Those of us seeking to consume more consciously are aware of the ethical issues in the fast-fashion industry, including pollution and worker exploitation. But the fast-furniture industry is equally problematic.
“Constant trends mean constant waste,” says Anna Wright-Hands, founder of Made by You, a furniture maker in Wollongong, 90 minutes south of Sydney. “I want to create pieces that are timeless, sustainable; solid-timber Australian alternatives to flatpacked fast furniture.”
According to a 2021 investigation by UK non-profit environmental group Earthsight, the fast-furniture industry fuels corruption and illegal logging of areas such as the Russian taiga, a boreal forest that is part of the world’s largest land biome.
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The Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) is a global not-for-profit organisation that sets standards for responsibly managed forests. The FSC logo – a tick mark combined with the shape of a tree – is found on paper and timber used all over the world, from materials used to build houses to A4 notebooks.
Earthsight’s investigators uncovered serious issues with the FSC’s capacity to oversee the multi-billion-dollar global timber industry. According to the group, plenty of illegally logged wood gets the FSC stamp of approval.
For example, Ikea claims 98 per cent of its wood is either FSC-certified or recycled. But investigators traced the origin of the timber used for many of Ikea’s ubiquitous Terje, a $39 beechwood folding chair, to the Carpathian Mountains in Ukraine – a range home to Europe’s largest populations of brown bears, wolves and lynx.
Earthsight estimates that as much as 40 per cent of all timber produced in Ukraine could be illegally felled. Each year, wood for up to 600,000 chairs comes from these forests, plus “enough raw beech to make up to 400,000 additional Terjes,” according to the report.
Although there are plenty of fast-furniture companies around, Ikea has the most significant impact.
“Ikea is the largest manufacturer, the largest buyer and the largest retailer of wood furniture on the planet,” Earthsight noted. “As a result, it is also the largest consumer of wood the world has ever seen. Ikea consumed 21 million cubic metres of wood in 2019. That is a line of logs that, laid end-to-end, would stretch seven times around the Earth.”
Consider that magnitude of timber consumption, then consider how much Ikea furniture sits on the kerbs of city streets across Australia, waiting for council pick-up.
According to a 2015 survey by consultancy EC Sustainable, Sydney disposes of 48,000 tonnes of used furniture kerbside each year. This figure doesn’t account for items taken directly to the tip, or illegally dumped.
“It doesn’t make sense to take a 400-year-old tree, this important resource, and reduce it to chipboard furniture that lacks durability and will go into landfill. It’s such a waste,” Wright-Hands says. “I want to create pieces that are timeless, made from solid timber, and are a genuinely sustainable alternative to flatpacked fast furniture for Australians.”
In response to the Earthsight findings, Ikea said it does not accept illegally logged wood in its products, and will “work proactively to install measures to verify supplier compliance with legality”. The company added that it has “an ambitious agenda to grow our recycled wood segment”.
Small local makers turn to a fast-growing solution
Wright-Hands’ third-generation Wollongong workshop is the antithesis of Ikea’s mass-produced, disposable fast furniture. All the cutting, sanding, oiling and packing is done by Wright-Hands and her small team, overseen by her cheerful Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever, Roo. Her dad, who ran a tool shop out of the space, helped her streamline production and fit out the workshop with tools, work tables and pink-handled glue presses.
But she never would have founded Made by You if not for the paulownia tree. To be a truly sustainable, ethical furniture maker who didn’t contribute to deforestation, Wright-Hands knew she needed fast-growing plantation timber. She found it in the paulownia tree, a lightweight hardwood used extensively in Asia.
Wright-Hands’ pared-back pieces provide practical storage and a canvas to display collections. There are mid-sized and tall bookcases, console tables, bedside tables, benches and desks. A range of customisation options are available to suit each customer’s needs, and each piece is sanded, oiled and wax-buffed to a silky finish, emphasising the wood’s unique character.
The most sustainable timber is in our own backyard
Most of Australia’s paulownia plantations are on the east coast. The timber’s uses are broad and varied: plantation shutters, boats, surfboards, beehives, guitars, penguin rooks.
David Evans of Paulownia Timber, Australia’s only privately owned working mill, has been working with the wood for two decades.
“They’re a beautiful plantation tree. You can cut them off at the ground and they’ll grow the next day from the root,” he says. “The plantations are quite spectacular. The trees grow like a palm with all the foliage at the top. They grow flat out and get tall, the crown fills out and absorbs the sun’s energy, which builds the trunk. In 10 to 12 years, you can cut them down.”
Properly cared for, paulownia trees yield beautiful wood. Greg Facer uses paulownia exclusively to make surfboards at Bare Naked Boards. “Although it’s a hardwood, it’s structurally soft and flexible, with a very interesting grain,” he says. “It’s super easy to plane and sand, and you can achieve a silk-like finish.”
Facer’s goal is sustainability, and it’s a happy accident local paulownia is so well-suited to his trade. Like the fast-furniture industry, producing surfboards can have a significant environmental impact.
“The industry is very toxic to both personal health and the environment, with more and more people surfing and a disposable attitude to surfboards. Every foam surfboard ever made still exists somewhere on the planet, in some form.”
Industry change calls for a new, low-waste mindset
At the root of many high-turnover, high-waste industries is a disposable attitude to material goods. Manufacturers create goods with a short life span, driving consumer demand for the next new thing.
“It’s a different era from the one I was brought up in,” Evans says. “People’s thinking isn’t long-term and there’s too much money around. When my sisters and I were kids, the only way we got drinking glasses was to save Vegemite jars. I see the value in repairing things and saving things.
“These days, people change their decor in their house, or they move interstate and rather than transport their stuff, it goes out on the nature strip because it’s the cheaper alternative, and unfortunately everyone wants cheaper. It would be nice to think it’ll change.”
With eco-conscious makers like Wright-Hands and Facer at the helm, it just might.