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Q. Dear Umbra,

My boyfriend is moving downtown to be closer to his job, which also happens to be closer to me. He wanted to shop for furniture at IKEA, and I agreed I would go if we went to a local vintage market first. He didn’t really care about the market (not his taste I guess) and fell in love with a full-blown living room set at IKEA, which he plans to buy all new with a few upcycled pieces as “an accent.” Is there any way to move him from made-in-China matchy-matchy to upcycled oasis without being a sustainabitch about it?

Katie P.
Phoenix, Ariz.

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If this relationship can survive a trip to IKEA, it can survive anything.

Katie SoltysiakIf this relationship can survive a trip to IKEA, it can survive anything.

A. Dearest Katie,

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Wow. This letter is juicier than a horse meatball! Where to begin?

I assume you both are relatively young, as your boyfriend has apparently never had to furnish a flat before. If I’m wrong, and he’s tossing old living room furniture in favor of a shiny new set, then we are dealing with another problem entirely. It also seems you’ve been together long enough to be committed, to a point: He’s moving closer (but not in!) and you’re shopping together (but not at the same stores!). If your relationship were newer, he would have pretended to love the vintage market and possibly ended up with a musty mauve loveseat as the centerpiece of his apartment. Or you would have cooed over Ektorp sofas and Poäng chairs and not suggested that his consumer choices were misguided.

So here you are, in a pretty committed relationship, dealing with a situation that is part eco-debate and part mundane argument about furniture. Excellent practice for marriage, as it happens.

I share your proclivity for used furniture, recycling, and upcycling. If you think he’s still persuadable, perhaps there are places your boyfriend would feel more comfortable shopping than at a twee vintage market. Sites like Freecycle or Craigslist are good sources of affordable, decent stuff, and I’m sure Phoenix has used furniture establishments. I know some people are squeamish about buying items that could have absorbed other people’s spilled drinks or other fluids. With a few caveats you should be fine, though, and reupholstering can give you even more options than the showroom at IKEA.

But if your beau has his heart set on this living-room set, is IKEA so bad? Let’s take a look. On the one hand, we have a big-box behemoth with $27 billion in annual sales of cheap furniture. Most of these products are, as you say, made in China, and many of them are made from mystery wood. Shopping there also necessitates driving, at least in the U.S. (Have you seen those parking lots?) On the other hand, the retailer has some real stars in its sustainability crown: As Inhabitat described a few years ago, IKEA has a longstanding commitment to sustainability that has seen it do everything from eschew plastic bags to invest in solar energy. The Ecologist also looked at the store’s green practices and concluded, in a lukewarm fashion, “Shopping at IKEA won’t save the planet, but if you are strapped for cash and need to furnish your home it is probably the best choice available.”

The biggest criticism of IKEA, from an eco-standpoint, is that its goods are essentially intended to be disposable. When you support that store, you support the notion that we can all run out and buy whatever we like, whenever we like, because we’ve decided we’d rather have a blue sofa than a red one or because our lamp broke but hey, it’s only $23 to get a new one. However, disposable is in the eye of the beholder: I have friends who have gotten years and years out of IKEA products. So one compromise might be asking your honey to pledge to keep his set for a certain length of time. Do they make promise rings for sofas?

You can make that request sustaina-sweetly or not, but ultimately this is your boyfriend’s call. It’s going to be his dwelling, and I don’t think you get to dictate the origins of his ottoman.

I do have one more fun idea, though: You crazy kids should move in together! It’s the environmentally and economically sensible thing to do. If your families object, tell them Umbra said it was OK.