The Aeron chair by Herman Miller is the gold standard for offices in North America. If you walk into any technology company in Silicon Valley, any law firm in New York, or any bank headquarters in North Carolina, you are almost guaranteed to see dozens of these sleek black chairs with their mesh backs and seats. If you’ve ever sat in one, you will know how amazingly comfortable they are, and how precisely they can be adjusted for user comfort and ergonomics. It’s no wonder that they sell new for around $1000. And right now, people are literally giving them away on Craigslist.
Welcome to the post-pandemic world, where everything that we accepted as normal 18 months ago has been upended, disrupted, and rearranged. Just about every aspect of our lives has been fundamentally altered because of COVID-19, and one of the biggest shifts has been in the nature of how we work. Until the pandemic struck North America in March 2020, only about five percent of white-collar workers worked from home full time. It wasn’t that long ago that companies such as IBM and Yahoo put restrictions on working from home, creating massive uproar from people who wanted to contribute remotely. Today, that almost seems quaint: thanks to the coronavirus, nearly 100 percent who work in offices worked from home. This led to millions of square feet of prime commercial real estate being abandoned, and with that, hundreds of millions of dollars of new and nearly new office furniture sat unused for a year and a half.
Thanks to the rapid development of multiple vaccines, more and more companies are requiring their employees to go back to physical offices, but it would be naive to think that all of the previously occupied spaces are going to fill back up anytime soon. Right now, only about 10 percent of offices are fully utilized in North America, and it’s estimated that by the end of the year more than a quarter of employees will still be working from home. That translates to millions of unused desks, chairs, conference room tables, and other pieces of office furniture.
This is already having a major ripple effect on the economy. Both Herman Miller and Steelcase, two of the largest manufacturers of high-end office furniture, have been suffering financially as sales of new items plummet. And because there are so many companies that don’t plan to re-open their offices, there is an unprecedented glut of office furniture for sale. All you need to do is go online and see how many companies and property managers are trying to unload items they will never use again.
Unfortunately, a lot of this furniture is destined for landfill. That’s because home office workers are tending to gravitate toward products from IKEA and Amazon as opposed to top name-brand manufacturers. There is simply too much furniture sitting in offices today, and at some point, it needs to go somewhere. This is a terrible situation not only from a business point of view, but from an ecological one as well. It is unconscionable to think of millions of perfectly good pieces of furniture simply being trashed. There needs to be a better way to help prevent this from happening.
The environmental effect of so-called “f-waste” is often overlooked, but the numbers are truly staggering. More than 12,000,000 tons of furniture are dumped annually, and less than half a percentage of it is recycled or reused. That’s a catastrophe that has only been exacerbated over the last year as the pandemic has accelerated the destruction and abandonment of furniture.
It’s not all bad news, however. My company, a manufacturer of stickers and other branded items based in Toronto, has actually been growing rapidly over the last few years, and we needed to move to a larger space to accommodate all of our production equipment and employees. As it happened, we didn’t have enough furniture for everyone. One of the first things that we did when we signed our new lease was to look for desks and chairs for everyone. As it turned out, a local company called PathFactory decided to go fully remote early on in the pandemic and no longer needed its office equipment. One phone call later, we agreed to buy tens of thousands of dollars worth of furniture for a nominal fee. We also made a donation to a local charity because we had gotten such a good deal and wanted to pay it forward.
In many ways, this is the path forward to reduce the waste of office furniture as much as possible. Companies need to connect with each other to pass perfectly good furniture from organizations that no longer need it to ones that do. Local chambers of commerce, business improvement districts, commercial real estate brokers, and other business organizations can play a critical role in making this happen.