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Given the following conditions:

  • One expects to have to move multiple times
  • One would like to keep the furniture

Is it possible to make a generalization as to which is more sustainable:

Buying used furniture that at moving time require multiple trips with a moving van, or buying new furniture from a self-assembly store like IKEA, which makes it easy to disassemble the furniture when moving, saving the resources associated with additional trips with a moving van?

I know there are many more variables that influence the outcome (how often does one move, how far apart are those locations...), what I am trying to establish is wether or not one or the other is drastically more unsustainable, making it a worse choice under most circumstances.

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As with most of these calculations, you are right to say without thinking about lots of other variables. I think that there are a few that need to weigh in a little bit.

The biggest one is access to either of these types of stores to buy the products. For me, IKEA is a two hour drive each way. I could get to a Target or Walmart in 15-20 minutes, so it would probably be better to get self-assembly furniture there instead and save the longer trip.

Likewise, buying used can be even closer to home, especially if you are buying second hand from others. However, in terms of driving time, you likely will buy from a diverse group of people to get all the furniture you need, which could mean lots of individual trips, versus one trip to get the self-assembly furniture.

So in terms of initial purchase time and driving time, this could learn more towards self-assembly in my book.


The second step is then the actual moving. Again there are two options, sell or ship. For shorter moves, I would guess that it is better to just move the furniture versus again driving all over town to get "new" furniture (really just different if you are buying used :) ).

In terms of selling your furniture, I would guess that there is a decent disparity between the price that you can get for a piece of self-assembly furniture v. a used piece of quality furniture. In my experience, self-assembly furniture is at least half price what you would pay in store if buying used. Standard furniture you can seomtimes sell for as much or more than you bought it used. (This is probably more the disparity between new and used than a direct relation to quality. Also it is far easier to look up the price of an IKEA piece of furniture than other used furniture, so the "new" price is more known.)

Not that price is the ultimate decider in terms of sustainability, but I find that it has a definite influence on the ability to accept a green practice. When someone knows that they will be hard pressed to recover the cost of a product and deem it fairly cheap to begin with, it is more likely to be thrown away than sold or shipped.


Ultimately, my primary consideration (having moved 3 times in the past year), is the ability to pack around the furniture. I had some furniture from IKEA that we disassembled and moved around. I also had some used furniture that I packed. I also had some furniture of both that was either seriously worn or cumbersome to move, so we donated that to a local thrift store.

If you plan to be moving often, I would want to limit the number of moving trucks and I think that this can be done with either type of furniture as long as you are willing to pack in around the furniture (which may depend on the moving company more than anything). We did a U-Haul, so we were able to pack it full and move it well.

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    The costs of going a quite long distance to the retailer once (for the purchase of a product) may be negligible over the product's lifetime. – Stockfisch Apr 14 '13 at 11:21
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I would recommend buying used and selling for a couple of reasons.

  1. Less petroleum consumed in moving physically.

  2. Less expenses paid to moving companies or truck rentals (and less resources consumed there)

  3. Less resources being spent on cheap mass produced materials and more on re-using what is already there.

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I think sustainability also comes in when considering which furniture you buy. The gasoline required for driving a particular piece of furniture across the country might be quite mild when you consider that you are supporting forest-depleting practices by buying new furniture. Well-sourced wood, proper manufacturing and ability to recycle (or compost) go a long way and might put taking your shelf or desk with you on the more sustainable side. There are good hand-made designs, which allow you to dissemble your furniture without any need for screw(driver)s.

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Being somewhat familiar with the life cycle assessment methodology from my experience the main impact to consider here is the consumption of fuel for moving furniture by truck.

Fuel consumption depends mainly on

  • the distance you will move
  • how frequently this trips will be undertaken
  • which mode of transport will be chosen (truck, van, ship)
  • which fuel will be used
  • and if you transport other goods

All of these factors are linked. If you move in a vehicle that has a lot of storage capacity the distance is essentially insignificant. If you use green fuel it will be less important if you do the trip multiple times.

The two systems described in your question are

  1. Obtaining new furniture that is saving space in case of moving.
  2. Obtaining used furniture that is more bulky.

The main consideration therefore regard the space in the vehicle you are moving in (distances to a retailer for initial purchase will not be very significant over the whole lifetime of a piece of furniture). If the truck is big enough to do all the moving at once the environmental costs will be the same but you state that this is not the case. How much more often will you have to move the vehicle? Over which distance? And in the end, how frequent?

You stated that you will move frequently. However compared to everydays truck transport this is still very little.

I argue that the impact from moving furniture from time to time is insignificant compared to impacts associated with the initial purchase (including resource harvesting, production, storage, delivery). This favours the purchase of used furniture as you will use it beyond it's expected life time and therefore offsetting initial environmental costs. However, without specifications on transport distance and frequency this is not much better than just a guess.

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