Over nine million tons of furniture waste enters our landfills each year. Buying second-hand furniture is a complete thrill that requires a lot of commitment and fruitles hours browsing on poorly-designed resale websites, but there are also companies like Sabai Design who are exploring what ethical and environmentally thoughtful furniture could look like.
They started by making a beautifully-designed, sustainable, nontoxic, and ethically made sofa, at an affordable price, and have launched a buy-back program, a repair program and other initiatives to encourage people to keep and take care of their one sofa for as long as practical; to avoid waste and consumption. Sabai’s co-founder, Phantila Phataraprasit, answered some of our questions on the environmental concerns of the furniture industry and the business and consumer trends behind the resale furniture industry.
What's the founding story and inspiration behind Sabai?
After Caitlin and I graduated from Columbia, we went through the post-graduation furnishing hunt. Both of us care deeply about the environment and were taking steps in our own lives to limit our impact--including how we decorated our homes. While we found that while sustainability had made it into many sectors, the furniture industry had been slow to catch on, and options were not within the budget of a recent graduate.
Furniture, in particular sofas, are some of the largest items Millennials will purchase. However, they had not been brought into the 21st century and did not reflect the values of young consumers. We decided to change that through Sabai Design - with a beautifully-designed sustainable, nontoxic, and ethically made sofa, at an affordable price. Sabai means cozy and at ease in Thai, which is how we want our customers to feel about our furniture pieces.
In what ways is Sabai sustainable, and what was the thinking behind those choices?
Sustainability is woven into all that is Sabai, from the materials we source and our production, to the design of our furniture as well as end of life solutions. We take a comprehensive approach to sustainability, examining the entire lifecycle of our furniture. We believe that sustainability is a journey, never a final destination. Our team is always working to find even more sustainable solutions from our materials to our design, for example, just this January we launched the first ever furniture buyback and repair program in the United States; the Sabai Standard.
We like to think of sustainable features in a few categories:
Materials - we source 90% of our materials within 100 miles of our North Carolina factory. Our materials are nontoxic, upcycled, recycled, FSC certified, and vegan. One of our customers’ favorites is our recycled velvet fabric - this is made from 100% recycled water bottles. In fact, the fabric to cover just one Sabai sofa is made from 400 recycled water bottles.
Production - we produce locally to reduce our carbon emissions in shipping. We manufacture at a family owned factory where everyone earns at least a living wage. Our factory also loves to find fun ways to reduce waste - like using fabric scraps to tie up larger fabric bolts.
Shipping - we ship all of our products plastic free (the clean up is so easy too) and offset the emissions of each package with our shipping carrier. Our instruction manuals are available virtually to reduce paper waste!
Design - the Sabai pieces are made with mechanical fasteners. This not only allows us to avoid glues that have harmful chemicals, but also means they can still be recycled when they reach their end of life. Also, our made to assemble design allows for easy repairs. For instance, if your puppy decides that your sofa leg is a new chew toy - you can easily order a single replacement leg through our Repair Don’t Replace initiative. Lastly, durability is key here too. We use fabrics that can easily be cleaned to ensure that our customers keep loving their furniture for years to come - even if they have kids or pets!
End of life - this January we launched the Sabai Standard, an end of life solutions program designed to reduce furniture waste. The Sabai Standard breaks into two parts - 1. Sabai Revive and 2. Repair Don’t Replace. Sabai Revive is a buyback program that offers customers the opportunity to sell their loved Sabai pieces for up to 20% of the resale price. This keeps sofas out of our landfills and also creates a more affordable option for some of our customers. Meanwhile, Repair Don’t Replace empowers our customers to repair their Sabai furniture or even update it to match their design aesthetic.
To us, sustainability is not successful if it isn't inclusive or accessible to a mainstream audience. Affordability plays a large role here. Overall, keeping Sabai Sofas in homes as long as possible is our goal and really what informs our outlook on how to build a sustainable furniture company.
What are some of the issues around sustainability that you see in the furniture industry?
I believe there are three main issues: Importing products from abroad, greenwashing, and waste.
Over ⅓ of furniture exported in the world comes to the U.S., so we have a large issue of selling products that have traveled thousands of miles and have a huge transportation cost on top of the externalities of making the products in the first place (pollution, unethical production, etc.).
U.S. Made is a great (but small) offering within the industry, not only because of the ethical manufacturing capabilities, but also because of the short distance from the furniture's inception to your home. We want to narrow that journey and our impact as much as possible and that seems to be a big hurdle within the industry.
Secondly, a surface level commitment to sustainability that does not seem to be genuine. For example, companies will market a product as sustainable even though only one material or element makes it sustainable. As the tide turns towards conscious consumerism, many companies are capitalizing on it with vague marketing and topline slogans that fail to pan out into anything substantive. Consumers - do your research!
Finally, there’s waste. Did you know that over nine million tons of furniture waste enters our landfills each year? Not to mention, many companies in the industry are burning damaged products or returns rather than recycling them or selling them at a discount. Companies need to start taking responsibility for the entire lifecycle of their products by offering repair programs and buyback programs. Sabai introduced the first furniture lifecycle program to the United States and we hope that more companies will join us. I’m a strong believer that it is time for the furniture industry to look inward and really ask: “What are we doing about sustainability?” and “How can we start to walk the walk?”
How do you see being climate-conscious affecting the industry over the next few years?
As consumers become more educated, greenwashing will become less and less possible. Recycled, upcycled, and natural materials will really become big drivers for big box retailers and fast furniture companies as consumers begin to dip their toes into demanding sustainable products. In terms of taking things to the next step, IKEA is leading the charge to challenge big box stores to also engage in a life cycle reflection. They have begun to internationally test lifecycle programs and we are hopeful that the Sabai Standard could begin a chain of events that may persuade them to bring those lifecycle programs to the U.S. This is so exciting to us - because when we are all more sustainable, we all win!
Another area that will be impacted by climate-conscious mindsets is the second hand furniture industry. The second-hand ecommerce furniture market is also booming as consumers evaluate their environmental impact; buying secondhand results in a lower carbon footprint.
By 2025, the furniture resale industry is expected to reach $16.6 Billion in sales, up 70% from 2018. Just this year, we launched our buyback program, Sabai Revive. Sabai Revive is already seeing high demand for used furniture - our sell through rate is 100% in 72 hours whereas our competitors’ rates are 100% in 30 days. I look forward to growing Sabai Revive and participating in the growing ecommerce market for second-hand furniture. It will be interesting to see if big box retailers will also launch internal second-hand programs as their products are so often listed on third party sites like Apt Deco.
How do you apply closed loop systems and re-using into your own life?
Right now, vintage is king. My apartment definitely is outfitted with Sabai pieces but beyond that I’ve sourced almost all of my other pieces second-hand. It’s really fun to see our customers do this too when they tag us on Instagram. The incredible craftsmanship and the ability to keep unique and beautiful pieces in use for decades is a great showcase of the potential of a closed loop program. I think the idea of closed loop or full lifecycle programs also can be stretched beyond simply furniture when you think of how you can look at both the beginning and end of any lifecycle that you interact with. For example, I buy a lot of vintage clothes these days and up compost now that summer farmers market hauls are here!
What are some other brands you love doing exciting work in sustainability?
Our buyback program was inspired by Eileen Fishers' Revive program. We've been very impressed with what they've done in that space, as well as the movement within the fashion industry to generally begin to take accountability for their product at the end of its life. Other brands we love are Stojo, of course, Package Free Shop for sustainable household goods, The Real Real for making second-hand clothing shopping a breeze, Stasher bags, Parachute Home for sustainable, nontoxic bedding, and Thred Up for second-hand clothes.
What are three resources you recommend for people on their own journey with sustainability and climate awareness? These can be books, podcasts, movies, websites etc.
There are so many fascinating books and documentaries - it's hard to pick one. Racing Extinction is a great documentary. One of our employees used to work for their lead activist. High Tide on Main Street and Cradle to Cradle are excellent books too!
We can also recommend the Trash is for Tossers blog and all things The Good Trade.