Recycled Clothes Sculpture

Can Furniture Follow Fashion?


By L. Christina Cobb, Guest Contributor.

The fashion industry’s harmful social and environmental impact drove consumers, concerned brands, and nonprofits to spawn the sustainable fashion movement. While the movement still has a ways to go to shift the whole industry, its influence is growing. From improvements in working conditions to raw materials, to pollution and waste, the sustainable fashion movement is making real change. 

So far, while furniture also carries significant social and environmental impacts, it hasn’t galvanized the public like fashion. While much more nascent, the sustainable furniture movement is arguably on the cusp of a breakthrough. 

...let’s learn from the fashion industry’s key issues and solutions to catalyze the movement, and help furniture consumers and manufacturers make better choices.

The negative impacts of the fashion industry first broke into public awareness due to sweatshops. Media exposure of inhumane working conditions, and especially the deadly Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, created public outrage. Activism arose, demanding change through entire supply chains. Celebrity involvement and the personal connection many people have with their clothing brands helped the movement take off. Thanks in large part to the Sustainable Furnishings Council’s pioneering work, a foundation is now laid for the sustainable furniture movement. But furniture and its brands aren’t as consumer-facing or as embedded in pop culture, making public engagement more challenging. 

Of course, no one wants a tragic incident like Rana Plaza to be the catalyst for the sustainable furniture movement. Instead, let’s learn from the fashion industry’s key issues and solutions to catalyze the movement, and help furniture consumers and manufacturers make better choices.

Image credit: Fahad Faisal/Wikimedia Commons

Working Conditions: Making It Right

Furniture factory workers are often subject to the same poor conditions as apparel workers, but with more exposure to toxic chemicals from glues and finishes. Exploitative hours, unsafe air, and unfair wages are common. As with fashion, outsourcing manufacturing to cheaper labor markets makes enforcing safe and fair working conditions especially hard. While a Rana Plaza scale tragedy hasn’t happened, there is no reason it couldn’t.

Apparel sweatshops called for the development of certifications with standards that protect workers’ rights and health, including ISO 9001, ISO 45001, SA 8000 and Fair Trade. These certifications are available to furniture manufacturers as well. Wide adoption would help clean up supply chains proactively while assuring consumers the workers making their furniture are treated ethically.

Alternatively, in both fashion and furniture, some brands self-monitor their supply chains, often working closely with small-scale production facilities or studios they know well. Reformation apparel and Room & Board, for example, successfully implement this approach. Some conscious consumers prefer objective independent certifications, but the end goal is the same: that brands adopt genuine, robust corporate social responsibility policies and ensure enforcement.

Image credit: Adiff

Waste, Waste, As Far As the Eye Can See

The fashion industry is notorious for the incredible amount of waste it generates. According to the most recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data (2018), we are talking 17 million tons of textile waste total per year. The recycling rate was only 13%, and about 17% was combusted for energy. The remaining 70% went to landfill. Imagine, in New York City alone, the amount of textiles thrown out annually is equal to about 900 Statues of Liberty

Fast furniture is a less familiar expression, but as in fashion, extremely low prices and poor quality mean dramatically more waste.

While furniture waste hasn’t received nearly as much publicity, EPA statistics reveal a massive waste problem. In the same year, 12 million tons of furniture were discarded. Of that total, only a tiny .3% was recycled and approximately 19% was combusted for energy, leaving about 80% for landfills.

Image credit: Pim Pic

There is a clear correlation between the rise of fast fashion and snowballing waste. Fast fashion is cheap, low quality, produced in huge quantities, and doesn't last. Fast furniture is a less familiar expression, but as in fashion, extremely low prices and poor quality mean dramatically more waste. In fact, since 1990, the total amount of fashion waste has more than tripled, and furniture waste has more than doubled.

...but in this age of fast furniture, a new and expanded commitment to circularity is needed.

What a mess! Now for the fun part. How do we tackle the waste problem? 

The big picture solution is to embrace circularity and a circular economy by:

  • Designing to minimize waste and pollution
  • Keeping products in use through sharing, renting, reselling
  • Keeping materials in use through reclaiming, recycling, upcycling

Circularity is being brought to life in current fashion trends. “Zero waste” design uses patterns and technology to dramatically cut textile waste. Clothing rental companies like Rent the Runway are popping up, extending the lives of garments and giving customers a sustainable way to access a new wardrobe. 

Some brands design with reclaimed fabric from clothing factory waste or old garments, giving it a new life. Brands like Eileen Fisher and Patagonia have takeback programs to recycle, reuse, and resell their clothes, and even offer repairs. And according to research by ThredUp, the online clothing reseller, the resale market is on track for 5x growth in the next five years while retail is expected to shrink. This growth trend is backed by mainstream media, including the Wall Street Journal

Historically, furniture was produced with a circular approach. A well made, durable, valued product, it was passed on through generations and easily resold. But in this age of fast furniture, a new and expanded commitment to circularity is needed. Fortunately, innovations seen in fashion are catching on.

Overall, in furniture we see similar trends as in fashion but at an earlier stage. As demonstrated by the success of Feather and startups like ZZ Driggs, furniture rental is a growing trend. Joining the robust furniture resale market and reducing fast furniture waste, industry giant Ikea launched a new takeback program.

Mater Design, Ocean Chair, created from reclaimed ocean plastic waste

Stylish chairs are being made from reclaimed ocean plastic, and reclaimed metal creates unique furnishings with a story to tell.

All reclaimed materials reduce waste going to landfills, and they are increasingly popular in furniture. Companies like mebl | Transforming Furniture are dedicated to changing perceptions about the beauty, quality and circularity of furniture made from reclaimed materials. Stylish chairs are being made from reclaimed ocean plastic, and reclaimed metal  creates unique furnishings with a story to tell. The most common reclaimed material is wood. Often sourced from old houses, barns, and crates it is prized by furniture makers for its unique character and durability. Choosing reclaimed wood instead of new wood also helps preserve forests.

Iannone Design and The Weldhouse, Rewreck Sideboard built of reclaimed chestnut and junkyard autos

Let’s transition to cotton fields and forests. While there are many raw materials used in fashion, cotton is the most common natural material sourced for clothing, with the clearest comparison to wood in furniture. 

The most pesticide-intensive crop on the planet, cotton also consumes vast amounts of water, and in the U.S. 90% is genetically modified for higher chemical tolerance. Farmers who grow cotton, especially in developing countries, suffer from chemical-related illnesses and low wages.  

Thanks to consumer activism, sustainability initiatives, and certifications, the landscape is shifting with 22% of the world’s cotton currently either grown organically or transitioning to sustainable methods. The Textile Exchange identifies these initiatives that promote holistic change:

  • Organic cotton - grown without toxic chemicals or genetically modified organisms (certified under Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) or Organic Content Standard (OCS)
  • Recycled cotton - made from pre- or post-consumer waste
  • Fairtrade cotton - supporting small-scale farmers by guaranteeing a fair minimum price
  • Better Cotton Initiative - improving the sustainability of mainstream cotton
  • REEL Cotton - training farmers in more sustainable practices

Currently, more sustainable cotton is specified by brands of all sizes, including H&M, Nike, Adidas, Gucci, Patagonia, and thousands of others. Aware consumers are accelerating the change by choosing organic, recycled, and fairtrade cotton clothing. 

Arguably, the lowest impact source of wood is reclaimed wood since no new trees are consumed.

Now, on to the forest. Wood is the material of choice for furniture making, and demand is only growing with fast furniture. The furniture industry is the third largest consumer of wood, after the construction and paper industries. Rampant wood sourcing makes furniture a top culprit in the global deforestation crisis. A major contributor to climate change—second only to the burning of fossil fuels—deforestation also causes biodiversity loss and threatens the livelihoods of 1.6 billion people, including indigenous communities.

As with cotton, certification is an important part of the solution. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification is to wood and forests what organic certification is to cotton or food. The gold standard in wood certification, FSC ensures forests are responsibly managed and provide environmental, social, and economic benefits to local communities. Because illegal logging fuels deforestation, FSC also offers “chain-of-custody” certification to trace wood to its source. About 10% of the world’s “working” forests are FSC certified, which is encouraging but also shows how much more protection is needed.

Arguably, the lowest impact source of wood is reclaimed wood since no new trees are consumed. FSC certified and reclaimed wood furniture are increasingly available, from Crate & Barrel--sized brands to Etsy and many smaller makers, but still only make up a small part of the market.

Image credit: Timothy Epp

How Can We Apply Lessons from Fashion to Launch a Sustainable Furniture Movement? 

As seen in the sustainable fashion movement, engagement by all stakeholders is needed. I’ve rounded up actions for consumers, followed by an offering of industry and organization recommendations.  

Individual Action

Strong consumer demand and participation are needed to really move the needle, as we’ve seen in fashion with waste, organic cotton, and the sweatshop issue.

  • Ask questions when shopping for furniture, and choose accordingly: Is it fairtrade? Is the furniture, or any component of it, certified by FSC, SA 8000, Oeko-Tex (for sustainable fabrics), or other reputable certifications? Is it made of recycled or reclaimed materials?
  • Support brands that take back, resell, and recycle furniture; and if your favorite brands don’t, ask them to start offering those services.
  • Support small sustainable furniture makers and retailers.
  • Choose “pre-loved” (secondhand) furniture.
  • Consider renting instead of buying.
  • Resell or donate your furniture instead of throwing it out.

Engage your favorite celebrities or influencers who speak out about fashion and environmental issues such as Adrian Grenier, Pharrell Williams, Leonardo Dicaprio, Shailene Woodley and ask them to help lead the sustainable furniture movement.

Image credit: rememberwhomadethem

Industry & Organization Action 

  • Launch a global campaign to promote furniture sustainability in collaboration with SFC, modeled on The Fashion Revolution and the Slow Factory Foundation’s work. The campaign would engage all stakeholders: brands, designers, workers, consumers, and policymakers and initiate public awareness and media campaigns.
  • Creation of roadmaps furniture companies of different sizes can follow to achieve measurable sustainability goals, inspired by think tank New Standard Institute’s fashion roadmaps. 
  • Work with more environmental organizations to champion the sustainable furniture movement, and to help grow leading programs such as SFC’s “What’s it Made of?” and Wood Furniture Scorecard.
  • Build a collaboration of big furniture brands along the lines of The Fashion Pact to facilitate best practice sharing among the industry’s largest players. This would also garner media attention and public exposure for the movement. 
  • Consider establishing a universal furniture-specific standard to assess companies’ environmental and social sustainability performance, product design impacts, and environmental impacts of raw materials for benchmarking and driving transparency. Look to the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s HIGG Index as an example.
  • Promote widespread use of certifications including Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) for wood, Oeko-Tex and Global Organic Standard (GOTS) for fabric, Greenguard for furnishings, and SA8000 for worker safety.
  • Create an industry challenge with specific targets tied to a timeline to encourage brands and retailers to source FSC certified and reclaimed wood. A similar challenge for organic cotton, sponsored by the Sustainable Cotton Project, is proving effective. 
  • Invest in the circular economy through offering rentals, takeback programs, upcycling, recycling, and use of reclaimed materials. Finally, the sustainable fashion movement has done a fabulous job of leveraging social and traditional media. A consumer awareness campaign on the furniture-deforestation connection would grow the demand and market for sustainable alternatives. It could also help launch a bonafide sustainable furniture movement, the way sweatshops did for fashion.

There is no time like the present, so why not put these ideas into action now? By fully embracing circularity, ingenuity, and lessons learned from the sustainable fashion movement, we can transform the way we consume and produce furniture.

About the Author: L. Christina Cobb is the founder of UrbisEco and author of The Ultimate Guide to Eco-Friendly and Ethical Furniture. She worked in the furniture industry for over seven years with Roche Bobois and other leading brands. She is also a sustainability and communications consultant.