The Enshittification of . . . Couches?
They don't make 'em like they used to.
WSJ (“Your New $3,000 Couch Might Be Garbage in Three Years. This Is Why.“):
The lifespan of your new sofa may be much shorter than you expect.
Instead of once-a-decade purchases, furniture makers and restorers say, couches are becoming more like fast fashion—produced with cheaper materials, prone to trends and headed to the landfill after just a few years. High-quality sofas still exist, pros say, but they are harder to find. Mass-market options, even those that cost over $3,000, are increasingly made with less sturdy materials and construction methods.
Members of the furniture industry don’t agree on a single culprit but say the proliferation of makers, rising price of materials and our shopaholic tendencies all contribute. Expectations for a couch’s useful life now hover around seven years—and sometimes less—save for some of the most expensive models.
Consumers are complaining that their new couch’s cushions are lumpier, springs squeakier and frames flimsier than those of the well-loved models they replaced.
After some anecdotes that shed no useful light on the titular question, we get this:
Furniture makers were inundated early in the pandemic as Covid-19 precautions kept millions of people home. Social-media posts bemoaning new furniture have shot up since then. Mentions of sofas that are low-quality, falling apart or uncomfortable were up 19% in 2023 across platforms including Twitter, YouTube and Reddit compared with 2020, according to analytics company Sprout Social.
The degree to which this is a useful metric of sofa quality is not obvious. Maybe people are more likely to use those platforms than they were three years earlier. Or more likely to use them to lodge customer service complaints. Or, in fact, the quality of sofas has declined 19% over that time.
After yet more tiresome anecdotes, we get this:
Americans have more sofa options than ever. That’s not necessarily to their benefit.
“It has become kind of the Wild West,” says Adam Rogers, an independent furniture designer in Portland, Maine. “People have to choose between the right aesthetic, quality and price. If they want all three, good luck.”
This starts to get at a useful answer to the question. Is the proliferation of options driving down the quality? Or is $3000 simply no longer a lot to spend on a sofa, making the expectation that that is enough to purchase a “lifetime investment” piece of furniture unreasonable?
A potentially useful anecdote:
Jeff Boyer and his team of four technicians at Creative Colors International restore around a hundred sofas a year, often through subcontracts with retailers making good on their warranty programs. The most common complaints he hears are about flaking leather, fractured frames and pancaked cushions.
When it comes to leather, consumers often don’t know what they’re buying, says Boyer, who is based in Frisco, Texas. The “genuine leather” touted on many mass-produced options isn’t a single skin, but a slurry of ground-up slaughterhouse scraps held together with binders and glues, he says.
Genuine leather is the furniture equivalent of cheap cashmere, pros say. Buyers should look instead for top grain cowhide, which may darken from skin oils over time but won’t flake and fall apart.
One big advantage of older sofas is their hardwood or plywood frames, says Andy Buck, a professor of furniture design at Rochester Institute of Technology. Many newer sofas use particleboard or medium-density fiberboard, which Buck describes as compressed wood chips mixed with glue.
“It doesn’t hold a screw and over time it’s very difficult to repair, especially if it gets wet,” Buck says.
The easiest way to suss out your sofa’s skeleton, he advises: Look underneath. You should be able to see if the wood pieces are interconnected with one another in what is known as mortise and tenon joinery. With more brittle couches, those connections are made with an external bracket. Wiggling the arms and backrest is also a helpful test of their stability.
Boyer says he is getting more calls to fix snapped sofas, especially when the piece has an extendible foot or backrest. “It was a rare thing before, but we are seeing that happen even with some of the upper-end of furniture producers, where people are paying $5,000 or $6,000 for a sofa,” he says.
Low-density foam is one of Boyer’s biggest pet peeves. Fifteen years ago, cushions tended to retain their shape and comfort for a decade, he says. Now, homeowners ask him for help swapping out the innards in as few as three years.
What’s driving down the quality of materials and construction isn’t exactly clear. Presumably, some combination of manufacturer knowledge that customers are going to buy based on price and aesthetics over craftsmanship; lack of customer knowledge about furniture construction; and sheer fraud. “Genuine leather” is an obvious scam and should clearly constitute false labeling.
Buck at Rochester Institute of Technology says consumers could be better off spending a few thousand dollars to reupholster a thrift-store find or hand-me-down. “Most often the construction of vintage sofas will be superior to what’s made now,” Buck says.
This, alas, is likely true for a whole array of products. Even relatively simple and inexpensive items like shoes and boots are mostly junk now, even if one buys from a longstanding brand with a great reputation. Partly, that’s a function of new ownership sacrificing craftsmanship for mass production, with little concern for the long-term damage to the company’s reputation. Mostly, though, it’s an understanding that quality goods are competing with “fast fashion” crap from China that can be purchased for pennies on the dollar.