The High Cost of Cheap

Malcolm Smith

How do you reconcile your purchases with the fate of the planet?

Our purchasing decisions tell us a lot about how we perceive value. Have you ever heard the expression ‘buy once, cry once’ or perhaps ‘buy cheaply, buy twice’? When selecting new furniture are you considering it an investment for the future or a short-term solution? Is your decision researched or impulsive? How are you reconciling money with materiality? Do you consider how your purchasing decisions affect not only a particular space but the planet as well? In short, are you getting the best value for your money? In this article we look at why value matters so much, what value really means and how to get it.

Humanity finds itself on the edge of a precipice. Our history of consumption has created dangerous conditions globally that are having seriously negative implications on the environment. 14,000 scientists from 153 countries agree that our planet has entered a climate emergency and is on the verge of catastrophe. Nearly every day it seems we are confronted with the intensity and reality of climate change. Record-breaking heat waves, devastating forest fires, flash floods, and arctic-like conditions in normally hot and sunny destinations are all directly related to the production of fossil fuels and oppressive greenhouse gas emissions.

Trees and exterior of Plaza de Colón in Madrid covered in a blanket of snow.
Photo by Alvaro Araoz on Unsplash

The influence of the design world on these natural phenomena is even more far reaching and impactful than we might realize with “the urban built environment [being] responsible for 75% of annual global greenhouse gas emissions.” This is a staggering number when we consider that Toronto has the highest number of construction cranes in any North American city. Brand new spaces often include brand new furniture and how this furniture is made, acquired, and retired has a corresponding effect on the environment. In short, it affects the value of these brand-new items.

What does good value really mean and how do you get it?

Good value means buying the best you can afford. With manufacturers, retailers, and influencers vying for your attention and hard-earned dollars, working with a designer to help filter out the noise is not only aesthetically essential but an exercise in cost savings with an eye to the future. Buying the best you can afford doesn’t mean depleting your savings; it means investing in good products that can outlast and outsmart cheaper alternatives on several fronts. The biggest hurdle begins with shifting our perspective by replacing the disposable in favour of the indispensable. While a cheap plastic stacking chair might seem a practical purchase, where does it go at the end of its life? What are its limits and how soon will it need to be replaced? Most importantly, how does it affect your bottom line?

Next, we examine value in the context of one of our large commercial office projects. This project required multipurpose seating for a growing team of more than a hundred employees.

We partnered with commercial furniture specialists to help navigate our client’s budget and vision. After much consideration, our team opted for two stacking chairs made transparently with eco-conscious materials to be used throughout the office. The first, Pato by Fredericia has a shell made from 100% recycled and recyclable polypropylene. Its frame is produced from recyclable steel and surface treated with a solvent-free powder finish that complies with lacquer coating standards (DS/EN ISO 1456). Similarly, Fiber by Muuto has a composite shell manufactured with plastic and 25% post consumer wood products meeting BIFMA standards for commercial furniture and a green Declare label boasting its ingredients, embodied carbon, and end-of-life cycle.

Contemporary, Danish dining chair in ochre finish with black metal legs.

When it came to soft seating, our team opted for sustainable and commercially rated upholsteries. These were fashioned from renewable fibers, like wool, and post-consumer recycled plastics such as Camira’s Advantage. These textiles not only offer fire-rated certifications and eco-conscious declarations like Greenguard but they are also intended for high traffic use with exceptional durability and rigorous cleanability in mind.

Close up of Camira’s Advantage fabric in four colourways.

Years before we met our client, they smartly invested in quality workstations and task chairs. This meant when their team expanded and relocated to a larger facility, these pieces were easily consolidated and moved to their new home avoiding the need to purchase new and pay for waste removal. The same can be said for their Framery Acoustics pods which not only increase employee satisfaction and efficiency but are built to last with parts and materials that can be repaired, replaced, or updated on demand. Our client was able to add to their existing purchases when furnishing a new space, preventing the time and financial expenditure needed when buying entirely from scratch.

In fairness, not all project budgets allow for completely brand-new furniture. Have you considered the responsible alternative of buying vintage or previously owned pieces? This is a great way for clients to become familiar with enduring quality with an option to eventually save and buy new. Who says you can’t sell what you already purchased second-hand? Our team, for example, was able to score a dozen pre-loved Herman Miller Sayl chairs for our own office. We purchased them from a company that went out of business ultimately saving the chairs from a landfill or being discarded as loose parts. Since the pandemic began, a spate of e-tailers selling quality wares have emerged allowing us to support local entrepreneurship while bringing our clients the best of relevant and purposeful design.

Contemporary office setting showcasing Herman Miller task chairs.

Getting good value means asking questions and comparing the long-term cost between items of opposing integrity. The cheaper, less eco alternative might be a fraction of the price compared to its premium competitor but when you start evaluating performance and longevity, how does it stack up long term and what are the long-term costs for the planet? Better materials mean better durability with an option to eventually repurpose or even resell for a percentage of what you originally paid. What’s the resale market on a chair purchased from a big-box store? Can it be repaired? Will your decisions truly save you money in the long run?

Asking educated questions about the provenance and lifecycle of the items we use and making deliberate choices about the products we want to buy is critical. Intentional product design and informed consumer decisions must effectively partner if we want to offset and ultimately reverse the effects of climate change. Buying the best we can afford is the beginning of a journey for us all. It is a challenge to waste less and reuse more by extending the life of the things we own. Even small but continuous changes in purchasing habits bode well for a greener and more hospitable tomorrow.

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