Why furniture (yes, furniture) should be your reuse priority

The concept of “fast fashion” has made headlines in recent years, as people have realized just how environmentally damaging the clothing industry can be. For those unfamiliar, fast fashion is cheap, mass-produced clothing that is designed with low-quality (often polluting) materials for a short lifespan — essentially, as long as a trend might last. This leads to these products (and materials) quickly going to waste, and new materials constantly being used to replace them in the market. It’s a fast, constant linear economy that takes a heavy environmental toll. (And that is not even mentioning the exploitation of workers in the garment industry.)

I’ve been thinking about fast fashion recently, because there are many other — admittedly less flashy — industries that share a lot of the same issues, but are rarely discussed. As a business leader, one area in particular stands out as overlooked but potentially crucial in the battle against climate change: office furniture.

Furniture is not something most of us have to think about actively very often, but almost all of us — whether our companies are remote or in an office or in a co-working space — utilize furniture in some way to do our jobs. There’s a decent chance you are reading this right now while sitting on or at a piece of office furniture. In 2019, the office furniture market size in the U.S. was estimated to be $14.7 billion, and even with the COVID-19 pandemic the next year it was still nearly $13b in 2020.

That means a lot of furniture is produced to meet the demands of businesses. But unfortunately, like fashion, this furniture is often made in a way that promotes waste instead of regeneration. Each year, 17 billion pounds of office furniture ends up in landfill — that is an insane number, but it also represents a clear opportunity to improve.

A big part of the problem is that most furniture has become custom in design, built to serve a singular purpose and then to die. (Or, more specifically, go to landfill.) Now, in some cases I recognize that custom furniture might make sense, but certainly not at a mass scale, nor when there is so much existing furniture that is being wasted. Custom furniture is almost guaranteed to be wasted once it has served its purpose, as it generally does not break down or disassemble easily, making it difficult to reuse beyond its initial iteration.

Some large retailers that produce this type of furniture often have a facade of sustainability, perhaps talking about building with sustainable materials. Yet even if the materials are more sustainable, they still have to be harvested to make new furniture — and when that furniture is low-quality and breaks easily, new materials must be harvested again.

So how do we create a furniture industry that works holistically to reduce waste and carbon emissions? And how can furniture reuse be a catalyst for change across all asset recovery categories? Here are a few recommendations:

Understand the value chain

Once we begin thinking about where we can find and source locally available furniture, we realize how little needs to be built new from scratch. That goes not only for furniture items that are already in circulation, but the materials within those items as well. There are already many companies in the market taking reclaimed materials (such as wood) and giving them a second life as part of building or furniture pieces — check out Room&BoardDoors Unhinged, and Urban Wood Network as some cool examples.

Revamp the design phase 

Even before the product is built, manufacturers should be planning for the product’s second life. Once a business is done with the piece of furniture, what happens to it? That might mean building in a way that full disassembly allows the product to go back to the raw material state; it also means designing for potential repair or replacement as well. A fun way to think about this is as  “LEGO-ifying” the market — when you build something with LEGOs, you can deconstruct it down to its individual LEGO pieces, then use those pieces to build something new. Furniture materials should be treated the same way.

Make it easy for employees

It’s one thing for manufacturers to build in this end-of-life optionality; it’s another to enable businesses to take advantage of those options. Companies can and should offer legitimate take-back programs — even if the furniture in question wasn’t originally built by them. (Envirotech is one company that is doing cool work remanufacturing old office furniture, as is Davies Office). Recommerce technology is a way that third parties can help as well, such as how Reseat has created a marketplace for second-life office furniture. And finally, we need a widely-accepted and publicized certification, so customers can verify that they are buying sustainable products.

This may all sound like a lot of effort, but given the scope of carbon reduction targets — 51 billion tons each year if we want to achieve net zero emissions — changing the way we view (and produce, use, and reuse) furniture is a quick win with a massive potential impact. Better yet, the above recommendations are repeatable across all industry resource categories — at my company, Rheaply, we are firm believers that starting with a simple act of circularity for furniture can create a world of impact and normal reuse behavior. You can still find furniture that fits what you need and helps make your workplace delightful — you can just do it in a way that is sustainable, both economically and environmentally.

Have you found other ways to sustainably furnish your office? Please leave a comment and let me know!

Garry Cooper

CEO, Founder

Dr. Garry Cooper is the Co-founder and CEO of Rheaply, a Chicago-based tech company that enables Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and universities to better visualize, quantify, and utilize their physical resources. He also serves on the boards of directors of P33 Chicago and 1871, the faculty of Northwestern University, and the investor team at LongJump Ventures, of which he is a founding partner. Previously, Garry facilitated supply chain and performance improvement for enterprise businesses at Ernst & Young. As a result of his work, Garry has received recognition on the Forbes Next 1000, Chicago Magazine’s The New Power 30, and Crain’s 40 Under 40, and as a Scholar at Google for Entrepreneurs. Garry has published in high-impact, peer-reviewed international journals and holds a U.S. patent. He holds a PhD in neuroscience from Northwestern University, a certificate in management from the Kellogg School of Management, and a BS & BA in mathematics and chemistry from Indiana University.

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