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Fast Furniture: The Ethical, Economic & Environmental Impacts

In a world of fast food and fast fashion, it’s no surprise really that fast has come to the furniture industry. We live in an age where we want higher convenience and lower costs, but these cravings come with consequences.

Enter, the growing “fast furniture” trend.

Fast furniture is the term that’s used to describe inexpensive pieces of furniture that are mass produced and have a short lifecycle. A common example is flat pack furniture, which is made as sections that you put together yourself at home.

It may be affordable and fairly easy to assemble (for some), but flimsy furniture has a huge, negative effect on both people and the planet. Production conditions are notorious poor, local economic benefits are non–existent, and the negative, environmental impacts seem never ending. 

Keep reading for a crash course in fast furniture and why there’s never been a better time to give it a wide berth…

Unethical Practices and Processes 

One of the most regretful ramifications of manufacturing cheap furniture is the human toll.

Fast furniture is mostly made overseas by people who are given a measly, below minimum wage and operate in unsafe working conditions. Much like in the textiles industry, accidents, explosions, injuries and disease can be common occurrences.

Forced labour and child labour is rife in third world countries where employment is a must – regardless of the hazardous environment. Workers are often cramped into unhygienic, uninsulated and unventilated warehouses where lighting is limited, adequate space is sparse and welfare facilities are few and far between. 

Illnesses are frequent in fast furniture factories, due to the persistent exposure to toxic materials and chemicals used in production. One of the most concerning is formaldehyde.

Although formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, it’s used right now in many of the synthetic glues, resins and adhesives that make up composite wood products like plywood, particleboard and MDF (medium–density fibreboard). Workers who repeatedly inhale formaldehyde gas will experience stinging eyes, a burning throat, headaches and nausea and even breathing difficulties. Prolonged exposure can cause cancer.

Most cheap furniture pieces that are exported to Australia are made in countries with these conditions, so the stringent standards and regulations we have here don’t apply.

No Circular Economy Contributions

Staying on the subject of exportation leads us to the next phase of our fast furniture investigation – the economic effects.

The ideal approach is a circular economy. In a circular system, furniture materials and products are kept in circulation by reusing, refurbishing, remanufacturing and recycling them. This would allow value recovery and economic growth via job creation within the industry.

Mass produced furniture items, however, aren’t made to last. Tables have hollow legs that snap off, drawers break under the weight of clothes, and screws are too short to hold pieces together.

Although they have a cheaper price point (again, an indication of quality) than solid, new and recycled timber furniture, consumers end up spending more by having to fork out for regular replacements.

The cycle of buying becomes continuous so the economy is given a boost, right? Well, yes and no. Yes, we are supporting big, global retailers and the people these organisations employ, but no, we’re not actually putting any money into the Australian made furniture industry.

When you purchase furniture that is made overseas, you are supporting that country’s economy, and the real revenue happens elsewhere again – where the companies have their head offices. So, neither profit streams contribute to any local employment opportunities. 

Adverse Effects on the Environment

Not only is fast furniture a health hazard and an economic yo–yo, it’s also incredibly unsustainable.

The dangerous manufacturing methods used in the making of fast furniture go further than harming just humans (as bad enough as that it). They harm the earth and its natural resources as well, and this careless, throw–away culture has become a big contributor to climate change.

According to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Americans threw out over 12 million tons of furniture in 2018 alone, and over 80% of it ended up in landfill.

Here in Australia, tons of office furniture pieces like desks, chairs, storage units and partitions are discarded every year, also clogging up landfills. If an office building is refurbished every few years, it’s because each new business that comes into the space wants a new fit–out. 

Deforestation is another example of waste and pollution is a by–product of the toxins used in production. Most pieces don’t break down properly or biodegrade over time, affecting air, water and land quality. International item shipping and transportation leaves a big carbon footprint too, contributing to high levels of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The only way to reduce the ethical, economic and environmental impacts of fast furniture is to stop buying it. Shopping for good quality, long lasting, Australian furniture supports local jobs, ensuring safe working conditions and sustainably sourced materials. Here at ND Furniture, our wood furniture is designed and built on–site using mostly recycled timbers.

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