The elephant in the room

The elephant in the room

Fast food? Fast fashion? Both increasingly infra dig in the age of enlightened sustainability. If we are so careful about what we put into and onto our bodies, what stops us short when it comes to the things that we sit on, work at, eat off, sleep on?

Happily interior design is cool once more. And it’s not only cool, it’s now mainstream. We’ve spent much of the last eighteen months at home, noticing all the things that aren’t fully functional, that don’t quite fit with our aspirations. We also have seemingly intuitive social media to help us curate exactly the right vibe. Further, these same channels can provide us with everything we need to complete the perfect ambiance at the click of a button or even the swipe of a finger, the flash of an eye. We can create our own oases of luxury, calm and tranquillity, so crucial for our much needed self-care regimes, or the perfect (small) dinner party setting from the comfort of our existing sofas. 

It’s all too easy, but what price such convenience? 

Has this convenience silently crept up and trumped the integrity with which we pride ourselves when it comes to food, clothes or travel? 

Every year in the UK we throw out c. 22 million pieces of furniture, totalling 1.6m tonnes (Britons Send over 50% of Reusable Furniture to Landfill Every Year, Ian Mankin, 2019). Most of this is buried in landfill or burnt in an incinerator. Even items which we hope can be recycled are often not; collection systems lead to broken items, throwing things away is not a free option and communications ‘black spots’ interrupt the flow of materials (Rearranging the Furniture: An RSA Great Recovery Design Residency in collaboration with SUEZ Recycling and Recovery UK, 2015).

Not only does unwanted furniture often end up in landfill, but the average piece of furniture generates approximately 47kg of carbon dioxide equivalents – roughly the same as that produced by burning 5.3 gallons of petrol (Could the real enemy of climate change turn out to be furniture? Jonny Bairstow, Energy News Live, 2019). Therefore, not only does recycling materials save them from landfill, but recovers the energy expended in making them in the first place. And all this before we even consider the impact of the supply chains involved.

And it’s not just our planet which is negatively affected by fast furniture, our people are too. The practices associated with producing the volumes required to meet our ever increasing demand for a new look at home are uncomfortably linked to ethical issues: principally the transfer of domestic manufacturing overseas where companies can pay lower wages and often accept poorer working conditions. 

Responsible consumption: a circular economy?

The idea of a circular economy is far from novel, but is not often applied to the way we furnish our homes to great effect. If applied correctly, a cyclical system provides a viable alternative to a linear one which simply accelerates waste production; aiming to conserve natural resources by reusing existing materials. 

A crucial element for a circular economy to function well is a long-term outlook. Ideally furniture should be made once every hundred years or so, a far cry from many modern manufacturers’ aims. Even upholstery should last longer than it often does: the majority of today’s upholstery is made with foam which crumbles after 10 years through oxidisation, whereas traditional stuffing techniques using natural material such as wool last for 20-50 years. Well-designed, well-constructed furniture is intended for longevity. Further, the investment required to create an item for the long term is often better value on a year-by-year basis than a cheaper alternative.

There is no reason why well-made furniture cannot follow a circular economy. Indeed, if widely adopted such a model could considerably reduce the demand for the environmentally dangerous, short-lived and ethically questionable furniture which currently dominates the industry.

Yes interior design is cool, but responsible interior design is even more so.

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