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A brand new sofa? Or a brand new old sofa?

Thinking about our impact on the planet

In a time when our world leaders can’t agree on something as simple as our planet’s future, never has there been a better time for us as individuals to make informed decisions about our actions: do we need that flight to….? Could we walk to the shops and not take the car?  As our world leaders dither and pander to profit over common sense, what can we do to change and force businesses to think differently?

Filling our landfill

Disposing of old sofas is a huge (and growing) problem. The CO2 emissions from a dumped sofa are immense. The estimated numbers a few years ago were pretty scary, and one thing’s for sure, they won’t be going down anytime soon, so we need to find a solution.

Manufacturers will continue to produce furniture with little regard for longevity or concern for our planet. And, if consumers are prepared to buy a sofa from a cheap outlet centre, we are contributing to this problem. These sofas (and let us not kid ourselves here) are just future landfills. With shoddy construction and shortcuts made in production, there is no life expectancy to them. Ten years would be amazing – and unlikely.

So, let’s compare that to a Victorian sofa. Many traditionally built sofas are still functioning today. They are still solid because they were made well, so they are unlikely to become landfills any time soon. (Unless, of course, people continue to buy new and throw away outstanding quality!)

Could we say that about a modern piece of upholstered furniture unless you are prepared to pay a vast sum of money? The answer is a resounding ‘NO’.
A 100 years from now, there will be little evidence of furniture produced today as none of it will have survived. Are we happy to continue to support this system of zero accountability, or should we take responsibility? It’s a simple question with an even simpler answer.

I have recovered a considerable number of sofas in my time as an upholsterer, and the question, “Is my sofa/chair worth doing?” is one I’m asked often. I always reply with the same answer, “The question needs to be put into context: the customer’s budget and expectations must be considered each time”. Reupholstery is not cheap, and you really should be prepared for that. Let me explain the two processes so you can compare them.

Usually, a sofa manufactured in a factory will have had multiple people working on different parts of it on a ‘piece rate’ to maximise production. The fabrics are ordered in bulk, which means a massive discount to the manufacturers, adding to why sofas can be produced cheaply. Add to this the fact that they are rarely made in the UK; they’re usually shipped from distant countries. In some cases, they may be assembled in the UK – but the machining and cutting invariably take place away from the UK. Despite this, a UK product label is allowed. In my opinion, more than a few questions should be asked about this behaviour.

Now let’s compare that process to that of the journey of a typical artisan upholsterer.

Step one is to visit the client to assess what is required, then work through costing the labour and fabric quantity. This takes time, yet very few upholsterers charge for the process.

Step two is collecting the item and taking it to the workshop to start carefully stripping the layers off, a laborious process that can also take a long time! The next step is to unpick any machining required for templates (replacement seat cushions, for example) and then start cutting out the fabric and machining up. Considering the best use of the material can also take time, especially if there is an intricate pattern repeat that requires careful planning. Add to this that we always buy the exact quantity of fabric necessary for a sofa (typically, that’s between 12 and 16 metres). We never bulk buy from a supplier.

Usually, one person will action every step of this process from start to finish. Yes, it’s time-consuming; and that person can often only work on one project at a time. But invariably, that means your upholster develops a relationship with you; they become absorbed in the history of your furniture. They genuinely care about it and want nothing more than to return it to its former glory. It’s something we joke about, but it’s very true – an upholsterer will fall in love each time they begin a new project!

I hope this article helps explain the difference between the two options available: a brand new sofa; or a brand new old sofa. The second option is undoubtedly not as affordable as some of the ridiculously cheap options available to buy online today. However, if you look beyond the “Wow, that’s cheap. I could buy two – and get them delivered tomorrow!” there is so much more to be considered than money. By that, I mean family memories, keeping our heritage alive for future generations – and of course, the positive effect on our planet. Yes, that sounds dramatic…I know. But I refer you to an earlier paragraph describing the impact of sending sofas to a landfill.

So, if you have a perfectly good sofa that you love, ask the right question of your upholsterer. Be confident that bringing your sofa back to its former glory may well be a tiny bit more expensive, but it is a considerably cheaper option for our planet.