When I was putting a new apartment together from scratch, I had no choice but to buy inexpensive furniture. I shopped at all the usual suspects: Ikea, Wayfair, Target, and Amazon. I ordered and assembled the furniture I needed, but the experience left me with a nagging question: Even if our budgets don’t allow for much choice, is buying from these places the ethical thing to do? And if not, what are our alternatives?
This question became more urgent late last month, when 547 Wayfair workers in Boston signed a petition and many of those employees walked out to protest Wayfair’s sales of furniture to BCFS, a nonprofit government contractor housing migrant children at its facility in Carrizo Springs, Texas. By virtue of this relationship, Wayfair is supplying the inhumane operation at the border in a way that, given reports on the conditions at these detainment centers, I would argue is both disturbing and immoral. And the company’s response to the uproar, donating $100,000 to the Red Cross when a number of employees asked that the money go to RAICES Texas, an organization that offers legal aid to migrants and immigrants, was lackluster—but it is not the only affordable furniture company operating and profiting off of ethically questionable practices. I have bad news: Pretty much all of them are.
Ikea, despite its image of benevolence, has been repeatedly accused of union-busting tactics in Canada and in the United States. In 2013, Ikea reportedly locked the union workers out of its warehouse in Richmond, British Columbia, offering big raises to workers willing to cross the picket line. The lockout only came to an end after 17 months and third-party mediation. In 2015, during contract negotiations, Ikea was said to be threatening the jobs of unionized warehouse workers in Perryville, Maryland, should they go on strike. Ikea seemingly sought to blunt the PR impact of these labor controversies—which spread to Italy and Turkey—by announcing that it would raise the minimum wage of its U.S. workers to $15 an hour, in a carrot-versus-stick approach to curbing attempts at unionization. Target has also been accused of engaging in serious labor-relations violations, including racist employment practices, union busting, and a practice of using third-party firms to hire vulnerable undocumented workers.
And then there’s Amazon. From the claims of horrid working conditions for both its office and warehouse workers to its continued anti-competitive practices and tax avoidance to the development of surveillance technology and that technology’s sale to government contractors, Amazon engages in a wide swath of what some consumers might regard as unethical and disturbing practices.
These companies’ production processes, and our decisions to buy those products, also have an environmental impact. Like fast fashion, our thirst for “fast furniture” is hurting the planet. Ikea alone uses 1 percent of the world’s wood, a staggering figure. Most of this furniture is made out of cheap materials like particleboard that have limited lifespans, making it difficult to sell or even give away. And when we throw it out, much of it sits in landfills—over 9 million tons of it in landfills across the U.S., including over 50,000 mattresses that are thrown out per day.
When the vast majority of production is unethical, consumption is, too. That doesn’t mean everyone who has bought furniture from Wayfair or Ikea is a bad person. (If this were the case, yours truly would be thrown in the Hague.) What it does mean is that in order for these purchases to be ethical, production must first become ethical, and while consumer boycotts can win temporary victories, such as getting a company to stop advertising on extreme right-wing talk shows, the power to make a company act in the interest of the people and the environment doesn’t, for the most part, lie with consumers. The responsibility to produce products ethically rests with the company, but, as we’ve seen, companies have profit motives that make them unwilling to change. It would be naive to expect multibillion-dollar corporations to suddenly have a change of heart just because a loud few consumers want things to be better. As we’ve learned, the people who work for these companies, more than concerned buyers, are most likely to effect change.
Wayfair workers took serious risks: They were the ones who revealed to the public what their company was doing, and they put their jobs on the line by walking out. The company is now undergoing a public relations nightmare. Similarly, workers at tech companies providing surveillance software to the U.S. military staged walkouts and protests that forced Google and Microsoft to pull out of the lucrative deals, which suggests that a similar campaign could be successful against Amazon.
Forming unions remains one of the only ways workers can stand up for their rights against abusive employers and gain more agency over the way companies are run. These campaigns are more successful than any consumer boycott simply because the workers at any given company are what make it operate, and without them, work doesn’t happen. Wayfair can’t run without its support staff and developers; Ikea can’t run without its warehouse and store employees; Amazon can’t run without its immense network of distribution centers. If you want change, you have to look toward and support the people with the collective power to make it happen.
But consumers are still involved—our changing purchasing behavior is part of what allowed these companies to become so powerful in the first place. The last 20 years have seen a major shift in how we came to consume home design. A fascinating article in Collectors Weekly explains how the big ugly ’70s floral print “grandma couch” became so ubiquitous in the home and, later, in thrift stores. One of the key reasons is because consumers in the ’70s didn’t redecorate every few years: “[People] had one sofa. They bought their furniture on layaway, and by the time they found enough money for a sofa, they wanted it to last forever.”
And those sofas did last forever. Even in the 1990s, I remember my parents explaining that furniture was an investment. They redecorated in the early aughts with that mindset, reupholstering their old furniture instead of buying new. My parents didn’t buy new furniture until I was halfway through college. By that point, their furniture was over 30 years old. With the development of first HGTV and, later, sites like Instagram, Pinterest, and Houzz, today’s consumption of design is reflective of the dominance of the internet and industry-sponsored television, which introduce new trends on a near-constant basis. The desire to keep up is happily furnished (pun intended) by companies that make affordably priced furniture. When trends only persist for two or three years, what’s the point of furniture that lasts longer than that?
But there are still ethical ways to buy furniture on a budget. Say what you want about “shabby chic” Pinterest boards and goofy Etsy projects: at least they follow the first two Rs in “reduce, reuse, recycle.” It’s better for that blender to see a second life as a kitschy light fixture than end up in a landfill. It’s better for people to give a distressed paint job to old dressers than to throw them out. Buying used furniture is generally not only cheaper, but it also keeps trees in the ground and stuff out of the landfill. (And sometimes it offers as many options as buying new: The best time to check Craigslist is around the beginning of May, when people, especially students, tend to move.)
The rise of sites like Chairish and 1stDibs, although the products they feature are sometimes expensive, is another important element in the resale economy. If you like vintage furniture, vintage specialty stores and resale shops like Goodwill and Habitat for Humanity will often surprise you with their selections. I got a midcentury telephone table from a thrift store for $40 and a 100 percent teak nightstand at a specialty store for $90. Not only does buying used give new life to old stuff, it’s also rewarding to hunt for the unknown.
Sometimes, the best thing to do is save up your money for something high quality and timeless. I’ve managed to make it just fine without a coffee table these last few months—a sacrifice I’m willing to make so that maybe, by the end of the year, I can afford something at Room & Board. Perhaps most importantly, what will save the most money is being resistant to keeping up with the Joneses. Design may change constantly, but that doesn’t mean you have to, too.
Kate Wagner is the creator of the viral blog McMansion Hell, which roasts the world’s ugliest houses. Outside of McMansion Hell, Kate is a guest contributor for Curbed, 99 Percent Invisible, and Atlas Obscura. In addition to writing about architecture, Kate has worked extensively as a sound engineer.