You know cheap clothes end up in a landfill, but where does cheap furniture go?
I remember the first time I walked into an IKEA. It was the summer of 2000, and I was 20 years old. I had no idea what IKEA was, but I was with some older friends who were adult enough to actually live with their boyfriends and were setting up trendy starter households in their Chicago apartments. They wanted things like a full set of wine glasses, throw blankets for the sofa, and bed linens with bold squiggly lines on them. They were on their second or third trip back to IKEA and couldn’t stop talking about how great it was, so I decided to tag along.
The experience changed my life. I lived in an apartment with hand-me-down 1970s furniture, Corelle dinnerware, and wall art from the college poster shop. But I was interested in better stuff. Design had always been important to me, but I didn’t have a language for it. I just knew I had always felt different in houses with skylights and flat roofs. Walking into IKEA, I got the same feeling I got when I stayed at my Belgian aunt’s house in the suburbs of Detroit (she had such great Japanese-minimalist-inspired European furniture): I want to live like this.
You know the story line. Drunk on inspiration supplied by IKEA’s showroom vignettes, I felt the urge to transform my life. And everything was cheap, so I bought $150 worth of curtains and LACK end tables. When I brought it all home, I felt a slight disappointment that my entire apartment didn’t already look like the perfectly organized, cozy minimalist displays, so I vowed to return again soon to complete my transformation into an adult with a stylish Scandinavian-inspired living space. I was hooked.
I eventually phased out the particleboard furniture I purchased that day as my style evolved. My burgeoning interest in Scandinavian furniture led me to classic mid-century designers like Hans Wegner and Alvar Aalto. Of course, I couldn’t afford them, so I started exploring second hand sources: Craigslist and estate sales. After a few years of hunting for and scoring nice second hand pieces, I launched a side business selling vintage furniture.
As a side effect of that venture, I developed a deep and enduring relationship with discarded junk. From 2004 to 2014, I spent an average of 30 hours per week at estate sales, garage sales, and thrift stores. In my down time, I was constantly scouring the Craigslist used furniture listings.
It was my job to understand where the most valuable stuff would emerge, and how to get ahold of it. So every day, for ten years, I watched the stream of stuff that left people’s households, monitoring it for things of value. I liken this work to that of a first responder who has a front row seat to the opioid crisis. I was a person who unwittingly came to understand, because of my chosen vocation, an unfolding crisis. I knew how terribly bad it was, and I also knew, because of my daily exposure to the sheer volume of it, how individuals were almost powerless to stop it.
I was mostly focused on furniture and housewares, but if you spend enough time in thrift stores, you can’t help but notice the cubic bales of used clothing piled up in metal cages back where the dumpsters are. When I first saw these cubes, I couldn’t process what they were. In what part of the donation process-from people giving their clothes to the thrift store to the clothes going out on the floor for sale-would they need to be baled like this? It took me years to dismantle the cognitive wall I had constructed so I could process what was actually happening: these donated clothes were being thrown away.
Prior to this I had assumed there was an infinite downstream secondhand market for everything. I thought, like many people do, that the nation’s poor were grateful to inherit our t-shirts with holes in them.
But the truth is no one wants used garments in bad condition. Much of the clothing we donate to thrift stores gets recycled, thrown away, or shipped to Africa. Hence the clothing bales.
This didn’t used to be so much of a problem when clothes lasted longer or could be recycled into rags. But then the fast fashion giants (Old Navy, Forever 21, etc.) started overproducing cheap clothes made from materials that quickly became stretched out or torn, so they couldn’t be resold, but also couldn’t be recycled (mostly because of the polyester content, which is flammable). The volume of clothes increased, overwhelming secondhand markets, while the quality went down, meaning more of our discarded stuff just ends up in a landfill.
As much as I had learned about the evils of the clothing industry, I still assumed housewares had an infinite secondhand market because they felt so much more solid. There will always be a market for a used tea kettle, right?
Yet it had always been clear to me, since the beginning of my thrifting days, that there was a difference in the quality between the household goods you could purchase at an estate sale and what you could find at a thrift store. Thrift stores had flimsy plastic housewares that often broke, and estate sales had quality, durable goods.
This isn’t because somehow everyone who donates to a thrift store has lower quality stuff. It’s because thrift store donations are generally newer-made in the last 20 years-and estate sale items are usually 20 years or older, collected in households that got their start in the 1960s and ’70s. The older the household item was, it seemed to me, the more likely it was to hold its value over time because it wasn’t worn or broken. But why?
The answer is because like clothing manufacturers, the makers of household goods have gravitated toward a system of cheapening quality while at the same time increasing production. They’re making cheaper stuff, and more of it. Household goods used to be designed and manufactured to last a lifetime, and I can attest that many of them did, given how many estate sales I’ve been to. Now they’re designed to last maybe a decade if you’re lucky.
Case in point: Crate and Barrel. Gordon and Carole Segal founded Crate and Barrel in 1962 when they were both 23 years old. They saw a gap in the market for quality, affordable European design for young couples starting out. Crate and Barrel was founded in Chicago, and I can tell you from first-hand experience that much of the dinnerware sold in their original flagship store to couples their same age in the 1960s and ’70s was still being used in 2009 when I was buying it from those couples’ estate sales in the Chicago suburbs. Old Crate and Barrel dinnerware was manufactured in Europe (Poland for sure, and likely Portugal). Today, Crate and Barrel dinnerware is made in China and, in my opinion, of a lower quality and less durable than the European dinnerware they sold in the 1970s and ’80s. I know because I own old Polish-made Crate and Barrel dinnerware that I bought from an estate sale, as well as newer, Chinese-manufactured* Crate and Barrel dinnerware. The Polish Crate and Barrel has a noticeable, weightier feel, and is less likely to chip when my two-year-old slams it down on a table.
Target started partnering with designers on clothing and household goods collections in 1999, a year before my first trip to IKEA. It was these partnerships, in part, that differentiated Target from department stores like Sears, JC Penny, and Kohl’s, and ultimately spared it from bankruptcy, or the worse fate: brand death. People in my demographic associate Target with on-trend home decor that’s surprisingly affordable, and a trip to Target as a reprieve from the stressors of daily life — a treat!
But right around 2009 I found that I couldn’t walk into Target without feeling rolling waves of anxiety. Because of my hours spent as a household junk first responder, I knew how much of the Nate Berkus collection ended up in thrift stores and what it looked like after someone had used it for five years. And yet, here were thousands of people at Target, buying a Nate Berkus decorative black sofa tray for $19.99. I was just nine years removed from my first trip to IKEA where I, too, had felt the powerful high of cheap, accessible design. And yet now watching others experiencing it, I felt like a paramedic watching a doctor write a prescription for OxyContin. “Stop!” I wanted to scream. “Do you know where this seemingly benign decision is going to lead us?” For me, watching people buy things at Target is like watching a time lapse video of a landfill getting fuller and fuller.
Because the truth is, like the clothing we buy, furniture today isn’t made to last. And when we discard it, it doesn’t stay in infinite use the way we think it might. Much of it, so much of it, goes to the landfill.
It’s a hard truth that even Goodwill, an organization made up of household junk first responders, people on the front lines of the overconsumption crisis, can’t even bear to tell us. Just read what the Goodwill organization in Akron, Ohio says on their website about where donated household goods end up:
Those items that just don’t sell, [or] do not meet our quality standards… end up in our salvage stream. If the item cannot be salvaged, it might be recycled in some other way. For example, if Goodwill has extra dishes or glassware, it “trades” another nonprofit organization in the community for that organization’s extra clothing or household items. Unfortunately some items must be disposed of. Through this process of reselling goods and recycling, Goodwill organizations across the country have diverted billions of used clothes and other goods from landfills. Plus, nationally, Goodwill has earned hundreds of millions of dollars by selling to salvage vendors — dollars that help people find jobs to our community. Goodwill of Akron, “What Happens to Your Donations”
The upbeat conclusion masks the reality: some items must be disposed of. It feels like Goodwill is trying to shield us from the sad truth of just how many of those items don’t actually make it into their salvage stream.
Back when Gordon and Carol Segal founded Crate and Barrel, young people setting up households had the expectation that the goods they were purchasing were an investment. They weren’t cheap, but they were meant for a lifetime of daily use. That durability came at a certain price point. The clean lines and neutral colors of the Crate and Barrel dinnerware lines-a stark contrast at the time to patterned dish sets-also meant that the design was timeless enough for a century of use. At the time there was also an expanding (albeit mostly white) upwardly mobile middle class made up of men and women who expected it was alright to spend 10% of that month’s paycheck on long-lasting household products because the economy would only get better.
We can’t blame ourselves alone for opting for cheaper options. We now live in a culture of ubiquitous cheap design and fragile economic stability. We scoff at paying more than we should for household products when we can get almost the same thing, at the click of a button, way cheaper. And we need to get it cheaper because we need the extra money to pay off unforeseen medical bills, a ballooning mortgage, or crushing student debt.
We live with a toxic cocktail: being told we’re adults that should have nice things, not being able to afford nice things, and having access instead to almost any design we can imagine in any style we can imagine at an affordable price. In addition, because of the proliferation of visual design platforms like Pinterest and Instagram, we feel the need to change our home decor almost as fast as we change our wardrobes. We turn to throwaway, cheap design-design that ends up in a landfill-because it’s readily available and provides a dopamine hit that tells us we’re close to keeping up with whatever influencer’s style we’re aspiring to on Instagram. We’re drowning in cheap crap that we feel compelled to buy, and most of us don’t even notice how close to the brink this behavior is bringing us.
This year, as someone who can now afford slightly nicer things, I vowed to do better. But I quickly found that “doing better” as it relates to furniture and housewares was not as easy as doing better with, say, clothing or food. Even as the cheap furniture trade expands (H&M recently entered into the furniture space, and a whole host of direct-to-consumer furniture brands have launched online), I find that we, the furniture consumers, don’t even know the right questions to ask about where our furniture comes from, how it’s made, and how, ultimately, it can be disposed of. Unlike the vast amount of content available on organic, local produce or sustainably sourced, ethically manufactured clothing (not to mention companies founded on the platform of making these things more readily available), the furniture and housewares space is inexplicably void of sustainability information, save for a few fringe brands or footnotes.
So I’m going to do what I’ve always done when it comes to attempting to understand something: I’m going to write about it.
This year I’m going to fix up 20 things in my house in the most sustainable way possible. I’m going to look at the materials, manufacturing, lifecycle, carbon footprint and overall impact of what I purchase for my house while I work on these projects. And I’m going to blog about the process here, in real time, as I learn what I learn and explore options.
I hope that you will go with me on this journey. I can’t promise I will have all the answers, but I vow to at least start asking the right questions.
* Not everything manufactured today in China is terrible. There are Chinese factories that manufacture high quality goods while maintaining low emissions. I don’t know what factories Crate and Barrel is using to produce their dinnerware, so I’m not aware of the full picture.
Originally published at http://www.youareelectric.com on January 23, 2020.