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Have you seen any of the ‘Broken’ documentaries on Netflix? They’re very well produced and make for compelling watching – whether you’re an educator or not. Each of the four episodes take a hard look at the darker side and real cost of consumer habits, and we’re aware these hard truths are pertinent to areas of education as well. 

The specific episode that the Natural Pod team have been talking about is “Deadly Dressers” which focuses on how dangerous cheaply made furniture can be, and looks at where the raw materials come from in the first place. It may not surprise you that this documentary focuses on IKEA, due to the eight deaths of young children from an IKEA dresser tipping over on them. Though alarmingly the reality is even worse; a US Consumer Product Safety Commission report in November 2019 said 556 deaths were associated with tip-over incidents from 2000 to 2018, mostly children struck by furniture (from a variety of brands). This statistic is quite terrifying and heart breaking.

Why is this happening? The answer is multi-faceted. IKEA became successful when their new style of flat-packed and self-assembly furniture changed the way people thought about furniture. No longer was furniture expensive and passed down from generations – for the first time consumers could purchase modern designs, in a variety of designs, at a price they could afford. 

This demand by consumers for more choice, available faster and cheaper, has rapidly increased. This has led to a large supply of inferior furniture products. It’s just not sustainable to produce the amount of furniture to meet this ‘now, more, faster, cheaper’ appetite and think it’s all going to be good quality, solid, well made, and from sustainable materials.

The dressers that fell over were not solid or heavy enough to stay upright when a child pulled out a couple of drawers. The spot light is on IKEA because of its high profile and the enormousness of the company, but the story is the same for almost all companies that are mass-producing cheaply made furniture, whether it be for homes, offices, or education spaces.  

The documentary expands greatly on the impact of these heartbreaking deaths on the parents, and also the consequences for IKEA itself. IKEA has expressed new sustainability initiatives for their products, but critics are sceptical of this commitment. Ellen Rupell Shell, author of the book,Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culturewrites: “IKEA designs to price, challenging its talented European team to create ever-cheaper objects, and its suppliers—most of them in low-wage countries in Asia and eastern Europe—to squeeze out the lowest possible price.” Other critics point out that even if all IKEA’s products are created from recycled materials, the culture is still one of; buy, then dispose of when the furniture is either broken or you’re tired of it, and buy again. As the furniture is not solidly constructed, many consumers say the furniture only looks good or holds together for about three years. That is not sustainable design or manufacture.

The other big question is where are these ‘sustainable’ materials coming from? Currently, IKEA sources wood from 50 different countries. That’s IKEA alone – imagine how much that number increases when you consider other furniture companies, including school and education furniture suppliers.

Globally, 15 to 30 percent of timber is taken illegally. According to Interpol, the illegal timber trade is worth US$50 billion to $150 billion annually. Timber is ripped from national parks, outside of logging concessions, and from the expansion of illegal plantations. This activity has devastating impacts on indigenous communities, endangered forest habitats and wildlife in large parts of southeast Asia, Africa and South America. North America is not exempt; tree poachers target centuries-old cedars and redwoods in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest.

To guarantee the source of sustainably harvested wood, choose furniture that has been certificated – The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC® C012337) is the probably the biggest and best known forest certification scheme globally. FSC® C012337 is an international, non-governmental organisation dedicated to promoting responsible management of the world’s forests. Of any existing certification schemes, FSC® C012337 provides the highest level of protection for endangered species and natural forests. But in addition to protecting our forests and overseeing a legal and sustainable timber trade; they also oversee and create sustainable practises that protect and maintain natural commu­nities and ensure that the rights of workers, communities and indigenous peoples are respected.

Unfortunately many of these same truths and realities apply to the school furniture market as well.

So where does this leave us? Sustainability is not just about sustainable materials, but practices that encompass the best environmental and economic sustainability practises for communities as well. 

The ‘Broken’ documentaries are a compelling watch, and are prompting discussions like this.  As consumers, we all need to take a very conscious look at where the products we use come from, who made it, what it is made of, and what happens to it at the end of its life span.  

We’d love to hear your thoughts or experiences on this topic.