How Offshoring Helped to Create the Fast Furniture Problem

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Oct 31 2022 |
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A New York Times story outlines the environmental disaster created by throw-away furniture. Here’s how we got here.

Americans bought a whole lot of cheap furniture during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. Roughly three years later, a good deal of it is ending up in landfills.

That’s the premise of a story in The New York Times on Monday, which examines how mass-produced, inexpensive furniture has begun to mirror fast fashion in that it’s easy to obtain — and then easy to throwaway. And just like all those trendy textiles that last for only a season, fast furniture is creating an environmental headache. The Times reports:

Each year, Americans throw out more than 12 million tons of furniture, creating mountains of solid waste that have grown 450 percent since 1960, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Bits of tossed furniture can be recycled, but the vast majority ends up in landfills.

“It’s quite a big problem, both spatially and also because of the way a lot of fast furniture is made now, it’s not just wood and metal. The materials don’t biodegrade or break down,” said Ashlee Piper, a sustainability expert and the author of “Give a Sh*t: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet.” “We’re creating this Leviathan problem at landfills with the furniture that we get rid of.”

The NYT article examines potential solutions, from producing furniture using more sustainable materials to companies that rent or resell furniture to one Philadelphia homeowner who taught himself to make furniture (which, good for that guy, but doesn’t seem like something most of us will be able to do).

But before we can get to the solutions, we have to understand just how the furniture market got here, which is something the NYT article leaves out. It all starts with globalization.

Beginning in the 1980s, furniture companies began to close down American production and shift factories overseas in an effort to decrease costs. But the offshoring trend really took off after China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. North Carolina — traditionally a hub for furniture manufacturing — lost half of its furniture factory jobs between 1999 and 2009. Across the country, almost 1 million jobs were lost in the two years after China’s WTO entry “as American furniture factories were shuttered.”

While a handful of American factories stayed in business — including Vaughan-Bassett, famously chronicled by author Beth Macy in the book Factory Man — the vast majority shut their doors. And the results on the furniture market were clear:

In 1994, China exported  $241 million worth of wood furniture to the United States. By 2004, that figure had grown more than seventeenfold, to $4.2 billion. By 2016, 73.5 percent of all furniture sold in America was imported. 

Because of the growing widespread availability of cheap imported furniture, consumer buying habits changed to favor mass-produced items instead of longer lasting pieces. That’s only increased with e-commerce, a market worth “more than $27 billion in 2021, and projected to reach more than $40 billion by 2030.”

Millennials have borne the blame for this trend — how many stories have been written about how millennials don’t want heirloom hand-me-down furniture from their Baby Boomer parents? — but it’s really quite unfair. Millennials, Gen Zers and everyone else (including you, often forgotten Gen Xers) are merely operating in a system that was set up — with the support of some real bad public policy — to favor cheap, disposable imports.

And of course, there was a cost. According to the Economic Policy Institute, 3.7 million jobs were lost between 2001 to 2018 as a direct result of the trade deficit with China. Economists like David Autor have written about how the “China Shock” led to lower wages and job participation; we’ve seen countless examples of how deindustrialization devastates entire communities.

The decline in middle class jobs means that on the whole, younger generations are less likely to have a reason to purchase a big expensive piece of statement furniture. Just 47.9% of Millennials owned homes in 2020. Gen Z likely will face similar challenges. People are renting, living at home, and/or moving often. It doesn’t make sense to invest in something special when you aren’t confident you’ll have a place to put it.

And hey, it’s hard to beat IKEA prices for furniture, especially when you can leave the store with a whole room for around $1,000. Looking for a simple bookshelf or nightstand? Pick up a cheap-yet-stylish one during your Target run.

As with fast fashion, it’s easy to fault consumers and encourage them to do better. But most people are merely trying to get by, operating in a furniture ecosystem that heavily favors cheap, disposable imports. And the decline in middle class jobs, which happened in large part because of offshoring, means that it’s going to be hard for many Americans to afford more expensive, longer-lasting pieces.

If we truly want to tackle the problem of fast furniture, we need to build a better system. The good news is that there are a number of furniture makers manufacturing products in the United States, creating heirloom-quality pieces that are a bit more stylish than that old China cabinet your mom wants you to take.

But we also need to give these American manufacturers the tools they need to compete in a market filled with cheap, mass produced stuff — and be willing to take on foreign imports, including through strong trade enforcement action and industrial policy to support U.S. furniture production.

Unlike that dude in Philly, the answer to our fast furniture problem isn’t to make our own tables and chairs. Rather, it’s time for a policy shift, one that favors local, sustainable production over cheap imports. Otherwise, all that fast furniture is going to keep filling up landfills.