Repairing old furniture – two craftswoman on a mission

Trends change day in and day out. It’s only logical to think that a chair we buy today will be out of fashion in the years to follow. A great number of us chooses to throw away those pieces of household property without even thinking about the alternatives – repairing old furniture or upcycling it into something we can use again.

Low prices in IKEA or other streamlined production stores don’t help us choose what’s good for the environment either. Without much thinking, we might decide that cupboard or that desk are good for our wallet. At least in the short run. 

Let’s see why repairing old furniture over choosing cheap items is actually better for us, our pocket and our planet.

1. Cheap furniture production involves the use of dangerous toxins

A lot of the furniture in our possession contains particleboard fabricated from wood chips, sawmill shavings. During the production of the particleboard, the resin must be sprayed onto the chips to bind them together. The binder most widely used in production is a potentially cancerogenous environmental toxin – formaldehyde.

1. Formaldehyde

We find formaldehyde in plywood, fabrics, adhesives, etc. Short-term effects of the exposure to the substance include watery eyes, burning sensation in throat and nose, skin irritation and nausea. According to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), long-term effects might include cancer, specifically leukemia, and brain cancer.

2. Acetaldehyde

Besides formaldehyde, our furniture also contains acetaldehyde, the same substance that evokes the new furniture smell. The side effect might be eye, skin or respiratory tract irritation. As for long-term effects, EPA classifies acetaldehyde as group B2 – a probable human cancerogen.

3. Benzene

Next on the list is benzene which EPA categorizes as a known human cancerogen. We find this chemical in exhaust emissions and also dyes and detergents used on our furniture. It’s used as a solvent for waxes, rubber, and plastic. It can provoke dizziness, headache and even vomiting.

4. Hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD)

This chemical presents health concerns for its neurological, reproductive and developmental effects. It is a flame retardant. It ensures that our furniture doesn’t catch fire easily. Sadly enough, it bioaccumulates and biomagnifies through the food chain. Therefore, we often find it in breast milk, blood, and fatty tissue.

There are at least a dozen more chemicals found in furniture with similar consequences. Most of them make our lives easier: make our sofa stainless-resistant, make our bean bag waterproof,W make our couch nonflammable. Their half-life can be 3-5 years and it can take twice as much for them to finally leave our body.

Besides residing in our body, they get to our environment and end up in water and soil. At some point, these toxins return to our homes as our food. 

2. The origin of the wood used in manufacturing is unknown

By 2050 global resource consumption will have increased more than double (from 85 to 186 billion tonnes) if the material extraction continues in the same extent, states European Commission.

While most Western countries have strict regulations in place to control the origin of the wood that’s used in furniture production, most of the cheap furniture comes from China. Sadly, not very many companies consider supporting sustainable wood production by using wood grown at designated plantations. Even fewer companies worldwide are legally obliged to know where their material comes from.  

Deforestation in the tropics is accountable for  about 1/6 of warming pollution globally. Furthermore, six out of fifteen major furniture exporters are tropical countries like Brazil and Indonesia.

The lack of strict regulation threatens to leave tropical forests vulnerable to timber harvest. In only five years period (2000-2005) around 40 million hectares of tropical forests have been cleared. 

Why is this bad news? When a forest is planlessly logged, it degrades fairly easily. This consequently impacts species and habitat diversity and disrupts ecosystem services. So, instead of contributing to the overall development of tropical countries, by buying furniture made from illegally logged forests, we aid further deforestation. According to research done by Union of Concerned Scientists, deforestation in tropical ecosystems causes 15% of pollution that leads to global warming.

3. Preserving forests – Ecological benefits

By conserving forests we mitigate climate change. Trees act as a great storage system for CO2 released by burning fossil fuels. Forests absorb around a third of that annual emission.

We thank trees for clean air. We should thank them for clean water, too. Sustainable forest management helps control water flows, maintain water quality and affects the overall availability of water as a resource.

4. Designed to last – thoughts on the circular economy

European Commission makes great effort to revolutionize the way people see resources. Its 2015 Circular Economy Action Plan asserted the alarming extent to which the resources were being consumed globally. Greater efforts in recycling and reuse are inevitable in order to find a way to close the loop

Moreover, the European Commission proposes remanufacturing and refurbishing products as a way of maintaining quality while offering lower prices. 

It is our obligation as consumers to demand better-designed products. By carefully choosing what we buy, we’re putting the producers under pressure to make the products more sustainably designed.

5. Choosing to repair old furniture can actually save you money

Our world is shifting towards a sharing economy that is slowly winning over the owning economy. Another reason why we, too, should support it is that it costs less to repair rather than to buy new. Many old pieces of furniture that are out of fashion right now have been made to last a lot longer than today’s plywood solutions.

repairing or upcycling old furniture means less resource extraction
Repairing or upcycling old furniture means less resource extraction

This is why this post’s topic is about repairing. I proudly present to you Mila and Sanja, the owners of “Two chairs and Craftswomen” (Dve stolice i majstorice), a Serbian social business that is changing the way we see our old furniture. 

What is your business all about? 

“Two chairs and Craftswomen” (Dve stolice i majstorice) is a female entrepreneurial business based in Belgrade, Serbia, that does upcycling and recycling of old wooden furniture.  They combine entrepreneurship with ecology through various programs: recycling and upcycling of wooden furniture, craft workshops for women, workshops for marginalized groups, workshops for social empowerment of women, mentoring women start-up business and advocating for environmental protection.

What makes your business of repairing old furniture cool?

They are pioneers in female craft business in Serbia. Usually, repairing old furniture is a type of business exclusive to men and they’ve faced many obstacles in their way. In most of the cases, people don’t even believe that they are craftswomen. So one of their missions is to break gender stereotypes.

How did you get the idea?

Sanja and Mila are self-trained and they built their business from scratch. They realized people didn’t have a dedicated place to dispose of unwanted wooden furniture. So they began to collect old wooden furniture and repair it to give it a new, modern look. By recycling old wooden furniture, they were saving trees.

two craftswomen with a mission to save our old furniture
Mila and Sanja – two craftswomen with a mission to save our old furniture

What were the first steps that you took towards realizing your goal?

Their business set off by winning the grant at “Green ideas” competition. That prize allowed them to invest in professional tools and a workshop. Because they are self-trained it was a challenge to run a business. Over time they overcame the hurdles.

What did you learn from your first year of running it?

Customarily the first five years are the most crucial when running a business. During their first year, they worked on developing a good business plan and putting together a list of clients, as well as developing a marketing strategy. Over time they set up a small working space and continued to invest in their craft, alongside with professional tools they needed to do business. One of the most difficult aspects of running a business was understanding the legal aspect of it. Their friends and community supported them greatly when they recognized them as successful craftswomen. So, the advice that they’d like to share would be never to give up.

Who are your customers?

Their customers come from various groups – from younger to older, single to married – but most commonly their clients are young couples, single women, cafe bars, clubs, other people’s startups and NGO sector.

giving old furniture a new life
Giving old furniture a new life

How did your life change since you started repairing old furniture?

The biggest change in their lives was the fact that they were struggling for something that they believed in and loved.

Think of the beginnings. What advice would you give to your past self?

The biggest advice to give their past selves would be to carefully choose every step of the way.

Learn more about the business, get in touch with them and support them through Two chairs and Craftswomen page and their Instagram page.

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