Episode 15: Extensive Waste of Materials in the Furniture Industry

Hi! My name is Sophia Clark and I am the Founder & Creative Director of Galiatea!

I curate and design luxury made-to-order furniture and home decor handmade by under-represented artisans globally using sustainable locally sourced materials.

As some of you know, our core collection of furniture and home decor are made-to-order items, which means, we do not carry any stock and it is only once an item is purchased, that it gets handcrafted by the artisan. 

Why do we do this? Because part of our brand ethos is that our interiors and thus the products that inhabit it should be just as unique and one of a kind as you are. Since there are no two of you in the world, we believe that each piece we sell you,  should be unique to you. We are able to do this because not only are they handmade with natural materials but also because they are made once YOU purchase them. So you have the satisfaction of knowing that piece was meant specifically for you in mind!

Another huge component of why we promote made-to-order is to reduce the amount of waste created. Interior design and the fashion industry are very similar in some regards, they are based on collections and rotating items to continually add variety.

We would much rather have each piece individually made for a specific person in mind, than having our artisans craft a series of items that would sit in a warehouse and if not purchased would have to be disposed of. We respect too much our artisans to waste away their craft and throw away materials that were used in their creations.

As the popularity of disposable flatpack furniture has risen, so too has the amount of furniture waste.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the amount of furniture and furnishings taken to a landfill rose from 7.6 million tons in 2005 to 9.69 million tons in 2015, and has drastically increased to 12 million tons by 2020. As a result, more than 9 million tons of wood, metal, glass, fabric, leather, and foam waste ends up in a landfill.

Textile waste is, by far, the fastest-growing material category in the entire waste stream. For example, textiles waste increased almost 80% since 2000 just on a pure weight basis, whereas the entire overall waste stream only grew 10%.

Then, if you're looking on a per capita basis, textile waste has increased by 50% per person as compared to a 5% decrease in the overall waste generation per capita. It just goes to show how quickly textile waste is growing compared to the other components of our waste stream. Just for comparison, plastics is a distant second on that. There is so much attention, programming, and funding going towards plastic and …it is rightfully deserving of all of that attention, but we also need to look at what's happening in textiles.

Let’s be honest here and talk about both the furniture and fashion industry. What happens to an item? When an item does not sell, it often gets discounted until it sells as cost, and if it can’t be sold it often gets donated- however many donation centers often refuse them because there is a backlog. 

This is different for brands,  they will not want their brand and image to be tarnished and to be competing with their own products marked down at significantly lower prices . Brands are very sensitive about their products showing up at discount and resale shops. Their thoughts are “We’ve spent all this time and money creating this image that we’re an upscale retailer, and now suddenly you can buy our products for 20 percent of the price if you’re just prepared to wait long enough and go to a different outlet store.”   So many companies choose to shred, incinerate or simply throw away the stuff they can’t sell. That maybe part of the reason nearly 21 billion pounds of textiles end up in landfills each year, though a lot of that comes from us as customers.

What is another by-product of this state of affair? With incineration there is a constant production of greenhouse gases. In 2016, U.S. waste incinerators released the equivalent of 12 million tons of carbon dioxide

So for the welfare of our planet, Galiatea decided to avoid materials such as plastic or to use factories and large machinery, therefore significantly reducing our footprint. Our goal is to reduce our dependency of these techniques and the use of harmful chemicals and highly processed materials in the production of our products and consequently its pernicious impact on the environment and on those handling it. 

In order to maintain our current quality of life we need to challenge the way that we're using, discarding and manufacturing materials today. 

Let’s talk about engineered wood now, the particle board that make up your mass-produced furniture, that fill your office and your home. According to a Bloomberg Report, manufactured wood is everywhere. We make millions of cubic meters of particle board that goes into everything from the chairs we sit on to the houses we live in. However, there's a problem: 85% of the total mass is wood but the remainder of that is typically synthetic resins that are first derived from natural gas which is a finite resource and even worse, most manufactured wood contains urea-formaldehyde, a binding agent that sounds nasty because it is.  The federal government has qualified it as a known human carcinogen.  Regulations to regulate formaldehyde emissions have only been put in place in 2015.

How are we faring in the United States? According to an EPA report, the US produces more than 30% of the planet’s total waste, notwithstanding the fact that we account for only 4% of the world’s population. Unfortunately, 80 percent of all products that are produced in the United States are used only once and then discarded. In 2014 there was about 258 Million tons of waste and over 136 Million tons were landfilled, plastics accounted for 13%, rubber, leather and textiles for over 9%, wood at over 6% and glass at 4%. . Only 34.6% of all household and business materials end up recycled or composted, and the rest is either disposed of at the landfill or incinerated.  This total equals around 2,555 pounds of waste per American every year. 20.5% of that waste is made of durable goods like furniture and appliances, many of which could be repaired or repurposed, or have their materials recycled for other uses. Many of these items contain particle boards that have synthetic resins, however because they are made up of wood, it is considered as biomass. 

Let’s talk about biomass. Wastes generated in primary and secondary wood-product factories are biomass resources. The intended use of this biomass can be divided into energy and non-energy applications. The use of biomass for energy involves combustion to meet the energy needs of homes and industrial enterprises. Non-energy uses include the production of composite boards and wood pulp, land reclamation, animal bedding materials, landscaping, and agricultural mulch; the remainder is sent to landfills. Now, one would say this is great, some of this biomass waste is being recycled.

 Let’s dive deeper…Biomass is also, unfortunately, an important source of particulate emissions as well as combustion by-products. This is particularly true when they are not incinerated correctly or under conditions of incomplete combustion. The burning of wood wastes can cause serious particulate matter emissions. Pollutants other than particulate pollutants, particularly carbon monoxide, manganese, and organic compounds, can be released in large quantities under conditions of incomplete combustion. The main drawback of biomass burning is the large amount of emissions that result from improper combustion compared to fossil fuel combustion. Therefore, to reduce emissions, wastes generated during the processing of engineering panels, such as MDF, should be burned only in industrial locations  at temperatures of about 1000 °C. Is it happening? Because this would entail additional costs to dispose of it this way, many choose to bypass it altogether.

In addition to all those threats, when garbage, including incinerator ash, breaks down in landfills, the resulting liquids can leach into the environment and threaten drinking water supplies.

What are additional consequences? As 90 % of all raw materials extracted for use in the U.S. are ultimately dumped or burned, more and more land is mined, logged and cleared for agriculture to continuously replace those materials. About 900 million trees are cut down for U.S. paper and pulp mills every year – that’s three trees for every American, each year.

Knowing all this, why does it continue? Producers have few direct incentives to build products to last, to make them easy to repair, to use less packaging, or to make their goods or packaging easy to reuse, recycle or compost. In fact, it is often beneficial for producers to make goods intended to be used once or temporarily so that consumers continually buy more.

One way to not add to the waste that is created, is by encouraging goods to be built to last and easy to reuse, repair, and eventually recycle or compost. Another obvious way is to not overproduce.

According to experts in the furniture industry, they noted that overproduction was the first and most obvious way that companies create waste and that to tackle the problem the best approach is to not have much inventory to begin with. 

Because we care about our earth, our made-to-order model tackles this problem head on. With no stock, we do not need to worry about any unnecessary waste.

We also do so to not waste any of our natural materials. It also would be disrespectful to throw away materials that are often revered in some of our artisan’s cultures such as Alpaca, simply because we need to change a collection. 

Just as you may have heard of the term “Fast-fashion”, there is such a thing as “fast-furniture”- companies. This is a term to describe home-goods companies that manufacture many different styles quickly and cheaply with the intent for consumers to purchase a piece of furniture or a decorative seasonal item for a limited time and then easily dispose of it. 

What if we created items that didn’t lend themselves to this “throw-away” culture but rather that last years and decades? What if we focused on building things that lasted instead of having the intent of throwing them away after a couple of uses. At Galiatea, that is our commitment, we are building items that you will love and last for years to come.

Furniture prices have dropped considerably in the last two decades compared to prices of other consumer goods, thanks to cheaper materials, economies of scale, and low wages earned by workers abroad. Thirty years ago, states like Michigan and North Carolina were powerhouses of domestic furniture production. Globalization changed that. When Chinese companies began manufacturing furniture for global consumption, it changed the face of the furniture industry in the US and in the mind of the consumer.

To ensure the price stays right, manufacturers have left the United States and often downgraded their materials. Most of the furniture you see here is probably produced somewhere else to cut costs, with all the murky ethical issues that implies. In China, the rate of a furniture laborer is close to $5 an hour and In Vietnam, it’s half of that. 

Against this tide of mass-produced items created by exploited workers, Galiatea offers unique objects made with dignity by artisans that are paid for their fair market value. In addition, to encourage their community to support these generational skills to be passed on, to value those artisans and their cultural heritage, 10% of our profit does go back to the artisans’ community for education and infrastructure development. Why? Because not only do we care where the materials come from and how they are used, but who makes them.

While some pieces will be more expensive than the mass-produced goods you see, you know these are handmade, using sustainable natural raw materials local to our artisans. There is a direct connection to the quality of workmanship, quality of materials and techniques used to fabricate it. You can drink cheap vino, but don’t you enjoy a select wine so much more….

We are unwilling to sacrifice the quality of production, the materials we use and the compensation that our artisans deserve. That is our continued commitment in each of our pieces. 

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published