Browse an interior design website or magazine these days and you'll notice that the furniture looks suspiciously similar to that of fifty or sixty years ago. Trends have a way of coming full circle. We're now back to that clean, spare look offered by wooden Danish or Japanese furniture, paired this time with lots of natural light, houseplants, and stainless steel appliances.
The good news about the old becoming desirable again is that it's possible to find many pieces of furniture secondhand. And buying secondhand furniture is arguably the most eco-friendly way to furnish one's house. These items have already stood the test of time, proven their value, and will continue to do so for many years to come.
Not only does buying them divert unwanted items from landfill and breathe new life into them by repairing, repainting, and generally cleaning up, but it also decreases demand for new resources. This slows the push to cut down exotic furniture-grade woods, an industry that's driving deforestation in Burma and other parts of Asia, Africa, and South America. When buying new wood furniture, it's recommended always to look for sustainable certification by a reputable label, but when it's secondhand, you don't have to worry about that as much because you're already engaging in an environmental act by extending its life.
Buying secondhand furniture takes a stand against "fast furniture," or the quasi-disposable household furnishings sold by companies like IKEA. While stylish, many of these products are not built to last – at least not in the way that furniture used to be made, with the intention of passing down to subsequent generations – and is made from materials, like particleboard, that cannot withstand trauma of any kind. Sometimes it's easier to throw out this cheap furniture than move it, hence the heaps of cheap furniture trash outside college residences at the end of each school year. Fast furniture often contains formaldehyde in the adhesives that hold together particleboard and other volatile organic compounds used in manufacturing.
Buying secondhand resolves many of these issues, but there are some things you should look out for. Steer clear of old painted items, unless you're able or willing to test the paint for lead. Avoid old urethane foam upholstery that could contain brominated fire retardants.1 Old stain-proofing treatments like Scotchgard can shed per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).2 But please don't let these warnings scare you off vintage furniture: it's fairly safe to assume that any off-gassing of chemicals used in production occurred long ago, and you're avoiding a host of new chemical exposures by not buying new.
Look for solid products made from whole materials. These are easier to refinish and repair, and will maintain their value for longer. Buy from local vendors, which keeps more money within the community. As reported on Treehugger in the past,
When you commit to buying secondhand, it can take a long time to source the right pieces. Lloyd Alter wrote that it took thirty years for him to find dining chairs that met his criteria; but it's worth it in the end. And when you find that perfect thing, you'll treasure it more than ever.
Betts, Kelly S. "Hand-Me-Down Hazard: Flame Retardants In Discarded Foam Products". PMC, vol 3, no. 123, 2015, pp. 56-63., doi:10.1289/ehp.123-A56. Accessed 3 Dec 2020.
"Per- And Polyfluoroalkyl Substances Draft Chemical Action Plan". Washington State Department Of Health, 2020,