There’s a growing awareness that the products we buy have a major impact on the planet. Consumers who want to minimize their environmental footprint can opt for secondhand clothes and biodegradable food packaging. But when it comes to furniture, it’s not easy to shop sustainably, which is why more than 12 million tons of sofas, desks, and cushions end up in American landfills every year.
Enter Sabai, a 2-year-old startup that sells chic, customizable sofas made from eco-friendly materials. It’s poised to launch a buyback program that lets customers sell their Sabai sofas back to the company; they’ll then be resold to other customers at a discount. It’s part of Sabai’s long-term mission to give each sofa a longer life span and then ultimately recycle it. “The idea is to create an entirely closed loop system that keeps the sofas out of landfills for good,” says cofounder Phantila Phataraprasit.
The disposable furniture model
For most of human history, furniture was designed to last decades, if not a lifetime. But since the 1980s, companies like Ikea, Target, and Wayfair have found ways to make furniture inexpensively overseas, allowing consumers to regularly update their home decor. In 2002, Ikea even ran an ad campaign encouraging customers to trash furniture they found boring. “It has no feelings, and the new one is much better,” explained a man in a TV ad.
It’s now clear that treating furniture as disposable is bad for the environment. So several home brands are working to extend the life of their products. Coyuchi and Pottery Barn take back old textiles, clean them, and sell them at a discount. And last October, Ikea announced a global program that would allow customers in 27 countries to sell used furniture back to the brand. The U.S. was noticeably absent from this list, and Ikea didn’t offer a reason why.
Sabai’s buyback plan
Starting next Friday, customers will be able to sell back their Sabai sofas and get 15% of the secondhand sale price in cash or 20% in store credit. These products will then be sold at a discount on Sabai’s website. Phataraprasit says it was hard to build this logistical system from scratch, particularly since the U.S. is so large. “We spent months finding the right partner with a network of national warehouses,” she says.
It’s perhaps surprising that there aren’t more furniture buyback programs in the States, particularly given that buying pre-owned furniture is common here. There’s a thriving market for used and vintage furniture on sites like Craigslist, Chairish, and AptDeco. And more recently there’s been a boom in furniture rental brands like Feather, Fernish, and ZZ Driggs, all of which normalize the idea of filling your house with furniture that someone else has used.
Phataraprasit believes that until recently furniture brands haven’t had any incentive to go through the effort of buying back pieces, when it’s easier to leverage their existing supply chain and sell new products instead. But she thinks things are changing, since millennials are more concerned about the environment than generations past and want to make more responsible decisions when it comes to their furniture.
Phataraprasit also contends that buying and selling used products directly with a brand creates a more enjoyable and seamless experience for the customer. “With other secondhand sites, you’re limited by what happens to be available that day or what your neighbors are selling,” she says. “Our platform will allow customers to pick the piece they really want, at a discount.” (They’ll be priced 25% to 45% lower than new products, depending on their condition.)
The new program allows Sabai to cover its costs but, at least initially, Phataraprasit says it won’t be a major source of revenue. She does, however, believe it will deepen consumers’ relationship with the brand, and it might also spur people to buy new sofas, since they’ll be assured of being able to sell them back when they’re ready to part with them.
In addition to the buyback program, next Friday Sabai will also start selling parts, like legs and slipcovers, that make it easier for customers to repair furniture on their own. Since the company uses a modular design, where pieces aren’t glued or stapled together, they can be taken apart easily. Longer term, Phataraprasit believes this modularity will also be crucial to recycling the sofas. Most recyclers don’t accept mixed materials, but if they can separate the wood, fabric, and foam in a sofa and send them through different recycling streams, that might change.
It’s still early days. Sabai is only 2 years old, and the sofas are designed to last at least 10 years, which gives Phataraprasit and her team some time to figure out the details. “We’ve discovered,” she says, “that to create a sustainable sofa, you need to bake sustainability into the design from the start.”