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Are Antiques Green? That is the Question….

| Tuesday July 21st, 2009 | 4 Comments

antiques.jpg“Buying green” – a complicated task for most consumers – can be particularly hairy for antique lovers. The considerations necessary in the green purchasing of antiques (i.e. what a product is constructed of, how it was transported during and after manufacturing, whether it is re-usable or recyclable, and whether [and how] it will be disposed of) is complicated by the fact that antiques were, by definition, manufactured before formal “sustainability” efforts existed, and by the fact that many collectors will travel to Timbuktu and back to obtain hard-to-find items, thus creating quite the carbon footprint. On the other hand, antiques are reused almost endlessly, crafted for durability, and do not require new manufacturing. What is the eco-minded antique enthusiast to make of his dilemma?

From an environmental standpoint, the plusses and minuses of antiquing abound. In terms of plusses, antiques are a viable option for people seeking to make use of already-existing products, purchase items designed to last, and reduce destruction of trees and other resources. However, the minuses stack up formidably: nothing short of time travel can change how a product was constructed, and the transport of an antique from dealer to collector can create emissions, fuel usage, and other damages. Moreover, collectors who like to restore antiques may be limited in their sustainable options, since eco-friendly alternatives to toxic furniture finishers may be few and far between.
This may just be one of those issues we have to accept as having many loose ends. It seems, though, that there may be a happy medium. For example, a collector who chooses to purchase locally (versus purchasing internationally or from a supplier across the country) could reduce his carbon footprint, at least partially. Or, should he choose to purchase from afar, he could utilize relatively eco-friendly transport techniques (think mass shipping versus single-passenger vehicle transport). And the antique restoration enthusiast could opt for environmentally friendlier options (e.g. allowing a piece’s natural finish to give it that hip “shabby chic” look).
A final thought: if “sustainable development” is the balance of one’s immediate interests with those of future generations, and if “sustainable living” is the adherence to a lifestyle of environmental accountability, it seems antiquing with an eye for eco-friendly options may fit the bill.


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  • commenter

    I am not sure I understand the argument that buying antiques is not a sustainable activity. Especially if the objects do not use energy during use (e.g. a table or a couch).

    While it is true that embodied energy is inside all of these objects, the decision that caused these objects to be made and the energy expended, occurred in the past and is independent of the decisions of the person purchasing the object now.

    Further, embodied energy is typically only considered in terms of the useful life of the product. If you purchase the object for use instead of buying a new object, you are extending its useful life and consequently this is a choice that reduces net energy consumption.

    Given that many purchases today are manufactured in China and then shipped large distances, which often is a primary contributor to the embodied energy in an object, it seems very likely that an antique may in fact have less embodied energy than its’ equivalent produced today.

    Regardless of how heavy it is and how much gasoline was used going to the swap meet and driving back, purchasing the same object would probably expend similar amounts of energy.

    The conclusion from this line of thought is that best choice is to buy nothing and stop driving around instead of buying an antique or a new object.

    Did I get this wrong?

  • http://GreenCPA.blogspot.com Brian Setzler, CPA

    Reduce, reuse, recycle.

    Reusing old furniture is ALWAYS better than buying new, even if the new furniture is the greenest furniture made.

  • http://greenspotantiques.com vince

    You forgot to include the “generational index”.

    Not a known term, but a simple explanation suffices.

    An antique can be considered as carbon-efficient in that it in all cases it will consume less energy and create less emissions than a new item. Always !

    (only exception is a buyer going great distance to purchase single specific item, a very small percentage of this trade).

    you also have to factor in the fact that an antique, say a piece of furniture, is actually a carbon NEGATIVE item in that it represents 8 generations which has NOT cut down another tree, or used heating, or electricity to produce this item.

    Factor in the generational index, and you will find that there is nothing more environmentally friendly, and beautiful, than buying antique.

    I simply consider it the ULTIMATE GREEN, period.

    If you combine this with eco-friendly finishes, such as waxes, or french polish using shellac (insect origin), you can include all refinishing done during it’s lifetime as well as being relatively benign.

    Add local, purchase and sale,
    Add owning a store and home in one place, little travel, and you have a killer business which can actually claim to be Carbon NEGATIVE in it’s overall activities during the course of a year.

    We run such a business, at Green Spot Antiques, in Cambridge, Ontario. We would welcome agencies to consider looking at businesses such as our so that a label of “CARBON NEGATIVE” could exist.
    Perhaps even tax savings for those such marked?

    A concept worth exposing, I think.
    Green Spot Antiques
    Cambridge, Ontario, Canada

  • http://ReBopShop.com Sandra

    I’m afraid I don’t see a dilemma, either. The creation of the item is not an issue–it’s done and the consequences were suffered by its first buyer. The reusing of the item is what matters. A sofa, for example, seems to me to be a terrible landfill occupant: big and slow to degrade. That’s why I’ll never buy a new one.

    I do agree with the responsibility of the furniture refinisher to seek out benign products.

    I like the slogan: Antiques are always greener!