Tech can make furniture sustainable

Advances in technology have transformed the nature of consumption in almost every sector: it isn’t just the products we buy that are different, it is the way we buy them. But there is one sector which remains relatively untouched by the tech revolution, a sector responsible for over a billion trees falling every year, alongside 670 thousand tonnes of landfill in the UK and 10 million tonnes in the US: furniture.

While the industry is making great strides in terms of its materials, we still buy furniture in the same way we always did, and this out-dated mode of consumption is partially responsible for the huge amount of refuse the industry generates. More waste is also generated because renting is more commonplace than ever—according to the British Office for National Statistics, people in their mid-30s to mid-40s are three times more likely to rent than 20 years ago. Renters move house more frequently, which means more furniture is hurriedly bought and then discarded when moving, creating a culture of fast furniture and waste.

But just as it has done in other areas, there is room for tech to transform the way we buy furniture and make sustainable living easier. Sustainable housing has received a lot of attention from tech over the years; now, it is sustainable furniture’s turn. New innovations allow customers to configure their own custom furniture, direct from the manufacturer, making for pieces that they are significantly more likely to keep hold of. By tailoring the way we consume to our own individual homes and living areas, tech can facilitate more thoughtful and long-term investment in furniture, rather than a careless accumulation of fast furniture. In addition to consumer-end advances, tech also reduces the costs associated with sustainable supply chains, removing barriers to sustainably sourced manufacture.

One of tech’s revolutions has been advances in augmented reality (AR) technology. Applied to furniture, AR makes it extremely easy for consumers to know if a piece of furniture will work in their house. Using an app, customers can ‘place’ the furniture with their phone camera, move it around, pick different options, and walk around the room to see it from different angles. At Tylko, we were early adaptors of AR technology, experimenting widely with custom-made products and parametric design before our launch in 2015. AR means that customers can customise their shelves in real time, experimenting with different layouts all without leaving their house. It also means shoppers do not have to risk going to physical stores: during the first covid-19 lockdown period in spring 2020, Tylko achieved a revenue almost three times higher than the previous year. With in-person shopping looking like it will struggle to recover even as we move beyond the pandemic, technology which makes online shopping easier becomes even more valuable. Established companies have since utilised the technology, including budget giants Ikea and Wayfair, although there is still room for improvement in its implementation. Customers possess a newfound wealth of information about how furniture will fit in their home, which massively reduces the likelihood they will discard it or return it and generate waste.

Tech has revolutionised supply chains in many industries, and in furniture it can help with transparency and quality control. Keeping a piece of furniture for 20 years is bittersweet if it was made with illegally logged wood; and illegal logging is a real issue across the industry, with complex supply chains ecologies obscuring the true nature of the problem. For example, in June it came out that Ikea had (unknowingly) been producing chairs with illegally logged Ukrainian timber, which had been missed in audits by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Tech excels at making it simpler for manufacturers to ensure they are sourcing wood sustainably. Blockchain can facilitate precise tracking of component products, with full traceability through the entire process at any moment in time. What’s more, ever-improving communications technology makes collaborating with new and diverse suppliers more attractive than ever.

Looking to the future, improvements in AI could make choosing and buying furniture even simpler, helping us think about long-term solutions for our homes rather than quick fixes. An AI could learn your furniture and material preferences based on the current set-up of your house, then suggest room layouts and options for new items of furniture. You could preview these alternate layouts using AR technology. Because the AI would have learned what you like, you are more likely to keep your purchase, and it can guarantee that all items will fit perfectly in a room. This would take the stress out of interior design; customers could preview and choose from a variety of options just by moving their phone around.

Technology can tear down barriers to sustainability, allowing manufacturers to produce in an efficient, environmentally friendly way and consumers to invest and keep what they buy. With advancing technology helping us be more confident in our purchases than ever before, all without leaving the house, tech could mean that sustainable furniture is finally here to stay.