The pandemic proved a boon to cheap and cheerful interiors, but will trend-led furniture reach the same monstrous proportions as its clothing counterpart?
COVID-19 reduced our social lives to a single daily ‘silly little walk’. With a walk around the block providing no good reason to wear anything remotely interesting – and stopping to take a photo of it for the grid running the risk of a police interrogation about ‘non-essential’ activity – we turned our collective attention inwards, to our homes. Seeking visual respite from the same four walls, our bedrooms became both our outlet and our content fodder, and a stream of cheap new candles, cushions, vases, and lamps were the subjects.
A 2021 made.com survey found that 68 per cent of UK adults shopped online for their home at least once a month during the pandemic. 19 per cent, which amounts to nearly one in five, did so multiple times per week. People shopped so much for cheap, cheerful, trend-led homeware, that it gave the sector a serious boost, with a 42 per cent rise in homeware sales helping kickstart the long journey to retail recovery.
Spotting an opportunity, ultra-fast online retailers got in on the game and Boohoo, Pretty Little Thing, and Missguided all launched homeware lines within six months of each other at the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021. John Lewis, known for sitting at the pricier end of the market, joined in too. Launching its ANYDAY range in April 2021, prices are, on average, around 20 per cent lower than the department store’s existing own brand.
Just as fast fashion normalised posting a new outfit everyday, fast homeware normalised the constant tweaking, updating, and redesigning of living spaces. Homeware hauls from the aforementioned fast fashion brands and others including H&M, Primark, Shein, and Zara became standard content on YouTube and TikTok, and distinct style camps emerged. The defining lockdown trend was undoubtedly ‘Avant Basic’ (christened as such by former Dazed head of fashion Emma Hope Allwood). Rooted in fashion before seeping into homeware, it was all about checkered textiles, tiled coffee tables, wavy mirrors, mushroom lamps, and stuff covered in expanding foam.
24-year-old Vicky*, who looks at Pinterest and Instagram for inspiration, went all in on the trend. “I thought it was fun at the time but by the time I actually get a house and put it where I want it to be, it’s not going to be in fashion anymore so it’s a bit of a waste,” she says. “I’ve been trying to save up for a house and I feel like that obsession with home ownership has spurred me to keep buying things as if I own a home, which I don’t. I’m stuck in that rent trap.”
Allyson Rees, senior strategist at trend forecasting company WGSN, explains that renters are the key consumers for fast homeware. “These are individuals who are perhaps going to university or getting their first apartment. They are quite transient, they’re renters, so they’re not going to be dropping $1,200 on a piece of furniture,” she says.
Fast homeware consumers aren’t dropping big sums on single items, but they are buying often. “I’m just spending a lot of money on things that I don’t necessarily need. One of my goals (for 2022) was to cut down because I’ve literally run out of space, there’s no more room for any more furniture,” continues Vicky.
While many of the most popular interiors accounts are run by people with enormous houses, the average home size in the UK is 729 square feet and the average London flat offers around half that space. Needless to say, the churn of trends and the need to make space is causing a lot of waste. Of the 921,000 tonnes of textiles that were thrown out in 2017, 391,000 tonnes were non-clothing textiles including bed sheets and table linens (as well as other ‘leisure’ textiles like sleeping bags).
In addition, nearly 22 million small items of furniture are thrown away each year in the UK when they become damaged. But it’s not just damaged items ending up in landfill. 30 per cent of people have thrown away furniture, electrical items, and homewares that could have been re-used, sold, or donated, according to the research by the British Heart Foundation.
“By the second fast homeware wave, consumers had already started to care more about the sustainability aspect of things. They weren’t consuming it in the same way that they were consuming fast fashion before. They were being a little bit more conscientious” – Allyson Rees, senior strategist at WGSN
Those aged 16-24, firmly within the Gen Z and millennial fast homeware demographic, are more likely to get rid of items than those over 55. Not having transport, wanting to get rid of things as quickly as possible, and finding it easier to go to the dump were the top reasons for binning rather than recycling or donating.
But some consumers are beginning to think more carefully about their homeware habits. Rees describes the current fast homeware trend as the second wave, the first happening in 2015-2016, prompted by the fast fashion movement and fashion bloggers moving into interiors to “diversify their portfolio”.
“By the second wave, consumers had already started to care more about the sustainability aspect of things,” Rees says. “They weren’t consuming it in the same way that they were consuming fast fashion before. They were being a little bit more conscientious.”
Sustainability within interiors had a 9 per cent penetration rate on social media in June 2021, according to a WGSN whitepaper entitled “Create Better: Innovating Towards a Sustainable Future”, while data released by eBay revealed that searches for “eco furniture” and “sustainable furniture” rose by 123 per cent and 171 per cent respectively between 2019 and 2020.
Responding to this, brands are beginning to introduce sustainability initiatives. IKEA, which is much like H&M in that it is often seen as a perpetrator of unsustainable practices but also invests heavily in new initiatives, has invested in forests, launched a buy-back system, and pledged only to use “recycled or renewable-based plastic by 2030”. In the US, Pottery Barn has partnered with The Renewal Shop to launch Pottery Barn Renewed which sells restored textiles.
Rental is also emerging as an alternative option. Harth launched in the UK in 2018, offering everything from feather floor lamps to sofas, and John Lewis followed suit by launching rental in 2021. Of course, people who already rent their homes may not want to rent their homeware too, but a booming secondhand market is available to them via both big retailers and independents such as In Reverie, Rosemary and Peach, and Scene By Chloe.
“I live in rented accommodation, and I can’t change the walls, so I think it’s really important to buy furniture which will last a long time and not be so throwaway,” says 21-year-old fashion journalism student Harry. “I go to an auction house where my parents live or follow the auction online and bid for things. I also love eBay and charity shops.”
Bolstered by a consumer base who wants both value and sustainability, furniture resale is expected to hit $16.55 billion by 2025, as consumers swap fast homeware bargains for second hand bargains.
What hasn’t had the same cut through as environmental initiatives, however, is a focus on workers. “There are a lot of misconceptions and I think I’m part of that, I don’t necessarily know what working conditions are like,” Harry says. “I definitely have shopping guilt when I’m buying a cheap piece.”
IKEA, one of the originators of cheap, fast homeware, has come under fire for not signing the International Accord (previously known as the Bangladesh Accord), which was put in place to protect workers in Bangladesh factories. As of January 18, the homeware giant has still not signed, instead continuing to focus on its voluntary code of conduct scheme, iWAY. The likes of Boohoo, Missguided, and H&M have signed the accord, but with modern supply chains so sprawling (Boohoo alone has 1,100 suppliers) it’s nigh on impossible to ensure that every single person within it is being treated with dignity and working within safe conditions. A number of fires have broken out in furniture factories in Bangladesh, Turkey, and India over the last few months, demonstrating that those making homeware face the same dangers as garment workers.
Some brands are beginning to acknowledge the issue. When asked about who makes its homeware, a representative for H&M said, “H&M Group doesn’t own any factories, instead our products are made by independent suppliers. H&M HOME uses suppliers in Asia and Europe… We offer a transparency layer at hm.com, sharing extended and detailed information about each product. Our customers can easily learn where their favourite product was produced, the name of the supplier and what materials it is made of.”
John Lewis, which previously had to overhaul its supplier policies after one UK bed manufacturer boss was jailed for trafficking, understands that the spotlight is beginning to shift to workers. “We work with carefully selected suppliers from all over the world. Ceramics from Portugal, glassware from Italy, mattresses made in the UK and furniture from Asia. Customers can easily find out where each product is made on the product page on our website,” the brand said.
Transparency doesn’t guarantee safety, however, and the lack of ownership engenders a responsibility gap between brand and workers. But while it took a tragedy – the Rana Plaza factory collapse – to stun the fashion industry into action, the homeware industry is pre-empting transparency and ethics probes. As rental, secondhand and circularity begin to seep into homeware, it appears that the sector is already shifting before it can quite reach the monstrous proportions of fast fashion. Is the homeware landscape perfect? No. But it is certainly evolving more quickly than its fashion counterpart did.