Can Affordable Furniture Be Built To Last?
Words by Sam Nichols
Photos courtesy of Heimur
Much like fast fashion, the recent rise of fast furniture has an environmental cost. But with the solutions being more complex than simply abstaining from it, furniture labels are starting to push for creative solutions.
On a summer’s night in Mississippi, 1924, an industrialist named William H. Mason accidentally came across something astonishing: by applying heat and pressure, he could recycle and transform unwanted and unusable wood into something useful.
At the time, sawmills would discard timber that was deemed unusable and worthless, while also producing an extensive amount of wood chips and sawdust which, again, would be thrown away. Mason, infuriated by the wastefulness and the subsequent loss of revenue, set out to find a way to use these undesirable materials.
Mason found that by heating these byproducts to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and placing them under 500 pounds of pressure, he could produce wood fibre. That fibre could then be turned into a board – fittingly called “hardboard” – that is thin, tough and more importantly, workable.
And while Mason’s discovery wasn’t the first instance of wood fibre being used to create a material, this instance represented another opportunity to repurpose materials deemed useless, and a step forward in wood products being utilised more in craftsmanship.
Almost a century later, fibreboard exists everywhere in multiple forms and densities. Its low cost, extreme usability and versatility means companies like IKEA, Target and Kmart all employ fibreboard in their furniture making. That usage in turn allows for more affordable wares. But while fibreboard is made from reconstituted wood and makes a typically expensive commodity like furniture more accessible, there’s an apparent downside to its use.
Fibreboard, in all of its densities, is less durable than timber – particleboard, the weakest form, lasts five years on average. And since fibreboard is incredibly susceptible to fractures or breaking from use, its lifespan when used in furniture could be a lot shorter. Furthermore, the presence of the toxic chemical formaldehyde not only presents concerns from occupational exposure, it also means that, unlike timber, fibreboard is typically non-recyclable.
“It’s not something that can just rot away in the ground,” says Nathan Lawrence, designer and founder of Melbourne-based furniture label Heimur. “[It’s a product] you need to wear masks for, and they’re just being thrown out [and] left on the street. It’s just adding to the problem.”
Nathan is one of the many furniture makers who prioritises quality over quantity, ultimately refusing to use fibreboard in any capacity. Nathan dissects the complexities of how fibreboard isn’t the only problem, but also the vicious cycle that arises when its used and bought.
Much like fast fashion clothing, fibreboard products aren’t purchased for their quality, but for their low price. When a fibreboard product either breaks or is no longer needed, it’s discarded, before being replaced. This cycle of constant buying and replacing is, according to Nathan, the antithesis of sustainability. “Regardless of what timber species you use, the sustainable thing is [that] you’re buying furniture to last,” Nathan stresses. “By default, it isn’t sustainable if it’s built to break.”
Heimur (aptly named after the Icelandic word for “home”) pieces are beautiful and versatile. The attention to detail is complemented by clear Scandinavian and modernist influences, which come together to create pieces reflective of art. It's not just the use of recycled and ethically sourced timber that makes Heimur a sustainable brand - their steadfast approach to making high quality, long-lasting product ensures their furniture won't end up ditched by the roadside.
Heimur also takes an individualised approach to furniture making. Delivering specialised advice, economical prices, lifelong repairs and multifunctional pieces like beds with storage components, Heimur’s goal is to make long-lasting furniture more appealing, functional and practical. “A client wanted a huge desk, and he said he was renting, so I talked him down into getting a small desk, or two desks,” says Nathan. “That’s part of our job: educating.” In fact, renters make up a solid chunk of Heimur’s target demographic. “It was [about] filling that gap,” says Nathan. “When you look at nice furniture, it’s typically way out of everyone’s budget as a renter. That’s where we sit.”
"By default, it isn't sustainable if it's built to break."
Marketing to renters is significant: according to a 2016 study conducted by US fintech company Earnest, IKEA’s typical shopper is aged between 24 and 34, while the average age of an Australian first-home buyer is currently 31. So we can assume the market for fibreboard goods is heavily populated with young renters opting for an affordable and practical alternative to timber furniture. The mission of brands like Heimur is to fill the gap between bespoke, expensive furniture and cheaper fibreboard options.
What some are doing is attempting to address the environmental impact. For example, IKEA has made pledges to be more sustainable by 2020 and to use entirely renewable and recycled materials by 2030. More notably, they’ve made a decision to become a circular economy. Although this doesn’t address concerns about fibreboard’s longevity, it does address wastage.
Annelie Sjöqvist, Senior Communications Specialist at IKEA, tells Matters, “One of our commitments is to become a circular business, which means that we, among other things, will only use recycled or renewable materials and design all new products from the very beginning to be repurposed, repaired, reused, resold and recycled – generating as little waste as possible.” The scale of impact that big players like IKEA can have when they start to adopt sustainability measures is colossal.
This isn’t a sweeping solution to this issue, and fibreboard is still rotting away in landfills. But businesses aren’t entirely to blame – some are trying to mitigate the issue. So, while choosing the cheaper option is understandable, a product that breaks easily or is purchased with the intention of being thrown out is not sustainable. It’s time for businesses to acknowledge fibreboard’s harsh environmental impact and for us, as consumers, to make smarter, more ethical choices.