Tip 06// The Most Sustainable Couch
I am thirty, and I have still yet to own a couch of my choosing. Every couch that has permeated my living space has either been already provided by previous tenants or handed down to me by someone I know. What does that say about me, exactly?
While it is quite obvious that our personal successes are not defined by an ability to own a couch, I think it is implied that a medical professional of thirty would have been able to afford one by now. But buying a couch is no easy thing. In fact, buying ANYTHING for me is never an easy thing these days. The entire process involves a hefty amount of serious pondering and a mild case of deep-skin writhing.
In this line of work, I am approached by others in general for my thoughts on stuff. In a sense, my job here is to help make a value judgement. I am presented with the following questions: Who made it? How is it made? Where is it made? What materials are used? Why is it necessary? Which option is best, in terms of sustainability both in terms of the environment, the social implications, the global effects, and least importantly, my personal repercussions. It’s a lot of pressure to put on a matcha whisk, or a set of pajamas. It’s even more pressure on large scale purchases, such as a brand new couch.
I have been in search for a sustainable couch for years. Ever since my husband (then-fiance) and I moved into our own place two months after I graduated dental school in 2016. Specifically, I have looked for a couch wherein I can trace exactly where it was made, whose hands were used to make them, and in what environmental conditions. I have yet to find one that comes close. Most furniture companies don’t even bother to tag couches as sustainable, and those that do only involve a small level of sustainability (like using reclaimed wood without any consideration for the fabrics of the upholstery) that I cannot even take them seriously.
So then I started to reach out to acquaintances about possibly fabricating a couch. Our favorite piece of furniture in our home is a 12 foot dining table hand-made by the two girls who provided our wedding furniture. We thought maybe we could do the same with the couch. I reached out to a fellow wood-worker-baker and an at-home clothing seamstress to ask about making a sustainable wood frame and sourcing end-of-the-mill fabrics. But sourcing the fabric will take lots of work researching jobbers and the wood-worker friend was busy with current projects as well as a baking schedule. It wasn’t the path to take.
So we turned to the next sustainable option, which is to buy a used and unwanted couch from Craigslist, which would prevent an additional item from entering a landfill. I know that it would put us in the same spot as before, owning a couch that’s a hand-me-down of sorts, but at least it would be a couch of our choosing. When we went to Melbourne in January, we stayed at a really nice AirBNB, and we fell in love with a mid-century modern couch in their living room.
I was surprised to find a similar couch made by West Elm selling at Craigslist for $800. The same couch is still selling at West Elm for double the price. While West Elm sells some sustainable products, couches are unfortunately not one of them. But sustainability as defined by environmental impact is achieved with this option, and the fact that it was already owned means the buying of this Craigslist couch does not have an ADDITIONAL social impact or global effect, except for the positive effect of side swiping it from the landfill. So where’s the hitch?
It all came down to sustainability as defined by my personal life. $800 is no chump change. Maybe in proportion to brand new couches (why do they cost so much?) $800 seems like a steal. Perhaps it is. But in terms of my personal financial goals, $800 is almost double what we set aside each month for travel. $800 is almost three months worth of groceries, or eight months worth of dining out. $800 is a year’s worth of cat food for Theo, and probably all the Christmas and birthday presents we want to buy. It is one-third of our portion of the mortgage, which is helping us build equity – can a couch do that? It is 12% of our monthly loan payment, which is buying us freedom. How much freedom can a couch buy you?
In the end, we chose the most sustainable couch, which is the couch we already had. It buys us freedom from the cycle of continually searching for something better. It helps build us equity by not taking way from our ability to build equity. It fuels our financial goals, without taking away from our time. In the end, it came down to the answer of not which couch is best, but which couch is good enough. That’s what sustainability is all about.
I sometimes wonder how well these superlatives, and our quest for the best of something, end up serving us. What about the possibility of replacing better or best with good enough? The reality of my own day-to-day life is that living simply and keeping a pared down collection of well-loved items often isn’t about having the best. It’s about making the best of what I already have.
Like Erin, we search for ways to make the best of what we have. It’s the ultimate way to live without forever needing to chase. In our space, we have shades where walls should be, wooden panels where doors should be, and a bed where some might put a living room. But it IS enough, and there we still sleep soundly.