Is IKEA killing the planet?

Is IKEA killing the planet?

Fast furniture has not been as readily researched as ‘fast fashion’, but it’s just as detrimental to the planet. Year Three BA (Hons) Interior Design student Alice Laycock talks to us about the sustainability problem in the world of interior design.

The following is based on research carried out for my dissertation, completed in November 2020, titled: “LIFE IN THE SLOW LANE: A Comparative Investigation into Fast and Slow Furniture”.

What are the sustainability issues within the interior design industry?

Interior design is much more than just the decoration of interiors (although that is certainly an enjoyable aspect of the discipline for me!).

Projects range from residential to commercial, hospitality to industrial. The designer carries any project from initial concept design, to material specification, to construction, to FF&E (furniture, fixtures, and equipment), to the implemented design in use.

While this process is multi-faceted, challenging, and rewarding, unfortunately there are pitfalls that can compromise sustainability at each stage.

Materiality requires a lot of research, or you run the risk of specifying materials which are produced with harmful by-products or low potential for recyclability. Construction techniques which have a negative impact on the environment around the site are to be avoided, as are methods which require lengthy transport of materials to site.

The final structure needs to be energy efficient and structurally robust enough to be in use for the foreseeable future.

A large mound of waste made up from disposed 'fast' furniture

What is fast furniture and how does it affect the planet?

Fast furniture refers to furnishings which are inexpensively made and cheaply sold to keep up with current trend cycles.

Brands like Wayfair and Ikea are proponents of fast furniture in the same way that brands such as Boohoo and PrettyLittleThing are proponents of fast fashion.

Furniture is no longer seen as a generational investment as it once was; it is viewed instead as a throwaway commodity. To keep pace with consumer demand, furniture is created from cheap and harmful materials, or illegally felled timber, and processed using wasteful and polluting factory techniques.

It not built to last, is hard to recycle, is not desirable enough to resell, and ends up in landfill. Each and every step of the fast furniture lifespan is detrimental to the environment.

“It’s important that interior designers lead by example by designing in a way that makes sustainability aesthetically appealing and desirable.”

How can interior design be more sustainable?

By educating designers about environmentally friendly materials and techniques during training.

Sustainable practice has become a huge part of the curriculum in degree courses, including at NUA. This will equip the next generation of designers with the knowledge we need to make ethical choices in our current and future projects.

In terms of domestic residential furnishing, which was my specialism when writing my dissertation, sourcing furniture second hand is usually the best way to ensure its sustainability (and is without a doubt the most rewarding and enjoyable way to furnish for me personally!).

While contemporary furniture brands that have sustainability as a core ethos do exist, they are usually more expensive and potentially guilty of greenwashing.

At the end of the day, much like the idiom for clothing, the most sustainable item of furniture is the one you already own, so upcycling things you already have can reduce the demand for the quick fix of fast furniture.

How can interior designers reshape the way we use and design interiors in the best interest of the planet?

It’s important that interior designers lead by example by designing in a way that makes sustainability aesthetically appealing and desirable.

Slow furniture is steadily gaining traction with a lot of people buying into the concept of thrifting and chasing bargains. In my wider practice I often draw on the idea of adaptive reuse (converting and repurposing historic buildings) due to its social, cultural, and environmental benefits.