Fast furniture and fittings stir sustainability, safety and environmental concerns

Assembling furniture

The world had ushered in a new era of fast fit-outs where furniture can be assembled and disassembled within minutes.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

What you need to know:

  • The world had ushered in a new era of fast fit-outs where furniture can be assembled and disassembled within minutes.
  • Long gone are the days when carpenters spent weeks taking measurements, cutting wood, shaping, sanding and working with different service providers. 
  • Fundis just need to order, cut, fit and install engineered wood panels.

In late 2018, Mark Owano came across a shop on Instagram selling furniture.

He ordered a dining room table and chairs which were to be delivered within a week.

On the delivery day, he expected a truck alongside handlers to help him get the set to his apartment unit on the fifth floor.

To his surprise, however, the table and six chairs were delivered in two boxes.

He was confused and was sure he had been scammed but upon unpacking the delivery, the shop had delivered exactly what he ordered.

A medium-sized dining table with a glass top and six dining chairs. It was shocking as it was amusing.

Furniture that could fit in a box was unheard of, at least in his world, at the time.

What he may not have known is that the world had ushered in a new era of fast fit-outs and furniture where furniture can be assembled and disassembled within minutes.

Cost-effective

Long gone are the days when carpenters spent weeks taking measurements, cutting wood, shaping, sanding and working with different service providers to create kitchen cabinetry, the days when wooden flooring was strictly high-end. 

Fundis just need to order, cut, fit and install engineered wood panels.

This new convenience comes at a lower cost too, compared to furniture and fit-outs from solid wood.

As the world continues to bear the ravages of climate change, industries are coming up with engineered solutions to reduce their carbon footprint.

For a while now, engineered wood has been the perfect alternative to natural wood.

And it comes with some advantages. Tracy Nyarango, an interior designer, says that often when people choose material for their flooring, cabinetry, closets, furniture and other joinery work, the cost is an important consideration.

Constructing is a costly venture, and most people will take any opportunity to cut costs, therefore engineered wood is dominating many homes and commercial spaces.

Assembling a chair

Long gone are the days when carpenters spent weeks taking measurements, cutting wood, shaping, sanding and working with different service providers.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Tracy explains that the particle board, which belongs to a family of Low-Density Fiberboard (LDF), is one of the most cost-effective and understandably popular types of engineered woods with a wide range of uses.

“Particle board is made of chip and sawdust compressed and held together with a type of resin called formaldehyde. It is way cheaper compared to natural wood or Medium Density Fiberboard, (MDF). This engineered wood is used in building simple furniture pieces all the way to cabinetry, countertops, flooring, doors and wall panelling,” she explains.

Short life cycle

Tracy also points out that particle board is easy to transport and can be assembled at home without much expertise, benefits that have led to the rise of easy-to-assemble fast furniture pieces such as coffee tables, dressers and TV stands.

In addition, it is environmentally friendly since it is made from waste wood products.

But what is the downside to this seemingly wonderful product? Are there hidden costs to consider?

What about sustainability and safety? Is engineered wood really environmentally friendly?

One downside is a short life cycle. It needs to be kept away from water as it “swells” when exposed to moisture, and if installed in high-traffic areas with heavy use, the particles begin to fall apart.

Even with careful use, furniture or fittings made from LDF can only last for 15 or so years.

Pieces such as coffee tables which endure heavy everyday use might last five years or less.

Given that homes are for life, replacing wooden flooring or cabinetry presents hidden costs.

Health Complications

Lately, there are environmental and safety concerns too.

Formaldehyde, the resin used to hold together particle board has been flagged by multiple health bodies as a carcinogenic toxin with serious health effects when one is exposed to high amounts.

A report by The Center for Diseases Control (CDC), describes formaldehyde as a highly toxic component that is on the list of most commonly produced chemicals in the world.

It is used in multiple industries such as petroleum, textile, food, pharmaceuticals and the construction industry.

There are guidelines on the minimum amount of formaldehyde an individual or employee should be exposed to within a given timeline, however, there are no agencies to oversee this.

At low levels, formaldehyde will cause nose, eye or throat irritation, however, prolonged exposure can lead to long-term rare types of nose and throat cancers and respiratory illnesses.

While it is a common belief that by the time engineered wood products make it to our homes the resin has already cured, laminate flooring manufactured in China between 2012 and 2014 and sold in the US was tested for formaldehyde levels by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The test established that the levels in these flooring materials could still cause irritation and breathing difficulty.

Lower quality

Particle board pieces are also creating a consumerism problem in the construction and furniture industries.

Since the product is cost-effective, the furniture industry is churning out countless pieces every day, but in three or four years, these pieces will either come apart or the consumer will get bored with them and want something else.

The result is uncontrollable clutter and waste in homes. Besides, when the demand and supply of a product are unreasonably high, the quality of pieces in the market goes down. ”

Increased tip-over injuries and deaths

Furniture made from LDF presents a safety challenge. A documentary titled Broken, released by Netflix in November 2019, sheds light on harmful consumer products in several industries.

In the third episode titled, “Deadly Dressers”, the producers interview parents of children who were killed by furniture tip-overs.

In the documentary, they share heart-breaking details of how they discovered their children crushed to death by drawers that seemed harmless. 

What comes to light in the documentary is that cheap, fast and disposable yet aesthetically appealing furniture may cause tip-over accidents and deaths, a silent endemic.

Fast furniture made from low-density engineered wood lacks stability and does not consider rules of physics such as the centre of gravity.

The centre of gravity is an imaginary point in a structure, a body or anything constructed to stand or move, where all weight is equally distributed - LDF might be easy to assemble, but it is not easy to manipulate and create complex designs because the parts are pre-engineered and they all weigh the same.

If you placed a cup of hot tea on a coffee table with thin particle board legs and an equally low-density top, and a toddler used the same table as support, the chances of rushing them to the hospital after a tip-over are high.

Fast furniture is slowly growing roots in the Kenyan market as consumers go for easy-to-assemble furniture, unaware that it may fall apart within a few years.

Kenya’s waste problem is not as big as in developed countries, and this is a good time to hit the pause button and reflect on the way forward for the furniture and construction industries.

Natio Simiyu, an Environmental and Social Sustainability Consultant with Terrcon Consult, says sustainability is important in any industry since it determines a society’s long-term well-being and the survival of other species.

“Our livelihoods and the economy depend on our individual and collective well-being of all natural resources. If we consume those resources unsustainably, then in the short and long term we’ll suffer the consequences. Sustainable consumption is when the production, consumption and disposal of a good or service is environmentally, socially and economically balanced.”

Greenwashing

Unfortunately, Simiyu says we are falling into bad consumer habits as a result of greenwashing.

“Greenwashing is when an entity purports to be environmentally and/or socially sustainable for marketing purposes,” he explains, adding “engineered wood has environmental benefits since in some instances it is a recycled wood, however, recycling can also be seen as a delay on disposal and new consumption.

There is potential that with a ‘green label’, engineered wood can cause more consumption and consumerism compared to its alternative.”

He adds that this is confounded by its durability, quality, source material (wood), consumption rates and consumer discretion.

“There are numerous examples where such innovations cause more consumption of natural resources. A good example is energy efficient stoves.”

The sustainability question does not have a direct answer - should we go back to natural wood and continue logging, or figure out how to make engineered wood more sustainable?

Simiyu suggests that vendors, manufacturers and proponents of engineered wood, be it particle board or MDF, demonstrate through verifiable means how their product is of benefit to the environment. In addition, consumers need to start evaluating their vendors and manufacturers.

“Companies are motivated by profit, and there is nothing wrong with that in a capitalist economy. The problem is deceptive marketing. At best, companies should provide operational (consumption and production) data through which we can verify whether they are sustainable. At a minimum, compliance with environmental law should suffice. Beyond that, they can also demonstrate certification in reliable internationally approved standards,” says Simiyu.

Regulatory bodies should also step up their operations and come up with regulations for emerging industries.

Though this may be difficult for younger markets like Kenya, Simiyu says the country can always review and learn from legislation, case studies and peer-reviewed research from countries with experience on the topic.

Closing the conversation, Tracy says

A man measuring a table.

Furniture makers and players in the construction industry ought to know that there is a new generation of clientele that take environmental conservation seriously.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

“Green living is becoming a bigger conversation among younger people. This will put a lot of pressure on companies and vendors in the long-term if they continue to exploit consumerism as a means of staying relevant.”

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