Living with the past: the sustainability of buying vintage

The amount of furniture thrown away each year in the UK equates to roughly 4.2 million two-seater sofas. With an increasing social consciousness about the ethical and environmental consequences of ‘fast fashion’, a rhetoric of buying sustainably – both in quality and in quantity – saturates consumerism. Comparatively little attention is given to what has been termed ‘fast furniture’, despite forty-five percent of Londoners admitting to having thrown away good quality furniture. Yet, recycling or sourcing second-hand pieces, sometimes in need of restoration, can be arduous and time-consuming. It begs the question: does vintage realistically offer a viable solution to our consumer-driven, trend-centric disposable furniture problem?

The post-war shift towards mass-production and the proliferation of cheap materials is felt acutely in our culture of consumerism. It is something also felt in the spaces we decorate, something that has become more pertinent given the status that ‘home’ has been elevated to in our lives over the course of the past few years. This, paired with the proliferation of ‘fast furniture’, has made refurbishing spaces more accessible – and desirable – than ever. Trends disappear and re-emerge on an expedited scale, collapsing the previously suggested thirty-year cycle trend into an ever ebbing-and-flowing sense of what is stylish. Social media’s role in this cannot be overstated, particularly in the voyeuristic, aspirational gaze into the lives (and therefore homes) of others that motivate mimicry through consumerism. 

Attempting to achieve a certain look, rather than a certain function, has taken priority. Take, for example, the example of a nondescript, general ‘mid-century style’ reclining chair. A quick Google search shows an abundance of products attempting to embody what the phrase means, often at a steeper price than true vintage pieces. What the price promises is not durability, but ease; without having to scour the internet, or live close to a reputable vintage store, the customer is able to purchase and have delivered an object that guarantees to fulfil a yearning for the current trend omnipresent on social media.

The fallacy is, as ever, that this ease rarely ever equates to longevity. Nor does it guarantee user experience; in a culture overwhelmed by the notion of image and appearance, often foregoing practicality, or comfort, it is not functionality that these products are bought for. Rather, it is the visual appeal that platforms centred around the image or short-form videos propagate. Often, these items are not designed with longevity in mind, prioritising how they look rather than their suitability. They break, often irreparably, and so the cycle of buying and discarding begins again.

This is in part down to cheap materials. It is also, in part, down to the ideology with which pieces are made: in an age of disposability, why would things be made to last? Profits are secured by the fact they are not made to endure, and so therefore will be replaced. Yet, above all else, these cheap materials stand as reminders of the twofold exploitation of people and planet that is necessary in their production. The detrimental effect for the planet, as well as the wider network of exploitation often inherent to processes of mass manufacturing, is something we are encouraged to think about with fashion, but, for the most part, feels less present in conversations about fast furniture. 

With cheaper, mass-produced objects, there is a sole emphasis on how they look – on a website, in a room, on a social media post – rather than what they mean. Quick turnover of products necessary prevents an attachment to them, and in turn, alienates us from them. Fast furniture, defined against a slow(er) furniture, is made with this disposability in mind – not only of the manufacturer, but of the consumer, too. Replicating objects made with traditional and specific crafts in factories testifies to this image-based obsession with the temporary pleasure that objects serve to sustain a particular look, rather than to be meaningful. 

It has been estimated that it takes roughly a thousand times more carbon dioxide to produce new furniture than it does to refurbish and restore what is already in production. Naturally, things serve purposes, and it is at least partly inevitable that their use to us shifts throughout their lives. When things need replacing, buying things already in circulation makes a far less dramatic impact on the planet than buying new does. Buying vintage or second-hand locally improves this further; the distance that new, unsustainably produced objects travel to reach their new homes, only to be discarded when they have ceased to pique the interest of their owners, illustrates the destructiveness of the process.

But what’s changed? The consumer boom of the mid-twentieth century is often gestured towards as the origin of commodity obsession in its current form. Yet, even since then, the waste produced by discarded furniture has increased fourfold. Putting things into perspective, this illustrates the size of the problem we are confronted with. Buying thoughtfully and sustainably is a message widely espoused. But conscious consumerism is complicated by brands masquerading as eco-conscious through shorter, separate sustainable lines whilst still running their larger, ethically dubious collections. Crucially, it still produces the problem of the amount of ‘stuff’ that we have: buying new, particularly in excess and certainly with lesser-quality products, adds to the objects in circulation. Buying vintage, then, ostensibly offers a fail-safe antidote to the problem. 

This doesn’t, however, confront the issue of affordability that stands as an obstacle to this. Nor does it resolve the problem that vintage items often require some degree of restoration, something that takes time and expertise which most consumers do not have in abundance. Whilst not a solve-all solution to the issue, it bears worth considering that high-quality vintage pieces that have been restored promise a longer use-life than cheaper objects designed with their demise in mind. Moreover, a culture of fixing investment pieces – easier with quality builds than cheaper objects that, when broken, are often irreparably so – only elongates their lifetime. This quality, regarding craftsmanship but also to materiality, can often imply a longer lifetime. The example of teak furniture, which is today of a lesser quality than that made in the 1950s because of the issues posed by over-farming, is an encouraging reminder that buying vintage not only protects the planet, but also offers a plurality of benefits on an individual level.

Shifting our perspective to thinking about what we are buying, how we are buying it, and how it will serve us inevitably guarantees its longevity, both materially but also in our lives. Buying less frequently – and meaningfully – would lead to a shift in how we live with, and in turn value, the things we decide to fill our homes with. Carefully choosing pieces according to a model of slow furniture (either sustainable, or as is often cheaper, vintage) shifts our perspective to how objects can serve us beyond just in the immediacy. The futuristic possibilities of sustainable furniture, like Dirk Vander Kooij’s endless saloon table produced from melted-down fridges, offers an exciting vision of a future where we can live among reformulated objects of the past. Until then – and perhaps even after – the benefits of vintage are clear and compelling.