ECONOMY

Renting All Your Furniture Means Never Discarding Another Sofa

Plastic-wrapped foam mattresses, dilapidated plastic shelving units, three-legged Ikea chairs—Jay Reno calls this “end-of-life” furniture. And it’s accumulating by the dumpster-full in landfills.

Rather than buying furniture—which comes with the clumsy task of eventually throwing it away—Reno suggests that consumers simply rent it, ideally from his company, Feather.

Feather partners with furniture companies including West Elm, Floyd, Herman Miller, and carries a line of its own pieces designed in-house. Unlike the Rent-a-Center depots that lease overstuffed leather recliners and hefty media consoles, Feather caters specifically to the strata of urbane, young-ish professionals who tend to live in apartments and therefore prefer sleeker, more compact furniture. If one of these pieces breaks, or you move, Feather picks up the furniture, refurbishes it, and rents it to a new home—no need for 1-800-JUNK trucks or bulky item trash collection. The business model, Reno says, is “in harmony with both generating revenue and keeping furniture out of landfills.”

Americans sent nearly 9.7 million tons of furniture to landfills in 2018, up from more than 6.5 million tons in 2000 and equivalent to 80% of all furniture manufactured that year, according to the most recent data from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA’s report doesn’t wade into the story behind the numbers. But over the last decade, shopping for the home changed dramatically. Wayfair launched in 2011, making affordable, on-trend home furnishings available online. In 2013, Ikea reported that it used 1% of the world’s commercial lumber in its cheap, flat-pack furniture. And Walmart and Amazon are in an arms race to achieve overnight delivery, making it easier than ever for consumers to buy home goods without having seen said goods in person.

These retailers all sell “fast furniture,” which typically requires assembly, but is rarely designed to withstand disassembly and reassembly when its owners move. Legs break, plywood splinters, and veneer cracks. “Then the consumer throws it away,” Reno says. “That’s what we do when something is inconvenient, and we’re done with it.”

It’s no longer a given that every household wants to invest in furniture. “If we look at the things people value over the course of time, go back to the 1960s and it would have been a big dining table,” says Andy Buck, who teaches furniture design at the Rochester Institute of Technology. “Now money goes into experiential learning or computer-related things.”

Feather—which operates in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and, as of January, Washington, D.C.—isn’t alone in suggesting this closed-loop, low-commitment approach to decorating a home. Furniture rental company Mobley recently rebranded as Conjure, announcing a seed round of $9 million to lease its wares in and around New York. Sabai, which makes its sofas in the United States with recycled materials and natural fibers, launched a buyback program in the fall. In Los Angeles, Fernish supplies people with vaguely mid century-modern homewares. And for years, companies like Cort and Green Standards have steered offices toward circularity, the former by renting out Aeron chairs and the latter by assisting companies with donation and recycling.

A proliferation of furniture rental companies hints at a new version of nesting where we don’t necessarily own every item in our home. Reno began imagining this alternate future in 2015, after a calamitous moving day during which a Craigslist sofa got so obstinately stuck in his Brooklyn stairwell that a couch doctor was summoned to cut it in half. “Someone else who professionally owns and manages those assets would do a much better job of figuring this problem out—saying, ‘actually, that sofa isn’t going to fit up those stairs,’” Reno recalls thinking. A second realization followed: That person could also become a steward of the materials, ensuring that they got recycled or reused. After being accepted to startup incubator Y Combinator, Reno left his job as a digital strategist to start Feather.

Brett Harrison arrived at a similar conclusion two years into running Roomie, a bed rental company for college campuses. When Roomie began manufacturing its own mattresses using the same factories as bed-in-a-box favorites such as Casper and Leesa, Harrison saw up close how much waste the direct-to-consumer mattress industry leaves behind. Lenient 180-day trial periods invite a high return rate, but that doesn’t mean those returned mattresses get resold. Most mattress startups rely on third-party manufacturers to produce and ship products, and those factories have strict health code rules about used mattresses returning to factory floors. To the landfill they go.

Unless Roomie intercepts them. “We’re trying to fill this niche,” Harrison says, “by creating an institutional way to take in used mattresses, cut them, clean them, make new mattresses, make pillows out of the additional foam, and then sell them to schools.” Roomie now partners with Leesa (and Feather, which rents Leesa mattresses) to repurpose the mattresses it can’t donate. Roomie’s first class of recycled mattresses will ship to Yale University dorms this year (delayed from last fall by the pandemic). When Yale eventually needs to replace those mattresses, Roomie will repurpose the foam into carpet padding. “My goal is for all bed-in-a-box returns to have a place to go,” Harrison says.

Reno shares that goal, but for tables, chairs, beds, and sofas. Feather didn’t start designing its “rental-first furniture” until Reno witnessed how easily the pieces he was leasing from other brands break down. All its in-house designs are created for modularity—slipcovers and chair legs easily swap out, and rugs are woven with durable, recycled plastic bottle fibers instead of less durable wool. When new parts can no longer save a piece of furniture, Feather recycles specific materials. “Based on the way we’ve designed our furniture, there doesn’t necessarily have to be an end-of-life,” Reno says. 

Nor does it have to mean a bland, utilitarian apartment. In person, the leather upholstery on the Essex dining chair ($17 per month to rent) feels soft and deeply conditioned. The plastic Powell flatweave rug ($16 per month) would be right at home on Apartment Therapy, and doesn’t register as synthetic.

Feather’s plan—to build pieces that can last for years and then some—gives it a chance to change with the times without simply throwing out the old. Consumers looking to redecorate get that chance as well. “As a society we are so trained to buy, own, and wrap our arms around things,” Reno says. “It’s hard to get that out of people’s minds, but that’s our mission—to transform people’s relationship to physical goods.”

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