Take a second and look around. Whether you’re reading this from home or from your office, there’s a good chance you’ll come across a piece of wooden furniture that you use every day. Have you ever wondered how far this wood has traveled to get to your living room?
Marc Samsonovich was not prepared for what he calls the “monstrosities” of the furniture industry. The self-proclaimed artist, designer and ‘serial entrepreneur’ had been making furniture for himself for over a decade, but it wasn’t until he started to set up a furniture business that he was confronted with deep challenges. of the fast-moving furniture monster, its dysfunctional supply chain and the terrible toll it has on the planet.
Two years ago, Samsonovich founded Head of Marble in Jersey City with the goal of making high-quality furniture that is easy to assemble, can last a lifetime and is made from non-toxic materials sourced and made in the USA. . By the end of 2020, Head of Marble had eliminated three times more carbon than it had created, in part by limiting its supply chain to the confines of the United States. Head of Marble is new to the furniture industry, but it’s here to challenge the conventions that rule the furniture industry. Working with a number of small furniture companies choosing to build their own supply chain and produce furniture in the United States, Head of Marble shows the urgent need for a radical change in the way companies manufacture. and transport the furniture.
The furniture industry generates 12 million tonnes of waste each year in the United States. In 2019, 15 companies (including Home Depot, Ikea, Target and Ashley Furniture) generated almost as much climate pollution as the energy used by 1.5 million American homes in a year, importing goods on freighters. And that’s just a fraction of the overall furniture footprint, which needs to take into account the entire life cycle, from the cost of sourcing raw materials, to the finishes used in manufacturing, to the energy of construction and transportation needed to bring it to market. , up to the destination of the furniture (80.2% of these 12 million tonnes of waste were landfilled in 2020).
So let’s come back to that piece of wood near you. How far did he travel to get to your living room? As Samsonovich explains, a tree cut from an American forest will often be trucked to a sawmill, then to a lumber yard, and then shipped to a manufacturer in Asia. (Recently, Vietnam is the largest exporter of furniture to the United States.) There the logs will be made into a piece of furniture, which will be flat-packed and returned to a distribution center somewhere in the United States, which can whether or not be shipped to a satellite center before it finally reaches your front door. At last. “A tree that might have been just 300 miles away could travel 30,000 miles before reaching a customer as a piece of furniture,” says Samsonovich.
Head of Marble wood does not cross the Atlantic Ocean. “My makers are all far from me,” he says. But it comes at a cost. “I can’t express how more expensive it is to do what we do and compete with consumers’ expectations for tables,” Samsonovich said.
You might think that condensing a trip from 30,000 to 300 miles would save companies money, but Samsonovich says the cost of shipping around the world is actually quite low because goods are usually flat-packed in. a shipping container (and because the current supply chain was designed to facilitate this process (we’ll get to that later). The biggest hurdle to manufacturing in the United States is the cost of labor Samsonovich’s workaround was to design extremely efficient products that did not require hours and hours of work, while paying internal employees a minimum of $ 25 per hour.
At the moment, the company’s only product is an A-frame table. It can be assembled with an electric drill, and its trestle system allows users to upgrade any part of the table without having to throw away. the whole product. For $ 980, you can start with a birch plywood top. If you want solid wood, you can purchase a maple top (for $ 1,599) designed to fit the existing trestle system. The price isn’t too far off from other mid-range tables, but Samsonovich says its margins are much narrower. In the future, he envisions a market for used parts that people can buy. “We really want to change the idea of disposable furniture and change the way people think about modernizing furniture,” he says.
As the climate crisis reaches a tipping point (a recent UN report found greenhouse gas levels to hit an all-time high last year), more and more furniture companies are s ‘strive to take a more sustainable approach. Ikea has announced a series of initiatives to become climate positive by 2030. Herman Miller pledged to zero waste by 2023. Pottery Barn has set a goal of planting 3 million trees in ‘by 2023. But according to Alan Scheller-Wolf, professor of operations at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University, the furniture industry cannot effectively reduce its carbon footprint when it relies heavily on an unsustainable transport supply chain.
More than 18 months after the start of the pandemic, Americans continue to shop in record numbers and ports around the world are jam-packed. If more goods were manufactured in the Western Hemisphere, Sheller-Wolf says we wouldn’t have to rely on our ports – or run them 24/7 – to get those goods through the gateway to the country. “Made in USA could be worth a margin that we could recoup,” he says. “There is a business case to be made, a business case to be made.”
A number of companies produce furniture in the United States. Over 90% of the furniture sold by Room & Board is made in the United States. Detroit-based Floyd has been making furniture in the United States since its debut on Kickstarter in 2014. Sabai, a small, woman-owned furniture company based in High Point, North Carolina, uses certified nationally sourced wood. by the Forest Stewardship Council. Its frame supplier is based in South Carolina, and the furniture is upholstered at a manufacturing facility in High Point and then shipped directly to customers.
Since the launch of Sabai in mid-2019, the company has also started offering “repair without replacement” to further reduce the environmental cost of furniture production and shipping. “Our approach has always been to try to examine sustainability in the most comprehensive way possible,” says Phantila Phataraprasit, co-founder of the company with Caitlin Ellen.
But most businesses can’t just flip a switch and change their supply chain overnight. For Samsonovich, the biggest challenge is managing the expectations of customers who are spoiled by the convenience of online shopping and the affordability of fast furniture sites like e-commerce giant Wayfair. Professor Scheller-Wolf also believes the ball is in the consumer’s court. “It depends on what we furniture buyers are willing to pay,” he says. “If we decided that we were willing to pay for more durable furniture, the industry would act to serve that.
That’s not to say the rest of the world can’t help us get there. Scheller-Loup believes that global supply chain issues that are choking many industries, including home furnishings, could lead to increased production in the United States – and structural changes in domestic transportation. “This is the time when we could take a step back and think about how we want to get freight to this country over the next 20 to 30 years,” he says. Electric vehicles are a solution, but where he sees the real potential is in the country’s rail and river network. “If we move towards a water-based or rail-based transportation network, the [carbon] the footprint would decrease a lot, ”he says. “I’m optimistic, this is the kind of thing that can lead to change because business and society see there is a need.”