Is our obsession with color trends killing the planet? A Fast Company article by Elizabeth Segran asks just that question. The piece chides us with numbers that reveal our wastefulness—like how many times we wear an item before banishing it from our closet (down 36% to seven to 10 times since 2000), or how many pieces are in that closet in the first place (150, on average). This is clearly out of step with the rising interest in sustainability.
While Ms. Segran’s article focuses on apparel, I felt that as a color-and-trend forecaster for the home furnishings industry, the question posed was also meant for me, even if peripherally. After all, lots of home interiors companies take cues from the runway when developing new colors and patterns, striving to be seen as providing home fashions as much as home furnishings. I’m one of the consultants advising them to do so.
Conventional wisdom has held that apparel has fads and fast-fashion, while home-décor has trends that last longer. Now that the lifecycle of a trend has dropped—from 7 years to 5 as I began my trend career at Target, then to 4 years in 2000, to 3 years by 2010 and now to 2.5 years by late 2019—is the home-furnishings industry just as guilty as apparel when it comes to the push for what's next?
After much soul-searching, I know the answer is yes. The home-furnishings industry has also positioned itself to generate waste at a rate that cannot be sustained. How much waste? Let’s start with 25% of everything the industry produces. That’s the average size of a trend assortment for home-interiors manufacturers and retailers. The remaining 75% is devoted to basics with much longer lifespans.
Home-décor assortments require a hefty number of core items, basics that sell well day-in and day-out. Think about the ubiquitous (and bestselling) off-white track-arm sofa that's on every retail furniture floor and every website. Or the clean, white dinnerware sets that somehow look similar, even when there are dozens of silhouettes to choose from. Consumers perceive that it will be easy to add trend-right colors, textures and shapes around these core items to make a fashion statement. And they expect their basics to last for many years.
One reason why this is true is that these items are larger. This is frequently the case for furniture items, making them hard to swap out on a whim. It is often correct for price, as well. A good dining room table, for example, can cost thousands of dollars, so consumers expect to own theirs for a long time. In an article for TheSpruce.com, called When Should You Replace Your Furniture, housekeeping and fabric-care expert Mary Marlowe Leverette listed the average lifespan of a dining room table at 15 – 20 years.
I can recall countless new-outfit emergencies over the years, but the number of placemat emergencies in my life has been drastically fewer. Unlike apparel items, home furnishings don’t have to be replaced if you get pregnant, or when your weight changes. If the weather is unexpectedly cold/hot/rainy/icy/dry, that’s not a reason to get a new lamp.
Yet, there are legitimate motivators, other than need, for buying a trend-right item. Home-furnishings trends exist because people change. We never stop evolving, so we are constantly looking to create environments that reflect those changes in our preference and in our lives. These adjustments in color and style connections provide comfort at home, so they have significant value.
Even so, after reading the Fast Company article, I believe it’s time to question whether the home-furnishings industry should devote fewer resources to trend-product development.
We’ve done it before. During the Great Recession, the number of new collections dropped significantly in almost every category, from furniture to tableware. Even as the economy recovered and sales took off, the sheer quantity of newness hasn’t returned to pre-recession levels. But, it’s still too high to fit with today’s urgent pursuit of sustainability.
As a start, manufacturers and retailers can deliberately consider stepping trend assortments back to 22% from today’s 25% share, representing about a 10% reduction. Will consumers even notice this? Will retailers see an impact at the cash register, if a slightly smaller offering of new-new items is presented? Probably not. Will features and details become even more important for the items being offered? I think so.
Cutting trend development back to 22% will put more pressure on trend forecasters like me to get it right. I’m willing to take on the challenge.