Kmart and Ikea: does fast furniture get a bad rap?
Fast furniture, like fast fashion, is the raison d'etre of contemporary lifestyles.
Affordable, mass-produced pieces from the likes of Ikea and Kmart are driving the home design industry towards an instant turnover momentum. Shoppers are looking for quick fixes: faster, cheaper and easily discarded.
This "in one day and out the next" mentality is sounding alarm bells in environmental circles. Fast furniture, they decry, is full of toxins, poorly made, and a major contributor to deforestation and landfill.
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But does fast furniture suffer a bad rap?
In some ways, yes, says Liam Fennessy, lecturer at Australia's architecture and design at RMIT.
"Fast furniture – or mass manufactured, low-cost and accessible furniture – constitutes the majority of what we might call a furniture industry and has for a very long time.
"Often low-cost furniture is very well designed, and as a sector it employs many good designers. It…caters to what a large number of consumers want, need and can afford."
Furniture products are only "fast" if they are purchased, used, discarded and replaced in a short time frame, says Fennessy.
"If the furniture is intentionally designed and produced for a short use life, has a minimal material and embodied energy load, and is easily recycled, it is possibly not such a problem.
"However if it is designed and produced as if it could last 100 years … and is only used for three years, the producer has a very poor strategy."
Consumer waste arguably has more to do with it than production, he says.
Shoppers have a growing awareness of social responsibility, says Michele Chow, founder of Dessein Furniture, which specialises in Australian designs that are authentic and sustainable in material use and production.
The question is not so much whether fast furniture is harmful as whether it can be sustainable, she says.
"In my view, cheap production and fast turnaround generally equate to unsustainable production and products with shorter life cycles," she says.
"The very fact that fast furniture is made using unsustainable timber and produced on the cheap means it has very little recycling or up-cycling potential. The subtext of that is it's destined for landfill even before it's been produced."
Flat-pack, epitomised by Swedish juggernaut IKEA, has become the poster child for fast furniture. Almost 1 per cent of all the commercially harvested wood in the world goes into IKEA products, packaging, and printed materials.
But Fennessy says, although it appears counter-intuitive, the amenity that low-cost furniture provides shouldn't be downplayed.
"Six years ago, The New Yorker ran a story on how one in 10 Europeans were conceived in an IKEA bed and presumably then slept in an IKEA cot, sat in an IKEA high chair and so on," he says.
Large companies in this space are in a position to set in place sustainable supply chains due to scales of production, says Fennessy.
IKEA, for example, has outsourced a key aspect of production – assembly – as a consumer experience, "meaning that its production, transport and warehousing costs are markedly reduced compared to fully assembled products of the same or similar quality," he says.
The retail giant's purchase of more than 40,000 hectares of Romanian forest in 2015 signalled a move towards managing its own ecosystem. "We are … on a journey to play a role in ensuring responsible forestry becomes the norm, beyond our supply chain," says IKEA. Its Forest Positive goal aims to source 100 per cent of its wood, paper, and cardboard from more sustainable sources by August 2020.
Ironically, IKEA's budget furniture is so accessible globally, it's spawning a fledgling trend that could give fast furniture some longevity: the art of the hack.
"Where unwanted furniture isn't on-sold is where the real problem starts," says Fennessy.
But while low-cost furniture is often so cheap it's not worth re-selling, "there is a market for used furniture goods of which a large proportion is … 'fast furniture'. Alongside repair and resale, there are design practices that look to hack or remake furniture." It's a market too marginal to have a big impact currently, Fennessy acknowledges, but it's an interesting start.
Ultimately, the worst aspects of fast furniture production will exist as long as consumer habits lay waste to them.
"Consumers need to question their reliance on unsustainable systems," says Chow. "By carefully sourcing and understanding our supply chains, Dessein aims to reform the way in which customers purchase, use and dispose of products. What consumers should be asking before purchasing is: Where does this product come from? Where does it go at the end of its life cycle?"
Liam Fennessy's antidotes to fast furniture
* Engaging well-trained designers with up-to-date design for sustainability capabilities
* Investment in furniture recycling and waste processing systems
* Leasing, rather than buy-to-purchase models, to provide people with short-term furniture needs
* Extended production responsibility schemes, for example, white goods take-back
* Consumer education: buy less, buy well, repair and keep it for as long as possible