of transparency, making informed purchases almost impossible”, the magazine added. “Kicking back on the couch has never been more fraught.”

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