What lies beyond COVID-19?

Sunrise - the golden hour - by simon wilkes - unsplash

I want to share a vision for Upholstery’s future, but first I want to acknowledge that things are far from normal right now.

As I write this I am (as most of you reading this in April 2020 are) under a ‘shelter in place’ directive – staying home due to the Corona virus pandemic. I’ve found myself seeking relief in various perspectives on mental health, and discovered two that have helped me through these days of isolation:

  1. An article by Aisha S. Ahmad ‘Why You Should Ignore All That Coronavirus-Inspired Productivity Pressure’, which reassures us that ‘No, things are NOT normal’, followed by an offering, based on her own experiences with calamity around the world, of three stages of human adaptation to global catastrophe that we can expect to face. This helped me frame things in a healthy perspective.
  2. A (more humorous) post by Cynthia Bleskachek of The Funky Little Chair on ‘Having a Wobble’.

I have noticed, when I step away from the surreal buzz of the news & internet, that the world has slowed down.

For now.

People seem to be living more in the moment, and this gives me hope. When I look to my local community, I see neighbors uniting to help each other find on-the-ground solutions to our most pressing challenges, and I’m optimistic that we will recover and emerge stronger if we work on solutions TOGETHER.

Local community will determine our way forward

After giving myself space to recover from the worry & stress that creeps in daily, my thoughts are engaged with what this juggernaut means – for my own livelihood AND that of my friends in the upholstery community, my thinking inevitably goes to the BIGGER PICTURE, and the question becomes:

What has to change?

Earth Day 2020

When we consider the broader challenges facing the world – in health, economics and climate change – it’s easy to see that A LOT has to change, and quickly.

Earth Day 2020 biological cycle

April 22, 2020 marks the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, and I am heartened to see evidence that this question of transformation is sparking an explosion of innovative thinking in many markets on a global scale. At the same time, I’m perplexed by the scarcity of attention given to the changes needed in the upholstered furniture industry.

How will the craft of UPHOLSTERY adapt to the unknowns as we emerge from this pandemic?

  • How will we eliminate chemicals in our furniture that are compromising the health of so many people in their own homes and work places?
  • How can we change economic incentives to benefit the people on the ground doing the work instead of rewarding top-down corporate lobbying interests?
  • How do we intelligently handle the waste of resources that is rampant in the current ‘fast furniture’ economy?

It turns out NATURE offers some answers that address these questions on a deeper level in the context of our current economic system. To illustrate, we need to take a simplistic approach.

The Linear Economy (what we have now)

Our current economic system is LINEAR, meaning most goods fall into the ‘Take-Make-Dispose’ model. The bulk of cheap upholstered furniture provides a perfect example – a $250 sofa gets dumped outside college housing at the end of a school year. We all know that it’s just NOT SUSTAINABLE to throw millions of tons of furniture in landfills every year, essentially treating the environment as a waste reservoir.

Furniture in the landfill

So how can we change this to a more sustainable system?

Linear systems are a product of the industrial age, an age of growth and discovery that began in the 18th century, riding upon a misguided belief that human civilization must somehow conquer nature. Now, as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, it is obvious that human systems are well-advised to take a cue from nature and to see ourselves as INTEGRAL to the (circular) cycles of nature and the planet.

As sustainability author Daniel Christian Wahl points out:

“We are not supposedly ‘objective’ observers outside these systems, trying to manipulate them more effectively; we are always participants (who must) shift our attitude and goal to our appropriate participation in these systems, as subjective, co-creative agents.”

The Circular Economy (what is it?)

The circular economy is not a new concept, its roots dating back circa the first Earth Day in 1970. What I like best about the circular economy model is that it seeks to build prosperity long-term. Here’s the best quickie (3 minute) video illustration I’ve found (from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation).

The model encourages RE-thinking the current LINEAR (Take-Make-Dispose) economic system – moving away from depleting finite resources & producing toxic waste, and moving toward a CIRCULAR (Repair-Reuse-Renew) economy. It requires separating the biological ‘nutrients’ (derived of living systems) from the technical ‘nutrients’ (from non-living systems).

This may not represent a quick fix for the challenges we face in the near future (I’d love to hear if there’s one out there). But it’s an excellent starting point.

I love the INSPIRATION that shines through in this model, the way it frames the future in a POSITIVE way. It includes the tools we need to begin to move toward rethinking the operating system itself, and I believe the best solutions always grow from inspired thinking. The hard part is figuring out WHERE TO BEGIN on this unproven path, and accepting that we have to be in it for the LONG game.

Considering the Circular Economy in the Context of Upholstered Furniture Waste

The Two Nutrient Cycles

Cradle to Cradle circular economy nutrient cycles

1. Biological nutrients

(universal example) Food waste is biodegradable. My backyard compost-to-garden system is a great example of this, cycling waste from kitchen > compost > garden > kitchen in a continuous circle. Nothing is wasted.

(upholstery example) Certified organic cotton batting or jute webbing for upholstery would be considered a biological/agricultural nutrient. I have used both materials as mulch in my garden. I don’t use non-organic cotton materials due to pesticide + other chemical residuals present in the final product.

2. Technical nutrients

(universal example) Aluminum is infinitely recyclable and highly durable. Recycling aluminum requires only 5% of the energy used to make new aluminum from the raw ore.

(upholstery example) Steel springs for upholstery is a perfect example of a technical nutrient. Steel is cheaper to recycle than to make new, and it doesn’t lose any of its inherent physical properties during the recycling process.

3. What if it’s neither?

The biggest challenge in effectively addressing upholstery waste seems to be the fact that you just can’t put it into simple black & white terms. What if a material is not biodegradable, nor does it fit the technical cycle requirements (like polyester batting or urethane foam laced with flame retardants)? Herein lies the complication. Bedding waste presents similar challenges. Both industries incorporate many layers of different materials into a single product, some of which do not fit neatly into either category.

Worn out upholstery is too often a recipe for wasted furniture

Breaking it down to the upholstery layers

In the upholstery trade, reuse of high quality framing & soft layers is a the preferred option. Reuse delays the need to assign those materials to either a biological or a technical cycle for years or decades. The challenge lies in considering the point at which those materials reach the end of their useful life, and how they do or do not fit into the circular model:

  1. A well-built furniture frame is the foundation that makes reupholstery possible. Wood is part of the biological cycle, and most metals can reintegrated as products in the technical cycle.
  2. Traditional upholstery uses animal products (wool, horse hair) and plant products (coir fiber, cotton, sphagnum moss). In a circular model, these materials are considered biological nutrients at the end of their useful life, but until channels for effectively composting them are defined within a real-world system, upholsterers have no other choice but to toss them in the trash.
  3. Modern upholstery most often uses synthetics (polyester, urethane foam, chemical additives) which currently have no value as technical nutrients. They are not biodegradable and certain chemicals like flame retardants (a subject I’ve written about in a previous post), present a danger to health and natural biological systems, so it’s into the bin for those materials as well, once they can no longer be re-used.
  4. Some modern upholstery uses natural fibers that are free of harmful chemicals (natural latex, wool & organic cotton) and ARE biodegradable. But again, the channels must be in place within a working system for the bulk of these materials to effectively return to the earth as biological nutrients at the end of their useful life.

In summary

This radically SIMPLIFIED overview reveals some basic elements which must change if the upholstery industry is to lead the shift to a regenerative furniture economy:

  1. Composting channels must be established to handle biodegradable materials
  2. Toxins must be removed from the biological inputs at the manufacturing level
  3. Synthetics must find channels through which to flow back into the system (or be replaced by biological materials)
  4. There must be economic incentives that reward the professionals and those they seek to help (customers) on the ground, allowing for prosperity at the community level.

Upholstery is a skilled trade that has defined eras in human history, inspired creativity, and preserved tradition through the ages. It has been answering the need to recycle, reuse and repair our furniture for generations, and will remain as a valuable player in defining the future of furniture in a circular economy.

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Looking for some upholstery ‘edu-tainment’? Check out my Earth Day 2020 Upholstery Project videos.

Related posts:

Is Upholstery a Dying Trade?

Are you Biophilic?

An Upholstery (R)evolution

Upholstery in the Maker Space