sustainability | Sep 6, 2023 |
10 ways to dispose of your clients’ old furniture responsibly

While many designers strive to reduce the waste their firms create, it’s less common to address the environmental impact of clients’ discarded furnishings. To be fair, it’s not your responsibility—but helping clients off-load their old furniture sustainably is a significant way that interior design firms can help reduce the waste inherent in the home industry.

If the idea of adding used furniture sales and donations to your services sounds onerous—an understandable thought—try thinking of it as an extra way to serve your clients. “We’ve always included [selling and donating old furnishings] as part of our service because we know it’s such a headache,” says Alicia Cheung, co-founder of Studio Heimat in San Francisco. “That’s the reason people hire a full-service firm. We try to be really thoughtful about any of the pain points for our clients during the process of a renovation—and this is one of them.” Aside from the sustainability cred it will lend your firm, Cheung says, “If you have a team that’s strong in project management and you want the client to feel taken care of, why not do it from a business perspective?”

Whatever your motivation, there are ways to make the process smoother and easier for all. Here are 10 tips for responsibly off-loading your client’s old furnishings:

Start the conversation early
Laurence Carr, founder of her eponymous New York firm Laurence Carr Inc., which is known for its focus on environmental consciousness, says that the discussion should start at the beginning of the design process. Because Carr’s clients have sought out a sustainable design firm, they are perhaps more inclined to take the time to responsibly dispose of their old furniture—but Carr thinks most clients will want to do the right thing if they realize what a huge percentage of furnishings end up in landfills each year (the equivalent of 80 percent of what’s manufactured in a given year will also be discarded, according to the EPA in 2018).

Be more liberal about what you keep
Another tactic is to try to work more of your clients’ old furnishings into your design scheme. While Cheung acknowledges that this can feel at odds with how some designers earn their livelihood, she suggests striking a balance between reusing what a client already owns and buying everything new. Matthew Kowles, a designer based in New York, agrees—and has found that it allows him to get more creative without detracting from his firm’s revenue: “I love to use things that clients already own because it means I can use their budget on other things,” he says. Plus, even if keeping existing items isn’t entirely about cost savings (say, if you reupholster a sofa), the end result will be something one of a kind that the client already loves.

Manage expectations
Re-homing furniture responsibly is not going to turn your clients a profit, and in many instances will often cost them marginally, but the sustainability benefits will still be worth it to many—just be sure to communicate all that upfront. “I don’t think the clients are expecting necessarily to get anything from it,” says Cheung. “They like to know that it’s being taken care of and not going to the dump.”

Allocate admin hours
Both Cheung and Carr note that helping clients off-load furniture is a major administrative task—and that you should bill for it. “If we do management services like this, [it’s just like overseeing] installation of wallpaper or the movers, and we have a management markup,” says Cheung, adding that her firm usually bills hours dedicated to resale and donation at about 50 percent of the usual admin rate, and when reselling the furniture, the sales offset the admin costs.

If you want to do it in-house, you’re going to need space
Studio Heimat has a warehouse space that is adjacent to the firm’s offices, making it easier to off-load old furnishings. “That allows us to do things like take our client’s furniture in and sell it on Facebook Marketplace,” says Cheung. With the items stored nearby, it’s not a big burden for her team to coordinate with buyers.

If you don’t have space, outsource it
Look for companies that can pick up and consign for you. In the Bay Area and Phoenix, Remoov will pick up and sell, donate or recycle your clients’ unwanted items. Secondhand furniture retailer Kaiyo offers white-glove pickup for the metro areas of New York, Los Angeles, San Diego, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.. Elsewhere, you should search for “furniture consignment” locations.

Find a local charity
The easiest thing to do is to find a nonprofit that will take away all of your clients’ castoffs in one donation, but this can be surprisingly difficult. Habitat for Humanity’s Habitat ReStore shops are located throughout the U.S. and will often pick up donations (including appliances, building materials and old kitchen cabinets). In the New York area, Housing Works will do furniture pickups, but donated furnishings must be in tip-top condition. In the Bay Area, Cheung and Katie Storey, the founder of the Good Future Design Alliance, both donate to Make It Home, an organization that provides furniture to people in need. It’s worth doing some research to find out what local resources are available to you and your clients.

Communicate with your charity partners
Once you do find a local charity that seems to fit the bill, be sure to stay in touch about their needs and what your clients are looking to donate, as most nonprofits take items on a case-by-case basis. “You need to contact the different organizations, see who is interested and who is available to pick up, then have the whole list sent and verify the pickup a couple of weeks later,” says Carr. “Whether or not they’ll be able to depends on the time of the year and how much back-load they have.”

Give it away
If your client has furnishings that are unlikely to sell or be desired by a charity, it’s easier than ever to give things away directly within your community. Advise your client to join their local Buy Nothing group to connect with neighbors who might want their castoffs (or offer to do so on their behalf). You may be surprised what people will gladly pick up—whether it’s a broken sofa or a piece in an outdated style, someone down the block is likely to see treasure where you see trash.

Look for brands that buy back
In rare instances, Carr notes that furniture brands are starting to offer to buy back their customers’ old furniture. Ikea has piloted a buy-back program at select locations and Sabai, a sustainable furnishings brand, also offers a buy-back program. Carr predicts that more brands will follow their lead as customers demand more sustainable business practices.

Homepage image: Adobe Firefly


Laura Fenton is a writer with a special interest in the intersection between homes and sustainability, and is the author of the Living Small newsletter and two interior design books, The Little Book of Living Small and The Bunk Bed Book. She has written about home and design for nearly 20 years, and her work has appeared in many outlets, including Better Homes & Gardens, House Beautiful, Real Simple, and The Washington Post, as well as online publications and regional design magazines.

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