Fast Furnishings, the Not So New Fast Fashion
Fast Furnishings, the Not So New Fast Fashion
Fast fashion was developed in the mid 90s by a clothing brand named Zara and adopted by companies such as H&M and Topshop. Its strategy was to increase sales by shortening fashion cycles thereby designing products that would go out of fashion or wear out quickly. This strategy, known as planned obsolescence, had already been established in other industries such as household appliances, cars, and furnishings. But it was fast fashion that brought to light the devastating environmental and social consequences of designing products that aren’t meant to last. This is mainly due to the rapid increase in textile waste, pollution from textile processing, and our exposure to the horrible human rights violations at these factories.
According to the EPA in 2013 US households generated an average of 254 million tons of trash that year, 11.6% percent of which is in the leather, rubber and textile category of which only 9% was recycled or composted. Also, according to the EPA’s WARM (waste reduction model) calculation, which examines the reduction of greenhouse gases, recycling textiles reduces more greenhouse gases per ton than recycling plastic. Now, I’m not saying you should stop recycling plastic but it seems to me that if there is that much of a positive impact then recycling textiles should be just as easy as recycling household plastic.
The good thing about textile products versus plastics is that we have more opportunities to donate and reuse textiles before throwing them away. Which brings us back to fast fashion. Donating textiles is easy but what happens when the product is too worn to be reusable? It’s thrown away. And as a result of Fast Fashion, we have a lot more products being tossed after a shorter period of use.
So what does this have to do with home goods?
Fast furnishings have been around as long, if not longer than fast fashion. Fast furnishings is a term I coined in my graduate study referring to home goods designed, marketed, produced and consumed under the same planned obsolescence strategy as fast fashion. I trace the introduction of fast furnishings back to IKEA, which was founded in Sweden in 1943. IKEA however, was based on much less sinister principles. The founder, Ingvar Kamprad believed that great design should be accessible to all, not just the wealthy. So he changed the way products were designed to influence the manufacturing process and allow some of the production stages to be passed on to the consumer, thereby driving down the cost and passing the savings to the consumer. Which is basically how we became accustomed to building our own low cost furniture. Let me pause and say that I too believe that great design should be accessible to all and I think the way Ingvar Kamprad achieved this was brilliant, and it was all done through the design process (see previous blog). Designing products this way also drove down transportation and delivery costs and environmental impacts. Kamprad saw these strategies as methods towards more sustainable design and manufacturing. However, this is where I start to challenge IKEA’s version of sustainability. Among other issues, IKEA’s overuse of natural resources, MDF (medium density fiberboard which is made with formaldehyde), plastics, and chemical finishes discredits their sustainability claims. It’s kind of like saying you’re healthy because you eat salads from McDonalds.
Back to the point
Besides the chemicals used to produce MDF and particle board, these materials are more likely to break down quickly and are more susceptible to damage than hardwood. So while there is the same opportunity for reuse and donation of large items such as sofas, rugs and wooden furniture, the product quality declines when companies start to apply the same planned obsolescence strategy to large pieces. Now we have more unusable used furnishings resulting in more large furniture pieces and textiles in landfills. Which in turn means that toxins and known carcinogens from these pieces, including the textiles, end up in landfills or incinerators impacting the environment and our human health.
At the end of the day, despite our best intentions, I know we will all at one point or another end up purchasing (or being gifted) something made from a planned obsolescence strategy. This is simply inevitable when markets are saturated with these types of retailers and more sustainable options are either not available or too expensive. BedStraw was developed to bring change to the interior textile industry by supporting companies that challenge the fast furnishing way of designing, manufacturing, and consuming. Our goal is help increase healthy, carefully designed, and affordable options for consumers so they can fill their homes with pieces that last and are planned for a useful end of life rather than a landfill.
If you want to know more about fast fashion and its devastating social impacts, here’s a good documentary
Here’s a link to the EPA’s fact sheet on waste and recycling https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-09/documents/2013_advncng_smm_fs.pdf