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Why Is Antique Furniture Better For The Environment?

We have all heard of the term fast fashion but how many of you have heard about the fast furniture industry and the impact it has on the environment? Before we can fully understand the benefits of buying antique, vintage, and second-hand furniture we need to understand the problems created by modern fast furniture retailers.

What Is The Fast Fashion Industry?

Fast furniture refers to the idea that once we decide we no longer need a piece of furniture; whether this be because it does not fit our home or we want to follow new trends, even when it is still in good, functional condition, we throw it away and buy a cheap alternative from places such as IKEA. The low and affordable prices encourage the public to fuel the unsustainable patterns of consumption with more being bought and therefore more being thrown away. As the demand for cheap furniture rises, their production also increases leading to unsustainable and illegal material sourcing and production methods.

Environmental Impact Of The Fast Furniture Industry

It is no surprise that the fast furniture industry has a negative impact on the environment. Earthsight’s ‘Flatpacked Forests’ report, published in 2020, is an eye-opening resource about this topic. They have carried out an 18-month long investigation about IKEA’s wood sourcing, which concluded that IKEA is selling beech chairs made from wood which has been illegally felled. A lot of research focuses on the practices of IKEA because they are the world’s biggest fast furniture retailer, but they are not the only ones.


The ‘high volumes, low costs’ business model that fast furniture retailers follow negatively impacts the environment. According to a 2019 report by the North London Waste Authority, 22 million pieces of furniture are thrown away every year in the UK; with the majority of it being sent directly to landfill. The British Heart Foundation has charity shops across the country in which, amongst many things, sell furniture. They did their own shop survey in 2019 which found that 30% of the 2000 people interviewed have thrown away good, functional furniture that could have been re-used by someone else.


Another insightful resource about the furniture industry as a whole and its environmental impact is WWF’s ‘Are You Sitting Comfortably? Sustainable Timber Sourcing and the UK Furniture Industry’s report from 2016. It highlights the amount of wooden furniture that gets imported from both EU and non-EU countries and where the timber used to manufacture them comes from.

The main furniture import countries are China, Italy, Poland, Vietnam, and Germany. In many of these countries illegal logging and trade issues have been recognized. One of the issues mentioned in the report is about wood raw materials and where they come from. A partner country from which timber and furniture have been imported does not always mean the country of origin of the timber. This information is unclear and difficult to find out. This means that as consumers we are unable to be certain that the timber used in modern furniture manufacture comes from sustainable logging practices.


Furthermore, EU Timber Regulation does exist which theoretically should ensure that timber and timber-related products placed on the European market are legal. However, in practice, it does not do that. According to the ‘WWF Enforcement Review of the Timber Regulation (EUTR)’ report, this 02/05/2021 regulation is very difficult to implement, consequently, it does not combat the issue of the illegal timber trade.

I am sure all these statistics will come as a surprise to you. Because at first, I was surprised by them too. As so much emphasis is put on the negative environmental impact of fast fashion, as a society we are unaware of what other ‘fast’ industries exist and how they impact the environment. We hear so much about environmentally responsible buying choices when it comes to fashion but how many of you have ever considered the impact that your furniture buying choices have on the environment?

Why Should You Buy Antique, Vintage And Second-Hand Furniture?

01. Lower Carbon Footprint

Antique furniture has a longer lifecycle, and their carbon footprint is around 16 times less than that of a newly manufactured piece of furniture. The manufacturing process of antique furniture had a smaller impact on the environment as centuries ago they were all made by hand without the use of electricity, chemicals, and manmade materials.

02. Decrease Deforestation

Deforestation is one of the leading causes of climate change and the furniture industry heavily contributes to this. With the fast furniture industry being all about the idea of ‘produce more for less’, a lot of companies are looking for ways in which their prices could be reduced. One of those ways is through unsustainable and illegal logging. For antique, vintage, and second-hand furniture to be functional, no new wood is needed. You are simply reusing what has already been made. By doing this, you are consciously (or unconsciously) going against the companies that are illegally sourcing their timber and are being a contributor to deforestation.


Since 2015, WWF has been putting together a ‘Timber Scorecard’ which aims to assess businesses on their timber sourcing policies. The 2019 report includes 122 companies with 32 of them being in the ‘furniture’ sector. Out of those 32, only 3 of them received 3 trees which means they are performing well against their procurement policies. This is shocking considering a lot of furniture brands do advertise themselves as environmentally friendly.

03. Reduce Landfill

Whatever is not used or needed gets thrown away. If more interest will be shown in antique, vintage, and second-hand furniture, more will be bought which in turn leads to less being thrown away and filling up the landfill.

04. Reduce Consumption Of New Goods From Outside Your Country

Furniture bought in antique, vintage, or second-hand shops in your country of residence equals to less transportation of goods that otherwise (if newly manufactured) most likely would have been transported from abroad. This results in smaller environmental impact as less carbon dioxide and other gasses that contribute to global warming are given off into the atmosphere due to the burning of fossil fuels.

05. Lower Price

The biggest selling point of fast furniture is their price. However, after going into many charity, second-hand and vintage shops I have found that the prices there are a lot lower. Even the cheapest furniture options in IKEA are more expensive than the picks from a charity shop.

06. Higher Quality And Last Longer

Most importantly, the quality of antique and vintage furniture is a lot better as they are often made from solid wood rather than fibreboard. They will last longer and will continue to serve you and possibly future generations too, passing down not only their functional elements but also their histories.

07. You Can Make Them Your Own

When it comes to customizing your furniture, the possibilities are endless. I do not mean you should go and paint an antique 200-year-old table, but if some vintage pieces are a bit damaged or do not completely fit your style, there are a lot of ways in which you could make them your own. For example, you could change their colour, add decorations, and even change their design by adding or taking away parts.

Conclusion

With so many new products, adverts, and trends surrounding us daily, we need to take the time to slow down and consider what impact we want to make with our furniture buying choices. The fast furniture industry is a big environmental problem. By discovering these eye-opening facts and the countless benefits of buying antique, vintage, and second-hand furniture, we are presented with an obvious choice that will enable us to live a more sustainable lifestyle.


So, the next time you will want to buy a piece of furniture, go and explore charity, second-hand and antique shops. I’m sure you will find a one-of-a-kind piece with its own unique story. The same is true the other way around; the next time you will think about throwing something away, think about all the possible places it could go to, to have another life and bring joy to someone else’s life.

Related: Sustainable Product Design: A Quick Guide

About Wiktoria Kijowska

Wiktoria is a designer who will graduate this summer with a degree in Furniture & Product Design from NTU and soon after will begin studying for her master’s degree in History of Design at the V&A/RCA. The predominant focus in all her work are antiques and history of design. She takes a bold and fresh approach to spreading their importance with others, especially younger generations, and her aim is to create new and engaging ways in which these topics could be learnt about. She is looking at the past in contemporary ways.

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