What will it take to drive far greater sustainability -- and produce vastly less waste -- among New York City’s expanse of furniture and design industries and consumers?
During this year’s ReFashion Week NYC (2/26 - 3/5/21), mebl | Transforming Furniture curated a first-time ReDesign Day. This virtual programming challenged New Yorkers to imagine a world in which all products -- including furniture and furnishings -- are made, consumed, shared and remade sustainably. ReDesign Day featured two in-depth panel discussions, a game show, and a marketplace, and was reinforced by concepts of transformation to a more circular economy. Here are some of the key takeaways of the day:
Growing thoughtfully contributes to growing sustainably.
Phantila Phataraprasit, COO and co-founder of Sabai, explains that businesses like hers need to take the time and effort to “source the right suppliers and come up with the right design to make sure that it aligns with everything that we’re trying to do.” Aligning with the circular economy can require that a business, at first, focus more on the quality of its products over its size.
Sabai is a young furniture company helping to create a new industry standard for sustainability: all of Sabai’s products are manufactured domestically, in North Carolina; their furniture parts are from natural or eco-friendly materials; and they have introduced buyback and replacement parts programs to continue the life cycle of their furniture. Sabai will buy back their furniture from consumers who no longer want it and then resell it for a lower price. Additionally, if a cushion cover or chair leg gets torn or scuffed, consumers can buy a replacement part on the Sabai website. “Growing thoughtfully,” notes Phantila, requires taking in “a lot of considerations'' before making any change, such as fabrics and packaging materials. This allows the company to take slow steps to create a bigger impact.
Ngozi Okaro, founder and executive director of Custom Collaborative, takes a similar approach. Ngozi says that the idea for her organization came to her when she realized that there are “people that want clothes that fit and affirm their bodies and people who can make these clothes and earn a living wage.” All of the clothing sold on Custom Collaborative’s site is made by women training to be in fashion, and so the garments are made in small batches with “deadstock fabric,” meaning leftover material from fashion houses usually thrown out. This limits waste and creates a slower-moving business model that is still successful, yet does not value speed and quantity.
Both Sabai and Custom Collaborative demonstrate that, with focus, companies can make strides in reducing waste and creating thoughtful, attractive products that support the circular economy.
Environmentally-friendly businesses play a key role in supporting local economies.
Custom Collaborative is a multi-faceted enterprise.“We have a training program,” notes Ngozi, “a business incubator, and a cooperative development arm.” This model generates new jobs and the potential for new businesses and creators. At Big Reuse, founder and executive director Justin Green is thinking the same thing. “We have created about fifteen jobs here,” Justin says. “We work with job training programs...this can be multiplied across any neighborhood in terms of a sort of self-sustaining program that makes jobs and keeps material out of landfill.”
Big Reuse operates a reuse super-center in Brooklyn that takes in all manner of objects, from computers to building materials to sofas, and resells them to the public. Justin says that this solution to waste reduction is also an engine of economic growth: “There’s so much value in that material,” he explains. “Generate jobs, generate revenue. A model to create a local economy.” Big Reuse’s profit is put back into the business, creating new programs, like a composting initiative, that gives back to its surrounding communities.
Convert your passion into positive impact and push businesses to do the same.
The drive to create new businesses can also be detrimental to the environment. Jonsara Ruth, co-founder and design director of Parsons Healthy Materials Lab, details her own story of designing wholesale furniture before seeing its impact on health issues for factory workers and their families and on the air quality around the factory. Instead, she thought, “How can I do my passion but not negatively impact other people or the planet that we live on?”
Julie Raskin agrees. As executive director of the Sanitation Foundation, Julie says that the accountability of businesses should be extended to the full life-cycle of its products.“The real shift is going to come,” notes Julie, “when we really engage furniture makers...and put the onus on producers to help fund and solve for the end-of-life use for their objects.” Companies, no matter the size, can take responsibility for enhancing the circular economy through intentionality in waste reduction, shipping practices, product design, and more.
Malika Leiper, a researcher, storyteller, and strategist, pushes that idea further. She encourages entrepreneurs to ask themselves, “Do I really want to bring more into this world that will then potentially be disposed and maybe not in the most friendly way?” Malika says, “I think there is value in doing less, or not doing.” The constant creation of new companies that do not grow thoughtfully, as Phantila noted, end up fostering landfill size rather than holistic business models that take into account manufacturing, recycling, and design.
This idea can also be applied to consumers. Laurence Carr, CEO of sustainable interior design firm Laurence Carr, Inc., describes her mission as “regenerative design,” or creating homes that use sustainable materials and make environments of wellness and comfort. She says that the constant production of furniture “all starts with consumer demand,” and so it is imperative that buyers do their own research into furnishing companies and find out how they ship, design, and give back. Questioning those producers, as Phantila explains, “puts more pressure” on businesses to step up their game.
Instead of focusing on trends, notes Laurence, “surround yourself with things that matter” and “make heart-centered decisions.” This may involve buying furniture that is built to last, reupholstering a sofa instead of getting a new one, and decorating with what you love. This slower-paced consumer ideology can create less waste.
Racial justice is inherent to climate justice.
For the circular economy to flourish, a healthy environment must be accessible to everyone. “Sustainability really has to travel directly through a lens of racial justice,” notes Ngozi, “So if we continue to operate under a white supremacist ideology, then we’re not thinking about the majority of the world.” She compares the availability of clean water in a metropolis like New York, which is prioritized and highly prized, with the under-prioritization of clean water in the majority-Black, underserved town of Flint. This Michigan city was famously discovered in 2014 to have extremely high levels of lead in the public water supply, leading belatedly to charges on public officials for manslaughter.
“[We are all] equal and we deserve equitable frameworks and access to water and air,” says Ngozi. “Especially during the Covid-19 pandemic,” echoes Malika,“you start to see how interconnected we are. It’s harder to ignore things when you’re in one place and when things slow down.” In short, it is essential that the sustainability movement prioritize the inclusion of all people in order to create an equitable, inclusive environment.
These take-away lessons from multiple facets of the furniture, food, and fashion fields can help foster a more thoughtful, equitable economy. With conscious companies like Sabai and Custom Collaborative, and insightful designers like Laurence and Jonsara, alongside creative leaders like Julie, Justin and Malika, the future of sustainability looks more promising. These new-age thinkers are furthering the tenets of the circular economy.
BELLBOY New York
ReFashion Week NYC 2021 was co-hosted by the Sanitation Foundation and donateNYC. It brought together pioneers reimagining the world of fashion to be more sustainable, in support of NYC’s goal of sending zero waste to landfill by 2030. Throughout the week, a series of panels, discussions, workshops, and a virtual marketplace created the foundation for brainstorming a new future of fashion. This year’s first-ever ReDesign Day extended that conversation through three events:
- Driving Sustainability in Furniture and Design: Join the Change!
- Dressers, Dresses, and Dressing: What Can Sustainable Furniture, Fashion and Food Learn from Each Other?
- Game Show Time: Guess the Origin! Sustainability Can Be Fun!
Click on the first two to watch the videos and click HERE for a list of resources and furniture makers.
By Danya Rubenstein-Markiewicz, mebl | Transforming Furniture