Earth Day 2022: Furnishing the Future

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Dear upholsterers: Happy Earth Day – though admittedly,  it took multiple tries to write this post. 

Like many of you, my journey started with a love of reuse, reducing waste, and encouraging people to keep what they owned… But it seemed that for every chair I reupholstered, 100 more would slide past. Left on curbs, in dumpsters, and in many cases – offered to me for “free”  Phone calls, emails, direct messages, drop-ins. A never-ending landslide of chairs and sofas, with a shrinking pool of craftspeople, trying to catch it all at the end. 

It’s hard to celebrate Earth Day when you feel like you’re bailing out the ocean with a bucket. 

For decades, our economy has enjoyed a very comfortable relationship with disposable furniture. What’s cheap is what wins – the end. If there were collective costs to this linear model of making, using and throwing goods, those costs were conveniently hidden from consumers. But at long last, we may be reaching a tipping point.  Because landfills, and even neighborhoods, are now overflowing with visible evidence of a widespread problem.

We’re starting to hear phrases like “Fast Furniture” and “Furniture Waste Crisis” make their way into mainstream news. While this may feel gloom and doom, the truth is, it’s’ GOOD. The first step towards solving a problem is acknowledging it. And this is no small problem: In 2017, for example, the U.S. sent 9.8 MILLION TONS of furniture to landfill.  That may seem depressing, but numbers have power. No way is 9.8 million tons of abandoned furniture going to fit in my garage, or yours – some partners are going to have to step up.

 Tackling a problem of that magnitude takes resources. Systemic change. It takes top-down reinvention of how we do things in America… 

And what would we need more than anything? Skilled labor. Actual, physical HANDS qualified to do the work.  Because shockingly, technology has not managed to eliminate the unique and complex tasks that we upholsterers do. 

Unfortunately, reupholstery today is wildly  shorthanded, after decades of being gloriously stomped into the ground by cheap and fast new furniture alternatives. Currently renewed interest in reducing waste has dovetailed, ironically, almost hilariously, with the mass exodus of retiring craftspeople and their businesses. With fewer employers and less senior tradespeople in the field, developing new professionals isn’t just challenging – it’s harder than ever before. 

But maybe, finally, it matters. Because the rise of “Fast Furniture” as a buzzword, of “Furniture Waste” as a dirty word, may very well be the catalyst that brings upholstery back to the mainstream trades table. It may be the catalyst that brings funding, facilities, strategic partners, desperately needed resources. 

Again, for decades, upholstery has been treated as a dying trade, a “hobby” craft, underfunded, and largely ignored. Whereas other trades are taught through well-resourced programs, in well-connected facilities, most upholstery knowledge is passed painstakingly from person to person, in tiny businesses, in online groups, through understaffed community programs, and through the efforts of a few determined instructors – usually in classrooms they paid for themselves. Ladies and gentleman: that is BONKERS. 

If America at last wants to change the furniture system, I celebrate it. 

But we have a serious bottleneck to consider. The most precious and limited commodity we have for addressing catastrophic levels of furniture waste . . . is skilled upholsterers. We cannot outpace available hands on deck – and expanding trade ranks will take real time. 

We’re basically regrowing our industry after a wildfire… So what can we do? 

1. Get informed.

Be part of the conversation. ADVOCATE. Stand up as a professional tradesperson and take the stage. Know that your skills, and your business, are CRITICAL to the solutions that are now being sought. The option to repair and reupholster is only as good as the after market’s capacity to provide it.

2. Get connected…

Collaborative efforts yield results that we cannot achieve on our own – whether that’s the rapid dissemination of information, shared workforce, shared workspace, flexible employment, or just a unified trade front, we are SO MUCH STRONGER together. 

3. Celebrate education – ALL education.

Because it isn’t just a tool for professional training – it creates awareness for our trade, it engages community members in the conversation, and it keeps more furniture out of landfill. Remember: 9.8 MILLION TONS in 2017. Every chair that gets reupholstered is a win. Every consumer who knows what we do is a partner.

4. Start seeing (and showing) upholstery as more than residential restoration.

The majority of furniture waste actually comes out of commercial design – SURPRISE!  Some of you are motivated by furniture as art, or preservation of history, and that is extremely worthy. But if you’re in mission alignment with reducing waste, don’t miss the forest for the trees – belly up to commercial conversations when you have the chance. If we want upholstery recognized as a modern trade, we need to hang our sign next to modern conversations with significant economic relevance. As a bonus to upholsterers, commercial design often has a maintenance and design budget that your residential clients may not – they ARE going to spend money. And increasingly, they’re looking to spend it in ways that support missions of sustainability. 

5. Take care of yourself.

I mean it. If there’s one thing that scares me for the future of upholstery, it’s the high probability of burnout among our remaining (and often relatively new) business owners. Increased market demand and a shortage of “competition” might seem great, but when you’re already overwhelmed and new work keeps kicking in the door, it’s easy to fantasize about a one-way-ticket out of town. Be sure to pay attention to the health of yourself, and of your business. If you need to tell clients no – tell them no. If you don’t have room to adopt more furniture, then don’t. This is a marathon, not a sprint. So take your water stops, and stretch your calves – nobody wants to see you face down in the road at mile 12.

6. Try to empathize with consumers.

As passionate as we may be about reupholstery, the truth is we are ALL affected by systems that make it a million times easier to buy new. When your lamps, or shoes or appliances break, is repair as accessible as it should be? Do you even know where to take stuff? Are the parts repairable? Is it a three ring circus of hoops to jump through?

How much easier and cheaper is it to hit “buy” online and have a replacement dropped at your door? We don’t just want a few customers to take the moral hard road – we want BETTER roads for reuse and repair so more customers choose that path, period. 

So happy Earth Day, upholstery community – I hope you treat yourself to a fat slice of ice cream cake today. Because they used to say ours was a “dying trade” but guess what? The modern world needs you now more than ever. 

A few friends and colleagues I’ve had the pleasure of knowing better this year, and who are certainly present in the spirit of this post:

Jamie Facciola – FurnitureCycle

Jamie recently released an incredible case study, documenting furniture waste in her Oakland, CA neighborhood during the pandemic. Already widely recirculated, this “hyper- local” experiment gave new and needed visibility to the current end-of-life trajectory for much of our used furniture, simultaneously raising important questions about the status-quo, and possible alternatives to. The photos are striking, beautiful, honest. The captions are reflective, poetic, challenging.  I can’t possibly say enough great things about it – so please just go read it: Furniture Waste as a Catalyst for Equitable, Place-Based, Circular Economies

Kriss Kokoefer – Kay Chesterfield

Kriss has a background in commercial furniture sales and sustainability, and is the newest owner of a long-established California workroom. In her role as business owner, Kriss has advocated relentlessly for reuse, pitching cleaning and reupholstery as attractive alternatives to buying all new – particularly with high-impact commercial designers not accustomed to considering reuse. Kriss’ mission  was recently featured on the National Upholstery Association blog – read it here: All Hands on Deck! Kriss Kokoefer is calling on the design world to reup and reuse.

Carla Pyle – Natural Upholstery 

Carla is a globally recognized subject-matter-expert on the topic of natural materials for upholstery – I don’t know how her giant brain even fits in a regular sized head. She’s also incredibly knowledgeable on the topic of circular design, and recently spoke out on her blog to challenge the very idea of our “furniture waste problem” – I hope this brilliant woman will keep speaking out. Read here: Do we have a furniture waste problem? Or do we have a design problem? 

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