As ‘fast furniture’ clogs up secondhand markets and landfills, 7th Avenue is pioneering a sustainable, affordable modular furniture future.
Americans throw out more than 34 billion pounds of used textiles every year. In just the last two decades alone, clothing production has doubled while garment use lifetime has decreased. Today, we buy about 70 new garments every year — about five times more than we did in 1980 thanks in large part to fast fashion giants like Shein, H&M, and Forever21.
Those items don’t last, though; on average, they’re only going to be worn seven times before being tossed out and replaced with another item likely only to see a few wears. That lopsided system is by design; it’s the planned obsolescence of the fast fashion industry where cheaply made products hold more weight than quality pieces that could last a lifetime.
It’s not the only industry where that fast ethos is filling up landfills and leading us to spend more money over time as we need to replace the poor-quality items we thought we were saving money on in the first place. Enter: fast furniture.
Each year, Americans send more than 12 million tons of furniture to landfills — about five percent of what’s bought in the same timeframe. This “disposable” furniture has taken over our daily lives. Like fast fashion, it clutters up secondhand stores but it’s often too damaged and worthless to find a second home, sent to landfills instead where it contributes to methane and carbon pollution causing climate change. That 12 million tons of discarded furniture is a number up 450 percent since 1960, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
It’s a trajectory that mirrors our increase in cheap, fast fashion (and fast food, too) — a trend that picked up momentum during the pandemic as redecorating was one of the most popular ways to make the most of time spent sheltering at home.
Fast furniture — the items of the Ikea, Overstock, and Wayfair DIY ilk — aren’t meant to last. While you should get more than seven wears out of an Ikea chair, decades are far less likely.
Ikea is trying to do better. It waves its sustainability flag for all of the discerning consumers to see — and its efforts are in earnest as it’s a leader in Big Box store sustainability. But it’s a confounding signal, particularly as sustainably sourced materials don’t necessarily mean the end product is built to last.
That doesn’t mean the only options are collector-worthy vintage pieces or super high-end custom luxury pieces, either. For Billy Shaw, co-founder of the recently-launched Los Angeles-based sustainable modular furniture company 7th Avenue, there’s a happy medium.
“The idea behind 7th Avenue is that we want to create a furniture brand that combines design and functionality,” Shaw told Ethos via email. The brand launched last year with the goal of becoming the “world’s greatest” modular furniture company.
7th Avenue offers a range of higher-end modern-style modular furniture pieces including chairs, sofas, and daybeds that Shaw says are the future of furniture design both from a function standpoint and in terms of sustainability. The pieces can be put together in minutes and the modular reconfiguration options are easy — something Shaw says meets the current market demand.
“Modular sofas are the most popular type of furniture on the market and they are the ones that are paving the way for modular systems across all different types of furniture,” he says.
Shaw says this is because customers value functionality and modular furniture is incredibly functional, allowing users to redecorate a room with a simple sofa reconfiguration. Or, they can add sections as they expand their living spaces without having to replace an entire sofa.
“This is how we approach all of our design processes,” Shaw says. “All of our pieces are not only beautiful but also functional for day-to-day life.”
Shaw says 7th Avenue has come up with creative ideas that extend beyond just the modular configurations, such as each piece coming with removable, replaceable, and washable covers, water-repellent and stain-resistant fabrics, and adjustable back cushions that all help to support its customers’ changing needs. 7th Avenue’s prices are comparable to West Elm or Pottery Barn, making it a mid-range option for consumers looking to invest in a quality piece of furniture without breaking the bank.
“Modular sofas allow us to be able to serve customers regardless of the size of their homes,” Shaw says. “For example, if our customers move to someplace bigger they’re able to just simply add modular seats to make their current sofas larger. This allows them to invest in our sofas as well as keep them longer and out of landfills.”
Deana McDonagh, a professor of industrial design at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, recently told The New York Times that fast furniture only has about a five-year lifespan.
Compare that to the sofa or dining room table that you probably remember seeing in your grandparents’ home for decades. It wasn’t likely made by Ikea. And while it might have been made to last, it wasn’t necessarily made to adjust.
We often think of modular as expansion — the leaf that lengthens the dining room table — but modular can also mean downsizing. For aging Baby Boomer and Gen X populations, that may be selling homes when kids grow out and opting for smaller places. Modular furniture can make that shift easier.
For Shaw and 7th Avenue, modular furniture offers consumers an easy way to manage their furniture as their needs change over time, but it’s also taking responsible steps to protect the planet along the way.
“We define sustainability as all the efforts that we take as a company to ensure that the product and operations of the company do not create unnecessary harm to our customers, the community, and the environment,” Shaw says. This includes reducing the use of toxins; there’s no formaldehyde — a known carcinogen common in furniture — in its products. It also uses OEKO-TEX-certified materials, and FSC-certified wood that ensures trees are replanted and forests are ethically managed.
7th Avenue has also turned its attention to waste reduction efforts across its supply chain. “When we started 7th Avenue, we realized how much waste and trash we create throughout our operations,” says Shaw. “This ranges from the number of boxes that we use to the plastic coverings that we have to use for individual packets of covers. We have started to implement ways of being able to reuse the boxes so that we do not have to use entirely new boxes, especially for operations such as customer returns or local deliveries.”
But none of these efforts matter unless the customer understands the value. For 7th Avenue, that means engaging both the consumer and its team to help everyone better understand the whys and hows. Shaw says this means continually educating employees and consumers, because, he says, “we will always try to expand our sustainability efforts.”
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