Looking around my flat, as I am now forced to do every day, I realise that I only have two major pieces of homeware which aren’t from a big brand retailer. Our small table and a set of mismatched chairs came by chance from a closed down café my wife’s boss bought, and the ridiculous wall-length tapestry of two medieval women embroidering I was instantly fixated with was bought on a family trip to Deal last year. Everything else largely comes from cheaper high street brands and the homeware sections of fast fashion retailers.
Our reliance on fast interiors is complicated. I feel uneasy acknowledging my overreliance on high street and big brand retailers to make my home not just liveable but comfortable. I would love to fill my home with vintage pieces of furniture and secondhand finds from charity shops which I can treasure. The reason I don’t is, in part, convenience: there are no good charity or secondhand shops in my area; the cost of delivery on top of the items themselves is far outside my budget; I don’t drive and most significantly, my rented one-bedroom flat is not my permanent home. It’s not even necessarily in my permanent country. What’s the point in looking beyond fast interior options while my life is still in flux?
Fast interiors have long been an integral part of the millennial experience. Back in 2018, reporting on the opening of the first Anthropologie in Germany, writer and art director Fredericke Winkler wrote that "customers are now approaching the homeware category in the same way they buy their clothes: trend-oriented, impulsive and seasonal." The launch of homeware and interior brands from established high street names signalled how fast fashion outlets played a huge part in this shift, with the opening of Zara Home and H&M Home in 2003 and 2009 respectively hailing the dawn of a new era. In response, many other brands (both fashion and conventional homeware suppliers) began to explore how to adapt to the new generation of shoppers. The targeted consumer was younger, trend-led and likely a renter who would find low to mid-price points, easily identifiable trend pieces and a focus on home furnishings (over furniture) much more appealing.
This trend has been accelerating for various reasons. In Mintel’s report on homewares, in 2018, senior retail analyst Thomas Slide writes: "The homewares market has always been fragmented, but this has increased as a number of clothing brands launch homewares collections while supermarkets reconfigure their non-food offering in an effort to offset challenges in their own sectors." The increase in availability and accessibility is matched by the desire of the consumer. Thomas goes on: "Meanwhile the homewares market continues to grow, as an increasing population of renters seeks to make their homes more 'Instagrammable'."
In that same summary, Mintel reports that in 2018, 77% of consumers bought homewares in the past year. Age, homeowner status and gender also play a role: 25 to 34-year-olds were most likely to have made a purchase in the past year (85%), with women more likely to have shopped for all categories than men. Young renters were most likely to have bought tableware, drinkware and decorative accessories as they aimed to make their homes feel more personal.
As such the homeware market had been expanding substantially in the UK pre-pandemic. Over the last decade, it grew from $20.1 billion to be worth $25.3 billion by 2019.
This is in part due to a shift in shoppers’ priorities. Alex Hawkins is a senior foresight writer at the strategic foresight consultancy The Future Laboratory. He points out that social media is an obvious culprit in this: "Platforms like Instagram and Pinterest have essentially made people a lot more design-conscious. At the same time, they play a big role in proliferating design trends today — we all see these things happening and playing out on social media, and obviously that influences all kinds of decisions." Long before the pandemic, there was a shift towards viewing our homes as spaces for curation. As more people started taking us into their homes via social media, it became inevitable that you’d feel the desire to follow suit. And that meant finding ways to exhibit who you are through your home.
This is only exacerbated by our awareness that these spaces, for many of us, are never really our own. Vicky Spratt, housing journalist and author of Tenants (and my colleague at Refinery29) points out that being a part of 'generation rent' has fundamentally shaped how we view homeware. "By its nature, private renting is unstable and unaffordable. This means that people who rent a) move around a lot and b) don't always have much cash to spare." The impulse to make your living space feel like home doesn’t disappear just because you do not own that space. "They [renters] want to feel that it reflects them, to make it feel as homely as possible and distract from the impermanence of their situation. This means that cheap and affordable homeware which speaks to current interior trends is particularly appealing because, if you don't know where you'll be living next year, you don't know how much you can afford to spend on stuff that you might not even be able to fit into your next home."
None of this was necessarily a revelation in the heady, pre-pandemic days of 2019. We even wrote about it then. But the experience of 2020 brought each of these factors into sharp focus.
As shown by a lockdown survey conducted by the charity Barnardo’s in June of last year, our mental investment in our homes has dramatically shifted. Over a third (37%) of Brits agree that the look of their home has become more important to them since lockdown. This is being matched by our spend. As Angela Lashbrook reported in her piece for Refinery29 about how the pandemic created a new relationship with the ‘home’, sales of home decor have surged over the past year. "These sales, already on an upward trajectory before the pandemic, accelerated in the spring and summer."
With that came the launch or expansion of new interior offshoots, from high end to affordable: UK's Habitat launched a range with Argos; Wayfair launched an affordable line called Hashtag Home; fast-fashion giant PrettyLittleThing launched a selection of homewares; even Kim Kardashian has teased to launch a line of her own.
A significant number of these new homeware lines come from fashion brands, in a deliberate move towards blurring the line between fashion and interiors. There is a growing interest in becoming a brand that not only dresses you but curates every stylish aspect of your life. Mango's recent announcement of a move into homeware in April this year confirmed that elision as the brand stated its intention to "complete the lifestyle of their customers beyond fashion".
Our desire to curate our homes and express ourselves through them has been exacerbated by the pandemic. DIY has boomed, people are curating their Zoom backdrops and there is a more intense desire to nest than ever before. "As the outside world becomes more unpredictable and more uncertain," says Alex, "we're looking to our homes and interior spaces to offer a sense of retreat or comfort." It is precisely this desire for curation that many brands are responding to. "It has played a really big role in lots of different brands wanting to expand into this space and curate multiple aspects of our lives and the aesthetic," Alex adds.
As our gaze flits between our own home and the window into the world we get from social media, homeware and interior trends are cycling faster than ever. Things proliferate so quickly and so widely that fatigue sets in faster. This is especially apparent on the smaller side of homewares: decorative objects and more easily accessible soft furnishings seem to have a far shorter shelf life. The 'headless woman' trend I wrote about recently is an example of this and fits into the broader 'millennial aesthetic'. "The millennial aesthetic, in general, has really proliferated," says Alex, "and you see this in these quite abstract blobs that have been all over the place now, and everyone's got these framed prints or blankets or cushions. I think that's another one that we'll see probably fade out quite quickly — it’s reached fever pitch already."
The inevitable fallout of this curation and decluttering, being swayed by trends and homemaking in general? Huge amounts of waste.
A survey by the British Heart Foundation in 2019 found that just under a third of people (30%) have thrown away furniture, electrical items and homewares in good enough condition that they could have been reused, sold or donated. In response to a similar survey conducted by Barnardo's in February 2020, which found that 27% of UK adults bin unwanted, unbroken homeware, Katie Hill of My Green Pod wrote: "If we assume they all only bin one item each per year, that would mean 14.5 million items are ending up in landfill annually."
Anyone who has attempted to recycle unwanted homeware will know it’s not a simple process. The mix of materials and chemicals used to make furniture makes processing in a recycling facility infinitely harder. Particle board for instance, which is commonly used in cheaper furniture, is not recyclable or biodegradable thanks to its chemical resin and plastic laminate.
All of these 'cheap' products will off-gas in our homes, emitting toxic chemicals into our indoor environments for up to five years! Most people are unaware of this.
And while donating to charities or secondhand sellers is always an option, the closure of non-essential businesses (including charity shops) during the pandemic means that many people who are decluttering are more likely to chuck unwanted items than wait for these businesses to reopen.
Beyond what we already own, the manufacturing of new products in fast interiors has a significant environmental impact. As with fast fashion, cheap labour and the manufacturing rate will likely lead to shortcuts that are bad for the planet, from the use of chemicals and dyes to cheaper materials like polyester and the cost of transportation to meet a fast turnaround.
Making better choices with your new purchases isn’t always easy. "Trying to be sustainable in our interiors purchases is a difficult and time-consuming job," says registered interior designer Nicola Holden, "as most retailers don’t/won’t list the contents of their products. For example, a ‘cheap’ sofa is usually filled with foam and many of these upholstery foams have been made from polyurethane. Polyurethane is flammable, so it's also treated with flame retardants that often contain hazardous chemicals. All of these products will off-gas in our homes, emitting toxic chemicals into our indoor environments for up to five years! Most people are unaware of this."
There is so much potential for this to change. Unlike when activists began to rebel against fast fashion in earnest in 2013, sustainability is now an unavoidable issue that brands across all sectors are pressured to acknowledge. "I do think that though fast interiors are still in their earlier stages, there are inklings that people will start to feel the same suspicion about these brands and these companies," Alex says. "People will likely question the approach to manufacturing and creating this glut of stuff that people don't essentially need [in the same way]."
This is echoed in Mintel's furniture retailing report from 2020, which looks at potential areas of growth for the industry. "From the introduction of circular business models to a heightened focus on materials, upcycling and product life, sustainability is increasingly under the spotlight in the furniture market." According to Mintel's research, 49% of consumers agree that growing environmental concerns have made them more conscious when purchasing furniture.
Alongside consumer awareness, there is a growing rejection of mass-produced goods as people seek something more unique and sustainable. The implication that crafting is somehow dusty has fallen away and vintage, secondhand and sustainably made homewares have evolved, carving out their own corner on social media and retailers like Etsy. Resale has even made it into the bigger brands: Ikea has recently opened resale stores in the UK where you can take unwanted homeware to be repaired and sold on.
These options can still feel out of reach for many, whether because of precarious renting conditions, low income or limited access to secondhand. But for those who can access it, there are plenty of great ethical and sustainable brands out there, as well as secondhand and vintage sellers which can stop the unnecessary production of new products. If more and more people make sustainable choices, the market share will shift.
As more brands we already associate with ethically dubious and environmentally damaging practices add homeware to their fashion lines, the conclusion that homeware, furniture and interiors are likely unsustainable too will become more apparent. As we continue to evaluate and re-evaluate how the spaces we live in serve us, it’s important to find ways to push against the impulses that confuse consumption with a sense of security. Instead, as Estelle Bilson from @70sHouseManchester says of her love of homeware, it comes down to shopping thoughtfully, doing your research and buying what you love.