When my husband and I moved into our condo in Brooklyn, the 266-unit building had everything we were looking for: a balcony, a washer-dryer, and a small gym (but don’t ask me how many times I’ve been). The building’s most precious resource, however, revealed itself a little later: an online bulletin board brimming with neighborly advice, dog walker recommendations—and quality secondhand furniture up for grabs.
The first piece we acquired was a desk chair. Then came a desk, then another desk, a round mirror, a rustic wooden dresser, a paper-shade floor lamp, a 50-inch TV, and my most prized acquisition—and only actual purchase—an upright digital piano for just $300. And lest you think of us as freeloaders, you should know that in return, we’ve parted with a smaller dresser, a giant pouf, another desk, and several dog toys.
Neighborhood swaps like Nextdoor have been around for years, as have grassroots movements like Freecycle or the Buy Nothing Project. But bulletin boards like the one in my building may well be one of the most underrated, most sustainable secondhand furniture platforms around. Much like heirlooms used to get passed down from generation to generation, I’ve found that it has crystallized the importance of sourcing furniture as close to home as possible.
Americans throw away more than 12 million tons of furniture every year. This is perpetuated by the fast furniture industry, which continues to churn out cheap, low-quality products that don’t last long and end up in landfills. Many of these pieces also travel thousands of miles before they land on your doorstep: In 2020 alone, Vietnam shipped more than $7.4 billion worth of furniture to the United States.
Building forums could help alleviate some of that pressure. My building’s forum is run by a property management software company called BuildingLink. It was founded in 1999 and introduced the bulletin board feature about a year later as a way to foster community and facilitate communication, says Zachary Kestenbaum, BuildingLink’s CEO.
Today, Kestenbaum is seeing more than 2,500 posts a week related to furniture and home furnishings, and an additional 2,000 posts for other items like exercise equipment, bikes, electronics, and clothing—and the trend extends far beyond New York City. He says residents in some 3,000 buildings are using the bulletin board to post about furniture, from San Diego and Pittsburgh to Toronto and Sydney.
For a while, Craigslist was the only big player in the secondhand furniture market, but over the past few years a slew of furniture startups, from Chairish to Apartment Therapy to Kaiyo, have jumped on the bandwagon. Meanwhile, an increasing number of companies from Ikea to Sabai have launched buyback programs for customers looking to sell their old Billy bookcase or buy a refurbished sofa. The business has become so successful that by 2025, the furniture resale market is expected to hit $16.6 billion, a 70% increase from 2018.
By providing an alternative to cheap disposable items, these companies are taking furniture out of the waste stream, but the shipping conundrum remains. In 2019, carbon emissions from shipping furniture made up 3% of total greenhouse gas emissions that year. By comparison, when I saw that my upstairs neighbor was giving away his desk chair, all I had to do was ride an elevator to get it. This saved me up to 72 kilograms of CO2 related to making and shipping a chair—or the equivalent of 179 miles driven by a gas-powered car.
And no, I can’t know if every piece of furniture I’ve acquired from my building is made of sustainably sourced wood. But I know I get to choose what goes in my home—and it really doesn’t need to travel 30,000 miles to get here.