Have you heard about the brown furniture revival? It’s slowly taking over fast furniture… which is often brown, too.
But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, we’ll first answer in this article: what is “fast furniture”? Once you’re aware of all the problems inherent in fast furniture—from start to finish—you may be ready to embrace the brown furniture revival.
Table of Contents
- What Is “Fast Furniture”?
- Planned Obsolescence in Fast Furniture
- True Costs of Fast Furniture
- Human Health Impacts of Fast Furniture: Formaldehyde
- EPA Formaldehyde Emission Standards for Composite Wood Products
- Ways to Reduce Formaldehyde Emission from Fast Furniture
- Environmental Damage Caused by Fast Furniture
- Is Fast Furniture Becoming More Sustainable?
- What You Can Do to Speed up the Demise of Fast Furniture
- Key Takeaways on Fast Furniture
Editor’s Note: The reality is that furniture that’s more well made, more sustainable, and less toxic is generally more expensive, and it’s not always affordable to everyone. Of course, there are a lot of systemic reasons for this, including growing wealth inequality and more. Although this article advocates against fast furniture, we absolutely do not wish to make you feel ashamed if it’s simply all you can afford at this time. Our hope is that healthier furniture will become the norm, and therefore will become more accessible to all. But until that happens, we encourage you to just do the best you can with what you have… even if it’s not “perfect.”
What Is “Fast Furniture”?
Fast furniture is the term given to mass-produced, low-quality furniture made overseas of cheap materials. It is often sold and shipped in flat packs through large outlets such as Amazon or Wayfair. Retailers like Ikea and Pottery Barn also feature fast furniture. Trendy and inexpensive, fast furniture fits the lifestyle of people who rent, move frequently, are on limited budgets, or just prefer goods that are conveniently disposable.
Easily chipped or broken, fast furniture is meant to be replaced every few years, so it’s perfect for those who love to stay on-trend by buying the latest thing to hit the stores. It’s all part of the strategy to make more money.
Planned Obsolescence in Fast Furniture
Planned obsolescence is a marketing strategy employed by companies to increase their profit margin. By intentionally manufacturing products that wear out or break in a short time, shoppers will have a reason to buy replacements. In terms of fast furniture, examples of planned obsolescence include:
- Hollow table legs that won’t support weight and break off
- Cheap staples in dresser drawers that burst when filled with clothes
- Thin sofa fabric that easily tears with minimal use
- Plastic screws that are too short to hold two pieces of plastic shelving together and easily snap, causing a piece of furniture to collapse
- Metal chairs so thin that they curve with use by an average person
In planned obsolescence, companies may slightly change the appearance of an item to make it fashionable and reissue it as “new and improved.” People will be more attracted to purchasing it if it’s inexpensive.
The rise of globalization in recent decades has made it easy for fast furniture to become mainstream. American companies, once known for building products meant to last, will move factories abroad where labor costs are much less. So instead of paying an American worker $20 or more per hour, they may pay only $2 per hour elsewhere.
Always looking to minimize costs, a company may purchase a product’s parts—frame, fabric, screws, bolts, etc.—wherever they are the cheapest. So the parts may come from several different countries. Then they are shipped to yet another place where final assembly costs very little.
True Costs of Fast Furniture
The cheap price of fast furniture hides its true costs. There are both human health impacts and environmental damage caused by fast furniture.
Human Health Impacts of Fast Furniture: Formaldehyde
Perhaps the most health-damaging impact of fast furniture is prolonged formaldehyde exposure. As recently as 2015, there were no regulations for it at all in the United States. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen and respiratory irritant.
At formaldehyde concentrations over 0.1 ppm, the immediate effects of formaldehyde can include:
- Watery eyes
- Burning sensations in the eyes and throat
- Difficulty breathing
Long-term exposure to formaldehyde may lead to cancer.
Formaldehyde is present in synthetic glues and adhesives that make wood chips and sawdust stick together in all sorts of fast furniture. Formaldehyde may also be used as a preservative in the paintings and coatings applied to these products. Fast furniture containing urea-formaldehyde (UF) resins are the worst emitters.
Fast furniture made of these pressed wood products contain some formaldehyde:
- Particle board
- Hardwood plywood paneling
- Medium density fiberboard (MDF)
Of these, the worst emitter is MDF. It contains the highest ratio of formaldehyde per given amount of pressed wood compared to all other similar products.
Once assembled in your home, fast furniture can release formaldehyde and other toxins for weeks or even longer. Thus, in tightly insulated buildings, the concentration of these air contaminants increases even more, contributing to Sick Building Syndrome.
EPA Formaldehyde Emission Standards for Composite Wood Products
Finally in 2010, Congress passed a law for regulation of formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products, including furniture. After five years of debate, the United States Environmental Protection Agency released its final ruling in 2015.
Here are the specific limits set by the law:
- Hardwood plywood: Formaldehyde < 0.05 ppm
- Medium-density fiberboard: : Formaldehyde < 0.11 ppm
- Thin medium-density fiberboard: Formaldehyde < 0.13 ppm
- Particleboard: Formaldehyde < 0.09 ppm
Note that formaldehyde has not been banned from fast furniture, but at least there are now limits that should decrease the overall amount of formaldehyde consumers are exposed to from furniture overall.
Ways to Reduce Formaldehyde Emission from Fast Furniture
If you live in a home furnished with fast furniture, and you cannot or do not want to get rid of it, here are a few ideas to mitigate the off gassing of formaldehyde into your airspace.
- Since hot weather and humidity can increase formaldehyde release, keeping your home cool and dehumidified is important. Installing exhaust fans will pull it out of your home. Dehumidifiers may help prevent emission.
- Make sure there’s adequate ventilation and circulation of fresh air by opening windows, especially when it’s cool and dry outside. Doing so will help reduce the amount of formaldehyde in the air.
Environmental Damage Caused by Fast Furniture
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), since 1960, landfill waste from home furnishings—like tables, chairs, and sofas—increased 450%. The largest material segment thrown out was wood. So, there’s no doubt that the increase is due in large part to disposables like fast furniture. In fact, experts say most of it landed there in the last 10-15 years just as fast furniture was really taking off.
Over time, the junked fast furniture contributes to methane release since it is a natural product. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that accelerates the climate crisis.
Fast furniture also leaches toxins into the soil and water due to faulty landfill liners that naturally decay. These contaminants adversely affect public health.
Tossing fast furniture into landfills means they reach their capacity sooner. Since the average landfill is 600 acres, adding to the 3,000+ active landfills in the U.S. by building more leaves little remaining land for wildlife.
According to the EPA, practically no fast furniture is recycled. So, it represents a monumental waste of natural resources, namely wood and water. Not only is the carbon footprint of fast furniture high from shipping all over the world during fabrication as well as methane production after its useful life. Its environmental footprint is, too.
Is Fast Furniture Becoming More Sustainable?
Increasingly criticized by environmentalists because of its large carbon footprint from cradle to grave, companies selling fast furniture are beginning to adopt more sustainable practices in how they produce and sell their products.
Ikea, considered a leader in fast furniture, announced its People & Planet Positive initiative in 2019. With a goal to achieve a circular economy by 2030, in which everything is reused—nothing wasted—they have launched several programs toward this end.
For instance, Ikea is testing furniture leasing in several countries. The aim is to rent the same piece of furniture several times before recycling it.
Another practice they’ve adopted is to produce modular furniture and pieces, so you can purchase just a piece at a time—or just one piece to replace what’s broken—instead of an entirely new piece of furniture.
(While imperfect, Ikea’s chemical policy is also better then many other furniture brands. You can read more about that here.)
Pottery Barn offers another example of a fast furniture retailer becoming more sustainable. Partnering with the Renewal Workshop, this company is striving to repair items and resell them. Their research reveals that 82% of what they think of as waste can be renewed and resold.
What You Can Do to Speed up the Demise of Fast Furniture
If there’s no market for something, companies will cease production. So an obvious way to bring fast furniture to an end is to stop purchasing it. Opt for more sustainable furniture made from American trees (not tropical hardwoods likely harvested illegally through deforestation). Look for pieces that are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council or “Cradle-to-Cradle.”
Ideally, choose locally crafted furnishings made out of solid wood with no glues involved. They cost more but will last for decades if not longer. When you do, you’ll be participating in the brown furniture revival.
If you can’t afford solid wood furniture, you can still join the brown furniture revival like other young people who reject fast furniture by scouring thrift shops, antique stores, flea markets, and yard sales. You will be amazed at what you find! Prices will be reasonable in some cases.
(Although, keep in mind here that there are other factors to consider when deciding if thrifted furniture is best for you, especially when it comes to upholstered items. For example, those who are sensitive to mold may not want to buy a used couch if they cannot guarantee that it was not previously in a moldy home. Additionally, a lot of furniture fabric, cushions, and mattresses that were produced between 1970 and 2020 contain toxic flame retardants.)
You may wish to upcycle (refinish) pieces in your own style using eco-friendly materials. At the very least, you can decorate old brown pieces so they won’t look dated.
Another option is to rent furniture from companies like Feather or Fernish. After renting to you, they clean and refurbish items to rent out again. Think of it this way: if it’s not yours to begin with, you can’t throw it away. (It’s important to note here, however, that these options are not perfect, either. Although they can help increase circularity and reduce waste, much of their furniture they carry still uses toxic materials like PU foam and PFAS finishes. There are a lot of factors to consider!)
For businesses, instead of throwing away furniture, you can partner with companies like Green Standards that will resell or donate it to organizations in need. Thus far, they have resold more than $15 million worth of used furniture and equipment that would have otherwise ended up in landfills.
Key Takeaways on Fast Furniture
Fast furniture is made in factories at top speed out of cheap materials like wood chips and timber dust. It’s pressed together with synthetic adhesives and coated in plastic (laminate).
As a result of these fossil-fuel derived components, fast furniture releases formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals for months or more. In this way, your home furnishings contribute significantly to poor indoor air quality -and could even kill you.
With an average lifespan of a few months or years, fast furniture gets landfilled most of the time. It’s easier to dispose of it than to repair or refurbish it. Replacing it with more fast furniture is inexpensive. The fast cycle repeats itself.
Due to a growing awareness of the environmental destruction caused by deforestation and the contamination of soil and water by landfilled fast furniture, people are looking for an alternative. Some are choosing to purchase old brown furniture made of solid wood, and refurbishing it as part of the brown furniture revival.
Besides the satisfaction that comes with a DIY mindset to create your own furnishings, you will be glad you’re not contributing to the climate and environmental crises. Same if you rent furniture instead of buy. You’ll enjoy healthier, cleaner indoor air, too!