Why I May Never Buy New Furniture Again
Updated: Jan 26
A photo of an Ethan Allen couch we bought from a couple in our community who were downsizing for a deeply discounted price.
When my husband and I first moved into our new home, we had a dilemma.
The furniture that we had in our apartment, which is half the size, hardly filled this new home.
The main living room area especially looked like a dreary white void.
So we bounced around furniture stores in the Buffalo area. This of course made me a bit nervous with COVID rates rising. I tried to limit the number of stores we visited, however, we were determined to fill that living room area that had looked like such a cozy space filled with the previous homeowner’s tasteful furnishings. I recently learned they owned a furniture store.
We also wanted to try and find a good deal for furniture, but this proved to be harder than expected. We were told over and over that it’s pretty much impossible to find a good quality couch under $1,000. Oh, and although delivery may be free, it will take at least several months unless you order one of a very limited supply of floor models.
Our solution to not only getting a high-quality sofa, but furnishing the whole room, came one day from the simplest of places: a Facebook marketplace post.
The post showed a white Ethan Allen sofa in a beautiful room with a vaulted ceiling.
The couch was listed as $700 so my husband at first wanted to wait it out until the price dropped. However, I encouraged him to just reach out to see if we could take a look—they lived in the same town as us, so what’s the harm?
So we took a look and the couple selling the house could not have been nicer. It turns out they were thrilled the couch was going to a young couple who’d just bought a house, and they even threw in a Drexel Heritage armoire for free. They also sold us two Eathan Allen chairs and an ottoman for a fraction of what they would have been to buy new.
The topping on the cake: as we were moving all of these items into a U-Haul, the couple kept handing us crystal vases, sleek candle holders, and other beautiful pieces to help decorate our home--for free.
Now, the living room area that had been a vacant white void is a centerpiece of the home with inviting furnishings and decor—all for under what the price for buying one new couch would have been.
This room is the most dramatic example lately of how it seems buying or accepting free products can save the day. For me, I’ve realized it can even help restore some of my faith in humanity during these tumultuous times.
The Environmental Cost of Buying New
To be honest, the lower cost of buying used versus new furniture is what really drove my husband and I to go this direction; however, I knew there had to be environmental benefits, too. This was also why I didn’t dive into the world of assemble-it-yourself cheap furniture sites like Ikea.
Turns out, just like fast fashion is an environmental mess in many ways, so is “fast furniture.”
More than 9 million tons of wood, metal, leather, glass, foam, and fabric from furniture end up in American landfills per year (New Republic). This has grown from 2 million tons in 1960.
Learning the Hard Way
Something that also became clear to me when I fell pray to myself buying some “fast furniture” is the copious amount of polluting packing materials that come with it.
Around Black Friday, I was targeted with a plethora of furniture ads since I couldn’t help poking around a bit knowing we’d soon need to fill our new home—I also needed a gift for my husband and I really wanted to be on top of Christmas gifts for once.
Upon clicking through one of the ads from Wayfair, I came upon a standing desk with shelving space that I thought my husband might really appreciate since he’s been working from home so much—the real kicker was that it was around 30 percent off.
So, I ordered it. But boy, what a headache it became. The shipping and delivery was quick as promised, but it came in a massive box at least two people had to lift.
To not add extra weight, the desk was shipped as a bunch of pieces insulated between massive Styrofoam pads. Now, technically Steyrofoam is the trademarked name for a material to insulate buildings—the material used for cheap disposable coffee cups and packing materials is expanded polystyrene foam (EPS), which is similar (Sciencing). As you can probably guess from the name, this material is usually made from nonrenewable fossil fuels and chemicals that contribute to lasting pollution concerns.
It’s also not biodegradable and is a particularly troublesome source of pollution because it can break down so easily into smaller pieces that are easily distributed. It causes major problems for wildlife when it enters waterways or some animals even confuse it for nesting material. When animals ingest this material, it can choke them or clog their digestive systems.
Additionally, EPS or what we know as Styrofoam is estimated to last around 1 million years! (Sciencing). This fact in particular blows my mind since a material that people often only use once for a short-term task. It’s also disheartening to learn that it's estimated to take up around 30 percent of the space in landfills.
While Styrofoam can be recyclable, it often requires the intense use of fossil fuels, and it’s becoming less available due to its inefficiency.
What’s a bit sad is that an alternative, more environmentally-friendly packing material has been around since 1999. It’s called Soapstock, and according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), it’s made from the biodegradable byproducts of vegetable oil/oilseed production. There is still quite a bit of research going into alternative uses of Soapstock since it has a lower price point than oil. (ResearchGate)
So back to my blunder with fast furniture. Not only did I immediately realize how much waste this one gift was contributing to the planet (the slabs of Styrofoam were more than half my height), but my husband was sorely disappointed to learn that the desk wasn’t made of real wood, but manufactured wood.
Now, in doing some research into this (which honestly I should have done before buying this gift), I learned manufactured wood at least isn’t super cheap and often flimsy particle board. It’s also made of a top layer of real wood. However, the wood composite that most manufactured wood consists of looks like a bunch of much smaller pieces of wood stuck together—and that’s basically what it’s made from, although it can also be made from thermoplastics or even vegetable fibers (BuildAboard).
While manufactured wood certainly lacks the aesthetic appeal and apparent strength of real wood, it can have the environmental benefit of preventing carbon-capturing forests from having to be cut down (BuildAboard). Well, that’s one take on it, however, there seem to be more studies showing that wood can actually be a more sustainable construction material because it promotes the growth of trees that store carbon dioxide.
A December 2020 New York Times report did a deep dive into the mass lumber industry and reported something a bit surprising to me: Environmentalists are pretty comfortable with it. We are fortunate in the U.S. to have hundreds of millions of acres of forest, and mass timber companies such as Katerra often only use younger trees that are around 12 inches in diameter and would need to be thinned anyway to prevent forest fires.
So overall, research has shown that wood can help save on greenhouse emissions compared to artificial materials such as plastic, as long as sustainable forest practices are being employed (ResearchGate). In 2003, the Australian government published a detailed report about using wood as a building material and while they did not come to any conclusion for furniture production in particular, their results did show that for many examples of building material, wood had the lowest environmental impact.
First, I just want to make clear that my sweet husband really tried to seem happy with his gift. But of course, when you’ve known someone for almost a decade, you know when they are pretending. Honestly, the guilt over this gift hung with me for nearly a full 24 hours and still plagues me from time to time.
Oh, to top it off, we were given a free desk from a friend of similar quality not long after this desk shipped—along with a beautiful wooden high-top table that solved an issue we had in our kitchen with counter space.
So, what I hope others can take away from my experience is the importance of thinking carefully before buying any new furniture—and in particular, checking with friends, family, and online sites like CraigsList and Facebook Marketplace before going out and buying anything new.
The new “Buy Nothing” Facebook groups have been a Godsend for my husband and me. For those who are unfamiliar, this is a project that was started around seven years ago by two friends who lived in an island community in the Salish Sea off the coast of Seattle (BuyNothingProject.org).
Their idea was simply to “give where you live”—to establish trust among neighbors that would lead them to donating things they didn’t need to those who needed them.
This idea has now spread internationally with over 10,000 volunteer coordinators. How it works is you basically just join a Facebook group named “Buy Nothing” with your community’s name by agreeing to some simple and specific rules such as, “participate as yourself”, “keep it legal”, and “keep it civil.” Once approved by an admin, you will see posts from all of the members in your community—posts of literally free things they are trying to find a new home for. You can also post “ISO” which means “In Search Of” for a specific product you may be looking for.
My husband and I have realized it’s probably best to check this group before buying literally anything for the house. My mother-in-law suggested we get a light timer for a lamp and that same day one posted in our Buy Nothing group just five minutes from our home.
There is quite a thrill that comes with getting and especially giving items through this group. I recently gave away a serving tray that was a duplicate and a woman told me she’d use it to serve her elderly mother in her hospital bed after a surgery. I also gave away a digital picture frame that another woman told me she planned to give to her “96-year-old gran” who was in a nursing home. She planned to use the frame as a way to show her grandma photos of her growing young boys who of course wouldn’t be able to visit with COVID.
So, I can’t stress highly enough to check out this group for your community if you haven’t yet—simply search “Buy Nothing” and your town, village, or city’s name and the nearest group should pop up.
Groups like this give me so much hope for the future. I feel like 2020 was a year that was a constant struggle to overcome empty, dark feelings sparked by ever-more tragic news reports and an inability to connect with people in person—which I believe can be one of the most powerful medicines. However, now that we are solidly in 2021 with a vaccine being distributed and new leadership taking the helm of the United States executive branch, while there may still be rough seas ahead, every storm eventually passes. I have a feeling getting through some of the worst tempests will help us all truly appreciate when we can return to smooth sailing.