Take a second and look around you. Whether you’re reading this from your home or from your office, chances are you will come across a piece of wood furniture that you use every day. Have you ever wondered how far that wood traveled to get to you?
Mark Samsonovich wasn’t prepared for what he calls the “monstrosities” of the furniture business. The artist, designer, and self-described “serial entrepreneur” had been making furniture for himself for over a decade, but it wasn’t until he set out to start a furniture company that he came face to face with the deep-seated challenges of the fast furniture monster, its dysfunctional supply chain, and the terrible toll it has on the planet.
Two years ago, Samsonovich founded Jersey City-based Head of Marble with the goal of making high-quality furniture that’s easy to assemble, can last a lifetime, and is made from non-toxic materials that are both sourced and manufactured in the United States. By the end of 2020, Head of Marble had removed three times as much carbon as it had created, in part by limiting its supply chain to the confines of the United States. Head of Marble is a new kid on the furniture block, but it’s here to challenge conventions plaguing the furniture industry. Together with a number of small furniture companies that are choosing to build their own supply chain—and produce furniture in the United States—Head of Marble is showing the urgent need for a radical shift in the way companies make and transport furniture.
The furniture industry generates 12 million tons of waste every 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, by importing goods on cargo ships. And that’s only a fraction of the overall footprint of furniture, which has to take into consideration the full life cycle, from the cost of sourcing raw materials, and the finishes used in manufacturing, to the construction and transportation energy required to get it to market, all the way to where the piece of furniture ends up (80.2% of those 12 million tons of waste went to landfills in 2020).
So back to that piece of wood near you. How far did it travel to make it to your living room? As Samsonovich explains, a tree that is cut in an American forest will often be trucked to a lumber mill, then to a lumber yard, then shipped to a manufacturer in Asia. (As of recently, Vietnam is the largest furniture exporter to the United States.) There, the logs will be constructed into a piece of furniture, which will be flat-packed and shipped back to a distribution center somewhere in the United States, which may or may not ship to a satellite center before it finally reaches your front door. At last. “A tree that could have been just 300 miles away could travel 30,000 miles before reaching a customer as a piece of furniture,” Samsonovich says.
Head of Marble’s lumber doesn’t cross the Atlantic Ocean. “My manufacturers are all driving distance from me,” he says. But this comes with a cost. “I can’t express how much more expensive it is to do what we’re doing and compete with consumer expectations for tables,” Samsonovich says.
You might think that condensing a journey from 30,000 miles to 300 miles would save companies money, but Samsonovich says the cost of shipping around the world is actually pretty low because goods are usually flat-packed in a shipping container (and because the current supply chain was built to facilitate this process—more on that later). The biggest hurdle to manufacturing in the United States is the cost of labor. Samsonovich’s workaround has been to design extremely efficient products that don’t require hours and hours of work, all while paying in-house workers a minimum of $25 an hour.
At the moment, the company’s only product is an A-frame table. It can be assembled without tools, and its trestle system allows people to upgrade any part of the table without having to throw out the whole product. For $980, you can start with a birch plywood top. If you want solid wood, you can buy a maple tabletop (for $1,599) designed to fit over the existing trestle system. The price tag isn’t too far off from other mid-market tables, but Samsonovich says his margins are much narrower. Sometime in the future, he envisions a marketplace for second-hand parts that people can purchase. “We really want to change the idea of disposable furniture and change the way people think about upgrading furniture,” he says.
As the climate crisis reaches a tipping point (a recent UN report found that greenhouse gas levels hit a record high last year), more furniture companies are striving for a more sustainable approach. Ikea has announced a slew of initiatives aimed at becoming climate positive by 2030. Herman Miller has committed to zero waste by 2023. Pottery Barn set a goal of planting 3 million trees by 2023. But according to Alan Scheller-Wolf, a professor of operations management at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, the furniture industry can’t effectively curb its carbon footprint when so much of it relies on an unsustainable transportation supply chain.
More than 18 months into the pandemic, Americans continue to shop in record numbers, and ports around the world are bursting at the seams. If more goods were made in the western hemisphere, Scheller-Wolf says we wouldn’t have to rely on our ports—or keep them operating 24/7—to get those goods through the country’s front door. “Made in the USA could be worth a margin we could get back,” he says. “There’s a business case to be made, a marketing case to be made.”
A number of companies do produce furniture in the United States. More than 90% of the furniture sold by Room&Board is made in the United States. Detroit-based Floyd has been manufacturing its furniture in the U.S. since it debuted on Kickstarter in 2014. Sabai, a small, woman-owned furniture company based in High Point, North Carolina, uses domestically sourced, Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood. Its frame supplier is based in South Carolina, and the furniture is upholstered at a manufacturing facility in High Point, then shipped straight to customers.
Since Sabai launched in mid-2019, the company has also started offering a “Repair Don’t Replace” policy to further reduce the environmental toll of producing and shipping furniture. “Our approach has always been to try to look at sustainability as comprehensively as we can,” says Phantila Phataraprasit, who cofounded the company with Caitlin Ellen.
But most companies can’t simply flip a switch and change their supply chain overnight. For Samsonovich, the biggest challenge is to manage 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 comes down to what we as people who buy furniture are willing to pay for,” he says. “If we decided we’re willing to pay for furniture that is more sustainable, the industry would move to serve that.”
This isn’t to say the rest of the world can’t help us get there. Scheller-Wolf believes that the global supply chains issues that are choking many industries, including furniture, could lead to more production in the United States—and structural changes in domestic transportation. “This is a time we could step back and think about how we want to move freight in this country in the next 20 to 30 years,” he says. Electric vehicles are one solution, but where he sees true potential is in the country’s rail and river network. “If we move toward a travel network that was based on water or rail, the [carbon] footprint would go way down,” he says. “I’m optimistic this is the sort of thing that can lead to change because business and society sees that there’s a need.”