High Point, North Carolina, doesn't have many claims to fame unless you're immersed in the world of furniture. If so, then you might know that High Point boasts the world's largest chest of drawers—and you definitely know that twice a year the city becomes a bastion of design when more than 85,000 furniture makers from all over the world descend upon the town to showcase their wares. But, increasingly, the furniture shown in High Point is made in another country: China.
The relentless pursuit of cheap labor has contributed to the loss of furniture jobs in North Carolina and the growth of the same jobs overseas. The cost to the state is significant. According to the High Point Chamber of Commerce, the furniture industry has an annual economic impact of roughly $8.5 billion and supports more than 65,000 jobs. Yet, in our evolving, globalized economy, trees grown in the United States are being sent halfway across the world to be manufactured into furniture and then shipped back to America to be sold, according to NPR.
We all need furniture. The decisions we make about what we buy and how and where the goods are made not only have an impact in faraway places, they directly correspond to people's livelihoods right here at home. I am from North Carolina. It pains me to learn nearly 8,000 jobs were lost in furniture and fixture manufacturing alone as a result of trade with China (part of a larger trend of 2.3 million job losses nationwide, according to a 2008 Economic Policy Institute study).
I don't know too many people who buy new bookshelves or armoires every year. So I am here to humbly request that you think of these purchases as investments. My home is chock-full of amazing wood pieces that I picked up in my work and travels to India, Indonesia and Thailand. The pieces are handmade. You can feel the care that went into carving each design and sense the effort that was required to turn a tree into chests or tables when you run your hands over them.
When my boss, Ann, described my home as "lovely and honest," I was pretty sure it was because of all the good wood. These are pieces I will pass down to my nephew and other loved ones. They feel more precious and beautiful over time.
As you can see from these photos, most of my furniture was purchased in antique stores. I don't know where that old wood was grown, but as I've purchased a few new items from Viva Terra and IKEA in the past few years, I've been mindful to determine their origins.
One-third of the world's land mass is comprised of forests. Huge tracts of land roughly the size of South Carolina are destroyed each year not only as a result of our desire for tropical hardwoods, but also because of our need for palm oil and other inputs that we use in our daily lives. Fortunately, it's now possible to trace a desk or chair back to the place where it was created. It requires some effort, but many companies will list the information in their purchasing policies or environmental statements.
If you're not buying what already exists, take the time to find out if your wood is good: where it came from, if the people who made the items were paid fairly (you can do this at Fair Trade Federation) and the kinds of additional substances that were used in manufacturing (which I'll detail in a later post).
You also have another great opportunity—buying locally. Urban trees can be an excellent source of valuable and unusual lumber for woodworking. The Urban Lumber Company in Springfield, Oregon, uses storm-damaged, dead and hazardous urban trees to create wood products. The Old Wood Co. in Asheville, North Carolina, has a commitment to using reclaimed wood. They make such exquisite pieces I almost wish I had room for more furniture.
Once you get your good wood, treat it well. I'm trying out Daddy Van's Beeswax Furniture Polish. It's a challenge to buff a house full of wood, but I can actually see the emollient soaking into the thirsty furniture and replenishing it. If buffing in beeswax isn't your thing, look for something like Method's Wood for Good cleaner. It has fewer irritants and plant-based ingredients. Traditional wood polish is yet another substance that allows petroleum to seep into our lives.
Off to buff,
Simran Sethi is an award-winning journalist and associate professor at the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications. For more information on Sethi, visit SimranSethi.com and follow her on Twitter @simransethi.