Our Systems Reflect Our Values
Furniture waste is one of those Elephant in the room issues:
Elephant in the room (definition): A major problem that is obviously present but avoided as a subject for discussion because it is more comfortable to do so.
The furniture waste problem presents a challenging puzzle that bears solving. I could start by quoting some mind-boggling statistics – which I doubt would surprise anyone – but I’ll leave those for you to discover as the story unfolds.
First, let’s meet some players who are meeting the problem head-on:
Three Stars to Follow
I’ve had the honor and privilege to get to know these three progressive figures in the sustainable upholstery realm over the past several years. I’ve worked alongside Cynthia Bleskachek, Jamie Facciola and Kriss Kokoefer as fellow board members of the National Upholstery Association, and I have known and appreciated them in other capacities as well.
They are all kindred spirits in the movement to generate positive change in the furniture industry. Each has her own unique focus that I believe will ultimately contribute to a design solution to the global furniture waste challenges that we are facing.
Next, let’s look at the sectors that each player represents:
The Funky Little Chair (Upholstery Education)
Cynthia Bleskachek has led her FLC team to create a unique and unparalleled Modern Upholstery Education platform – training for technical excellence, professional execution, and vocational value. The flagship program FLC Upholstery 200: Fundamentals was launched in Summer, 2021.
FLC’s vision is to provide intelligently designed training pathways that help prepare upholstery students and professionals to meet growing market demand within their own small businesses, or as apprentices within existing workrooms.
At this writing (March, 2022), probably the most important part of FLC’s mission is “To support and educate upholstery professionals to successfully bridge the existing skill gap” within the industry.
Cynthia explained that skill gap in her recent (highly entertaining) blog post “The Classroom to Workroom Connection”. She also explains WHY there are not enough skilled upholstery professionals to meet current demand in the market.
The point here will become painfully obvious as you read on…
Furniturecycle (is it a Furniture Waste Problem?)
Jamie Facciola spent 15 months documenting what turned out to be over 50,000 lbs of discarded furniture within a two-mile radius in her Oakland, CA neighborhood.
Jamie tucks the facts & figures of her case study into a neatly packaged, easy to understand exposition. On her blog, she explains how the project began:
It started as a creative outlet, born out of curiosity and frustration. Where most people saw litter, I saw beauty and broken promises. I wanted to capture this phenomenon and explore it further. I write small vignettes on Instagram that range from silly to original micro-reporting. ~ Jamie Facciola, Furniturecycle
The title of Jamie’s case study is inspiring: “Furniture Waste as a Catalyst for Equitable Place-based Circular Economies”. It pulls out the truth of what is really needed – right out in the open where it belongs.
Just looking at the incomprehensible problem of furniture waste (measured in millions of tons each year) does not help solve the problem. Yes, we need to know the statistics, but we also need to have an action plan, and to create an action plan, we need to see our way through the guilt and red tape of a WASTEFUL SYSTEM. This is where Jamie’s study helps break it down:
She has documented not only the QUANTITY, but also the QUALITY of the furniture – Is it usable? Is it functional? – and she does have some GOOD NEWS to report: There is a high percentage of reusability in the furniture we’re leaving on the curb. We just need a way to keep those pieces out of the landfill, because once they’re loaded into that truck, they’re gone.
Check out this video, street scenes, on the Furniturecycle website that confirms the utter destruction of furniture once it’s pushed to the curb:
All we have to do is change the system… Wow, is THAT ALL?
It’s a behemoth of a task, and Jamie gives us a starting point: What if we shift away from looking at the issue as a furniture WASTE PROBLEM (with its associated reductionist narratives), toward seeing it as a FURNITURE PROBLEM.
To me, this seems like an essential step if we are to successfully evolve our current system to a circular economy. Because it passes the responsibility from the CONSUMER (you and me – after all, what can WE, as individuals, actually DO about it, aside from make choices we may not be in a position to afford?) to the DESIGNERS.
And I’m NOT talking about the smaller furniture designers and interior designers (they fall into the same category as you and I). Of course we ALL have a part to play, but there are bigger players who have the resources to truly make a difference. I’m talking about the CORPORATE designers.
… and that’s where Kriss comes in…
Kay Chesterfield (Re-Up campaign)
Kriss Kokoefer has been working with the heavy hitters – the corporate decision makers and large design firms – who have the biggest impact on landfills when it comes to furniture waste. Whenever they make a decision to move, open a branch office, or do regular ‘renewal’ programs (generally every 3-5 years), a mind-boggling volume of furniture hangs in the balance.
Kriss’s infographic gives a snapshot of the overall (commercial + residential) problem:
To get a fuller understanding of the issue from the commercial point of view, I recommend reading this compelling interview with Kriss last year “All Hands on Deck! Kriss Kokoefer is Calling on the Design World to Re-Up and Re-Use” by Monica Rhodes for the NUA blog – it’s both enlightening AND entertaining!
Kriss’s campaign IS working. She has managed to influence commercial interests on a surprisingly large scale.
Now for the stumper…
Coming Full Circle
So with these three star influencers making inroads, shifting the narrative from this being a furniture waste problem to one that recognizes it’s really a furniture problem & a systems design problem, what’s the hold-up?
Okay, yes. It’s a BIG problem, and big problems don’t go away with a snap of the fingers.
What’s not obvious is the deeper issue of the depleted upholstery labor force (if you read Cynthia’s blog post, you’ll have an accurate picture of the issue). With not a trade school in sight in the US, professional training opportunities are few and far between, creating a situation that is now stretching the ability of ALL sectors of the upholstery market to meet demand. This trend was well under way before the pandemic hit, and perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise that the pandemic has magnified the problem to the point it can no longer be ignored.
Now we’ve come full circle, and we can see that shifting the narrative around furniture waste will require greater investment by commercial interests, which will in turn require a healthy upholstery labor force in order to execute on that investment, and the building of a healthy upholstery labor pool points squarely back to Upholstery Education.
I believe that FLC’s Modern Upholstery Education model holds the missing piece to this puzzle. Sufficient workforce may not be there today, and it won’t be there next year – because it takes hundreds to thousands of hours (years at the bench) to reach the level of proficiency that’s called for – but having an intelligently designed training platform all built and ready to scale is pure GOLD for this industry.
Granted, this is a simplified summary of an infinitely complex problem. I hope it serves to illustrate some important connections that could help move us toward true sustainability in the upholstered furniture industry.
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