How Does One Furnish a Home Sustainably?

It's not as simple as just saying no to 'fast furniture'.

couple sitting in their living room

10'000 Hours / Getty Images

A recent article in the New York Times raised the alarm over how cheap "fast furniture" is destined to clog landfill sites. When people spend relatively little on new furniture, it often means that the items are poorly made with lower quality materials. Furthermore, people are less inclined to care for or repair items that cost little to begin with.

During the pandemic, Americans bought heaps of cheap furniture from retailers like Ikea and Wayfair, presumably as a way to improve the indoor spaces they were suddenly inhabiting for more hours each day. Sales of desks, chairs, and patio furniture jumped by more than $4 billion between 2019 and 2021.

This is a problem only because many of these pieces are not built to last; they are essentially disposable. Deana McDonagh, a professor of industrial design at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, told the Times that many of the Ikea and Wayfair items bought during the pandemic were designed to last five years. "I relate to fast furniture like I do to fast food. It's empty of culture, and it's not carrying any history with it," she said.

The Times likened fast furniture to the "fast fashion" sold by retailers like Zara and Shein—clothing items that can only stand up to a few wears and washes before falling apart, usually with a price tag to match. It raised concerns about the materials used to build cheap furniture, often composites and plastics that do not biodegrade easily in landfill or cannot be dismantled for proper recycling or reuse. It's linear consumerism, the opposite of the circularity we should be striving for.

The message of the Times article is a bit ambiguous. It seems to want everyone to buy bespoke, handmade items made from sustainable materials—but even for this sometimes idealistic Treehugger writer, that's an absurd suggestion. Very few people have the money, time, space, energy, or even desire to embark on a full house furnishing project like that.

A Mental Shift

I do think that there has to be a much bigger conversation about how and why people furnish their apartments and houses the way they do. Similar to how my thinking about fashion has evolved over years of writing, researching, and wearing various brands, I've come to suspect that the problem isn't so much the provenance of the furniture itself, but how we treat it and think of it. 

From an environmental perspective, the longer you keep something, the smaller its footprint will be. The most eco-minded, sustainably designed item will have all its benefits eroded if it's swapped out within a few years of purchasing. Similarly, a cheap Ikea piece that lasts decades (of which there seem to be many, at least according to Times commenters) is not such a bad purchase after all.

We need to challenge the mindset that says you need to redecorate periodically. That requires us to be careful of the messaging we consume. A diet of HGTV renovations and highly staged Instagram posts does not help. In this case, one might say that ignorance of the latest trends is bliss; what you don't know about, you will not feel a burning urge to consume.

On a related note, don't be afraid to hone your sense of personal taste. I struggle to believe that everyone truly loves the all-gray interiors that dominate interior design trends these days; ask yourself if you're making certain choices just because everyone else is—and social media is exposing you to it.

The quality of patience is useful, too. So much of what we do is rushed and hurried nowadays. Need a new living room for the upcoming holidays? Buy the full set with one click! Instead, however, there needs to be greater willingness to play the long game, to do without until the right items show up—whether it's discounted at your favorite retailer or, preferably, comes available on the secondhand market.

We need to get better at assessing materials—knowing what will age well and what won't, which fabrics will pill or get lumpy, which finishes will lose their shine, which cushions will cease to be comfortable over time. This isn't a simple question of what's natural versus synthetic. Pieces made from exotic woods or stones might be "natural" but questionably sourced. One Times commenter pointed out that "particle board makes efficient use of waste material, which is environmentally sound. A lot of custom furniture construction uses select pieces or sections of wood and discards the rest." 

Think Outside the Box (Store)

secondhand furniture for sale in store

JackF / Getty Images

There are many alternative places to shop that are better for the planet than giant generic online sellers. Check out local thrift stores like Goodwill or ReStore. Look on Facebook Marketplace, Buy Nothing groups, or local Swap and Sell sites. Some U.S.-based websites like AptDeco and Kaiyo let you shop secondhand online, even offering pickup and delivery services.

There are great antique stores and places that fix up vintage furniture (not always cheap). During the pandemic, I discovered online estate auctions and managed to buy a gorgeous vintage Persian wool rug for my living room for less than what I'd pay for a large synthetic area rug from Wayfair.

The Importance of Repair

More attention should be given to the value of repair—and to the accessibility of those services. A carless resident in a walk-up apartment would struggle to deliver a couch for repair across a city, if it requires movers to get it in and out of the space and a truck to drop it off and pick it up. Even I, as a non-truck-owning homeowner in a small town with limited services, would have no idea how to begin such a process if any of my furniture broke. Replacement would seem a simpler solution.

But this could, and should, be changed. Perhaps local communities or city governments could create or subsidize groups of mobile repair services that make it easier to prolong the lifespan of furniture, or at least help work out the sticky transportation issues. (This could cut down on disposal costs.) People could learn about upholstery and the transformative power of a new coat of paint from teachers at a repair cafe.

Furniture companies could be incentivized to provide in-house repair services, similar to those available to large household appliances, which obviously do not get taken back to the store when they need a fix, or DIY guidelines, which in turn might help to shape design decisions.

upholsterer at work on chair

Richard Drury / Getty Images

The way we treat furniture matters, too. Throughout my years at Treehugger, I've seen numerous fashion brands launch campaigns teaching people how to launder clothes correctly so they last longer. The same goes for furniture. I am frequently astonished at how children and pets are allowed to treat furniture in homes, instead of being taught important boundaries and rules. When taken care of, pieces can endure for a very long time. So be kind to your furniture, and it will provide functionality and beauty in return.

Slow Down

There are no easy answers to this problem. Like so many other Millennials, I had no interest in inheriting my grandmother's antique china hutch and ornate sideboard, so I do not blame others for not wanting to live with old, dark, clunky furniture, even if it is a more environmentally friendly choice. It is important to like your surroundings. But the solution is not to fill our homes with cheap, trendy items. 

Instead, be patient and look around carefully. You might be pleasantly surprised and proud of what you're able to find. You will, at the very least, have a unique space that reflects your personality and interests more than if it's just another copy of an Ikea showroom.