Will Anderson: The Green House

Even buying furniture presents a moral maze to ethical shoppers, but there is a simple solution
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Do you move in sustainable circles? If so, are you moving in enough of them? It is often said that sustainability is only fully achieved at the point of intersection of three overlapping circles representing environmental, social and economic viability. For example, a product cannot claim to be sustainable if it has top-notch green credentials but survives through the exploitation of cheap, non-unionised labour, while green technology cannot rely on government subsidy forever.

This three-circle model has long been used to root green thinking in the harsh realities of the modern world but it doesn't have very strong theoretical foundations, so should be used as a guide, borne out by much practice, rather than the last word. The economic argument is particularly tricky. If a company makes something without paying the environmental costs clocked up along the way, the price on the shelf is likely to be lower than the green alternative. Only regulation and taxation can remove such distortions; in the mean time, the market remains highly unsustainable.

Nonetheless it's not so difficult to step on to the three-way intersection, especially if you actively set out in this direction. A healthy example in Britain is the Furniture Re-Use Network ( www.frn.org.uk, 0117 954 3571), whose members recover and repair more than a million unwanted household appliances and items of furniture every year, many of which are then given to low-income families or, alternatively, sold to the public. The environmental savings include 63,000 tonnes of waste diverted from landfill and the huge amount of virgin resources that would otherwise be required to manufacture the goods.

One of the Network's members is Emmaus, a (non-religious) organisation that takes the social aspect of the sustainability challenge a step further. It uses furniture-recycling as a means of enabling homeless people to gain skills, confidence and independence. Behind many of the Emmaus shop-fronts in Britain ( www.emmaus.org.uk) there are long-standing residential communities that offer homeless people not only shelter but opportunities, in a supported environment, to get off benefits and move on in their lives. Each community aims to be self-financing through the core-business of recycling furniture and consumer goods and all companions (Emmaus residents) work a 40-hour week.

I recently visited the Emmaus community in Greenwich, south London, and met many of the residents. It seemed to be a happy place with everyone doing their bit to meet the community's daily needs, from cooking lunch to scraping flaky varnish off old wooden furniture and preparing it for sale.

There are no restrictions on how long people can be a part of Emmaus communities, so while some people only stay a short time until they are back on their feet, others find that this life suits them and decide to make Emmaus their home. This is a generous approach to dealing with homelessness that gives people a chance to decide for themselves the direction their lives take.

Research conducted by Cambridge University has shown that each Emmaus community has the potential to save the taxpayer £600,000 per year due to state benefits foregone and reduced costs to the health service, criminal justice system and other social services. So, whichever way you look at it, this approach to social enterprise definitely fits the sustainability three-step model.

If you have furniture to dispose of, or are looking for good-value buys, contact Emmaus or other members of the Furniture Re-Use Network before heading for the dump or the department store. With relatively little effort, you too can sustainably waltz through life.


To complement your second-hand furniture, buy high quality second-hand curtains from your local branch of The Curtain Exchange ( www.thecurtainexchange.net).


BioRegional offers many integrated sustainable products, from locally sourced recycled paper to houses that meet their own energy needs. See www.bioregional.com.