Tuesday, May 11, 2010


On a recent trip to Victoria BC a friend took me to visit a few of the local retailers specializing in modern wood furniture. One of those was called Design House. When we arrived at their downtown location we found that the store had recently changed hands. Unfortunately, I did not make a note of the new name, but the product line is similar, with mostly imported products and a few locally produced pieces.
What was most interesting about this store was the lengthy sales pitch delivered by the salesperson who welcomed us. She emphasized that a specific chair although made in China was made from FSC certified wood. I did not ask to see the chain of custody documentation and would have been surprised if she were able to produce it. The chair in question was a wood frame lounge chair with upholstered seat and back.
I guess this is a pretty typical case of “green washing”. An attempt is made to make the product appear to be a more environmentally responsible choice for the purchaser by drawing their attention to a relatively insignificant “green” factor in its production in order to distract them from considering all of the other negative environmental and social implications of producing it in unknown conditions using other unknown materials, foam and fabric, then shipping it half way around the globe with all the resulting emissions.
Another interesting fact she offered was that many of the “Italian” products they sell are actually made in China. The wood is shipped from North America to China where the product is manufactured; the product is then shipped to Italy and from there shipped to international distributors as an Italian design.
According to Stewart Brand in the “Whole Earth Discipline”, commercial shipping is responsible for 4 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Furniture is bulky and takes up a lot of container space.
Clearly, whether or not the wood in this furniture is sourced from a supplier that employs appropriate standards as defined by FSC is irrelevant when all the other environmental factors involved in its production and distribution are considered.
According to Jeff Rubin in “Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller”, all of this silliness will come to an end when the cost of oil rises to the point where it has the effect of prohibitive import duties. Apparently that future is not far off. And when it comes, suggests Rubin we will return to manufacturing things closer to home.
Notwithstanding all of the negative economic implications of more expensive oil, this could be a positive thing for woodworkers and furniture makers as well as the environment.
Sourcing manufactured products closer to home in considered the better environmental choice and furniture is a product that can be manufactured almost anywhere. The main reason our furniture comes from distant locations is because under current conditions, it is cheaper. If those conditions change and it becomes more competitive to produce it locally that should cause resurgence for the local industry.
It will never be practical to produce all manufactured products locally. Some things like steel production need to be done on a large scale. But furniture is a simple product that can be produced by small manufacturers with minimal technology.
Of course, if the cheap, throw away furniture now being manufactured in countries like China, Indonesia and Vietnam is no longer available due to the rising cost of oil, people here will have to pay higher prices for furniture. This can be offset by value, higher quality products that last longer. For those who cannot afford new higher quality domestically produced furniture there will be the re-sale or second hand option. Many people change their furniture when they change their living situation, or simply when they tire of it. But unlike disposable furniture they will be able to re-purpose it through consignment stores or internet sites.
Currently we have a finite supply of used furniture available to us. Almost none of it is domestically produced, that stuff is long gone, and there is virtually no resale value in the cheap imported product available through stores such as Ikea. Most quality re-sale or used furniture on offer is mid-century Danish Teak or similar products. Much of it is being imported in bulk from Denmark. Importing this used furniture will no longer be practical or necessary as this market will also be affected by the higher cost of oil.

Francis Lemieux


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