How “Green” are Antiques ? – A Critical Assessment.

How "green" are antiques? - A Critical Assessment

-written by Peter Schleifenbaum

Antiques are the ultimate form of recycling. There is no production involved in the generation of antiques and thus no new generation of green-house gases or the consumption of non-renewable resources. Is that true ? And how does this compare to alternative, contemporary purchases ? 

A quick look at the global furniture industry provides an insight into this alternative of new furniture over antiques: in 2019 that industry generated over 600bn US $. It is an industry, which is predominantly, with over 50% of production capacity, centred in Asia. 

Over 60% of the present furniture industry are based on wood, which is expecting an annual growth of 5%. However, the non-wood components in furniture manufacturing will increase by 10% annually. That is plastic, glass, stone and synthetic materials. While it can well be argued that wood can at least be generated sustainably and thereby “green”, with a low or even neutral carbon footprint, the same cannot be argued for the non-wood furniture components, which are either directly oil-based or hydro-carbons at least figure very prominently in their generation. 

And talking about generation of carbon emissions: even wooden furniture products consume energy during their production process. But what is worse, in most cases when dealing with contemporary, new furniture, we are not talking about full-wood, like boards and veneer, but complex mixtures of wood particles together with synthetic glues, dyes, preservatives and other chemicals of various kinds.  These do not have the ‘green’ attributes of wood. To the contrary !

And despite the effort invested in producing modern furniture, they will not last. They will either rather quickly reach their physical demise through material failure - breakage, discoloration, warping, chipping etc. - or simply fall out of trend favour because they no longer conform with up-to-date fashion norms of form and/or colour. And because they are simply “used furniture” with little or no monetary value or use at the end of their days, they are easily discarded. 

And this is where the final ecological drama of modern furniture plays out. At the end of their very limited life they need to be disposed of, in a worst case scenario in a land-fill, where their non-wood components will be lingering for centuries, slowly releasing their decaying chemical and hydro-carbon load. At best the old furniture will end their life in the hot fire of an incinerator, where they will be fully incinerated without a trace. In the process at least some of the energy contained may be “recycled” to generate heat and/or energy. But even this limited benefit comes at the substantial cost of collection, transportation and organizing the incineration, which in itself is no longer carbon-neutral.

Antiques in return have none of these negative attributes and consequences. Applying the legal definition for customs purposes of what is an antique – anything at least 60 years old – the last epoch of “real” antiques is the early, mid-century-modern period. And even during this period, the use of composite wood and plastics was just being developed. Their application was very limited. When we move back into the early years of the past century or even into the 19th century, antiques were made of true, full wood as well as natural materials such as clay, various metals, glass or natural fabrics. Their production may have consumed limited amounts of energy, primarily based on coal, but the products themselves, today’s antiques, were rather pure with few, if any, harmful chemicals and certainly no plastic or composite content in the modern sense. In that respect antiques are as green as the greenest modern furniture can be. 

Beyond that, if we apply modern concepts of “life-cycle” analysis and accounting, the limited carbon invested into antiques during their generation has long been applied and their purchase today replaces the use of  modern furniture and items with the negative attributes shown above.

So, are antiques “green” ?  This question can be answered with a definite “yes” … or two, if one wants to accept antiques themselves as ecologically very sound and secondly the replacement of modern furniture as another, solid argument for the ecological reasoning to buy antiques.

- Peter S.