Sarah Page was a leader of the eco-friendly movement before there was a word to describe it.
Ever since the 50s, her family’s reupholstery business, Plumbs, has been upcycling the UK’s most-loved furniture. Their ethos - to reuse old furniture, rather than start from scratch – has made Plumbs particularly favourable among eco-warriors.
In this interview, we spoke to Sarah about how the upcycling movement is changing consumer buying decisions.
Marianne Brooker: You’ve worked at Plumbs since you were 18 years old. In your time, have you seen any major shifts in the upholstery industry, and if so, what are they?
Sarah Page: The main change I’ve seen in the industry is how furniture styles have evolved. When I first began, and even before I worked at Plumbs officially, we operated as a postal mail order business.
We now see far more bespoke furniture that is unique and highly valued by the customer, meaning that every order is different.
MB: Lately, we’ve been hearing the phrase ‘reduce, reuse, but don’t recycle’. What do you say to this?
SP: In part, I agree! We live in a highly disposable society, and people often feel that by just placing things in a recycling bin they’ve done their bit. The emphasis should be on reducing consumption and if possible reusing when possible.
Sofas, in particular, can be difficult to recycle or resell for legal reasons. Many people unknowingly remove the fire safety labels, which is a legal requirement when re-selling furniture.
Once a sofa has been properly reupholstered, we can supply a fire safety warranty in accordance with the latest legislation.
Our customers tend to really value their furniture; they invest in their favourite items, so that they can then reupholster them and reuse them for ten, twenty, or even fifty years down the line!
MB: That’s an interesting point. Why else do you think Plumbs stands out from other furniture companies?
SP: Since beginning life on a market stall in Lancashire, we’ve championed British industry and have employed established craftsmen across the country.
We also have an association of trust with our customers, something which we have built up over the near 60 years we’ve been in operation.
Above all else, however, we keep customers at the heart of what we do. We make sure they enjoy a positive experience, and we use their feedback to develop and advance our product line.
MB: There’s been a huge uplift in the ‘fast furniture’ business, but that seems to be changing now as consumers become more eco-conscious. How do you see reupholstery fitting into this changing mindset?
SP: Changing trends are interesting, and I think reupholstery can play a huge part in the eco-conscious movement.
If customers choose to value their furniture and invest in it repeatedly, far fewer bulky household items will be going to landfill. I don’t think we’ll ever completely overcome the “use and replace” mindset, but I also believe there will always be a strong number of those who will consider reupholstery.
For those people, they just need to be made aware of reupholstery as an alternative to buying new – it simply comes down to education and choice.
MB: As you say, it is no secret that replacing old furniture with new furniture causes great build-ups in landfill. But how else does buying new furniture create environmental problems?
SP: It’s certainly not just a matter of landfill. You also have to consider the fact this ‘fast furniture’ is often imported from countries such as China, meaning it amasses a huge number of miles generated before even making it to your living room.
Around 90 KG of CO2 emissions are released just for a single sofa, according to research from FIRA (Furniture Industry Research Association).
Our national network of employees reupholster furniture on home soil, which means we reduce our air miles and support local industry at the same time.
Plus, we often find that cheaply imported furniture is not of the highest quality, which, naturally, leads to quicker wreckage and more frequent replacements.
MB: To you, what are some of the main benefits of reupholstering a much-loved sofa?
SP: Firstly, of course, there’s the chance to create a whole new look. We’ve seen very dated furniture come into our factory, which, after a few nips and tucks from our reupholsterers, leave looking brand new.
However, for many people, reupholstery is about far more than changing aesthetics. Whether they want to do their bit to help the environment, or they’ve inherited a chair from a much-loved relative, each piece of furniture has its own unique story.
In many cases, we replace a piece of furniture which has been passed from generation to generation, and, even though it changes, it still keeps the memories of all the years before – a bit like us as a company!
MB: This brings me nicely onto the final question. What is Plumbs’ ethos and how will you continue to develop this in the future?
The Plumbs ethos is to promote a sustainable alternative for your furniture by marketing and promoting the benefits of reupholstery. Our core values haven’t changed much since our market stall began in 1953; our focus is still very much on quality, service and transforming furniture - one seat at a time!
Marianne Brooker is an editor of The Ecologist.