New Women-Led Startup Creates A Circular Model In Furniture

The new furniture brand Sabai will buy back used parts and build a circular model to reduce them … [+] Waste.

Ben Hartschuh

Sabai, a new furniture brand, comes from two women under the age of 30 who strive to make home furnishings more environmentally friendly and affordable. According to co-founder Phantila Phataraprasit, her goal is to develop a new standard for the furniture industry. Many companies purposely design products that need to be replaced in order to increase their sales – products that end up in landfills. Sabai products are designed so that customers can repair the damaged parts or sell back older sofas, extending the life of their furniture in ways that are both financially and environmentally beneficial.

“As far as we know, Sabai is the first direct furniture brand to pilot a national buyback program,” says Phataraprasit.

Working with Floorfound, a nationwide network of warehouses and the ability to handle the logistics associated with such an expansive presence, the young duo was able to conduct its business in the United States.

Phataraprasit spoke to Forbes about their new bootstrap business, the nuances of the furniture industry and their hopes for sustainability.

Chhabra: What are the biggest challenges in a buyback program?

Phataraprasite: I think one of the biggest challenges with a buyback is the size. Logistics is the top priority for every DTC company, and that is especially true here. With our decision to set up a buyback program, we made a commitment to double the logistics – figuring out how to get a sofa into our customers’ world and then take it out too. You need to be able to address the customer-centric aspect of the business, transportation, holding and processing, and then enable a whole new customer transaction. It’s a big ordeal with little financial return due to the nature of the second-hand pricing and something that certainly is a range for a small startup.

It was a dream we had from day one to approach the end of the life cycle of our pieces and roll it out nationwide from the start, and it’s really wonderful to see it in action. For us, it’s more about delivering on our promise of real sustainability to our customers and really challenging the industry to tackle their part of the American waste problem.

Chhabra: Some of your competitors already offer a version of a buyback program. How will yours be different

Phataraprasite: In fact, I haven’t seen any competitors offering this, although we’ve seen this model in other industries as well as abroad. Fashion companies like Eileen Fisher have piloted programs aimed at taking ownership of their product, and IKEA has launched a very ambitious and wonderful buyback program in many countries, but it only runs outside of the US

Our goal with this program is not to be unique, but to take responsibility and hopefully make this program ubiquitous in 5 years. Funnily enough, the day we launched The Sabai Standard, a competitor announced its commitment to full-life programs. And that’s exactly what we want to see – it’s not about being unique, it’s about pushing the industry to do their part.

Chhabra: How much furniture waste is there every year?

Phataraprasite: It is estimated that America generates 12 million tons of furniture waste annually, of which only 20% is recycled. This means that over 9 million tons of furniture are in a landfill every year.

Chhabra: What do you do with the furniture you buy?

Phataraprasite: The furniture we buy is sold through our second-hand line – Sabai Revive. The pieces are discounted and some work according to a consignment warehouse model. The pieces are held for 90 days and sold at a discount, with a percentage of the sale price (20% in credit or 15% in cash) returned to the customer when the piece is sold. If the piece is not sold, it will be donated so that it can continue to be used. Our pieces are also designed to be easily recycled when it comes to that.

Chhabra: Can furniture really be circular?

Phataraprasite: Absolutely! That is exactly what we are aiming for here. Most of our parts are made from recycled or upcycled materials and can also be easily recycled. We recently removed glue from our manufacturing process as it prevents parts from being recycled. From there, our goal is to maximize the useful life of each product. Ultimately, each piece can then be recycled again and theoretically start a new life as a new Sabai piece.

Chhabra: What is your personal background and why were you inspired to enter this room?

Phataraprasite: I started Sabai in my freshman year as a lawyer after working in finance the previous year. Although my background is not in the furniture business, I grew up with it as my extended family is in the furniture industry in Thailand and has definitely developed an appreciation for design. My family is both very entrepreneurial and environmentally conscious, so I’ve always enjoyed developing different business ideas and solutions with sustainability in mind.

I think there is something to be said for sustainability practices in other countries and a commitment to use parts on purpose and repair products instead of throwing the old away for something shiny and new. This is certainly a mentality that is slowly building up in the US, but I wanted to do my part to ensure that companies are innovative and sustainability is paramount.

Chhabra: What’s the story behind the name?

Phataraprasite: We wanted to convey a feeling of comfort and ease through our name. I’m from Thailand so my co-founder Caitlin asked me if there was a word for it in Thai, and there was! “Sabai” is a word that is used very often to describe everything from objects to experiences and feelings. It can be cozy, convenient, simple, and effortless. We found that perfect because we want our customers not only to literally feel comfortable in our furniture, but also to make the experience of creating a sustainable home a breeze.

Chhabra: How would you describe the furniture industry?

Phataraprasite: It’s an incredibly welcoming and friendly industry – but there is certainly a commitment to the status quo. We ran into some hurdles while expanding Sabai just because we’re young women and want to do something new and that can be scary for people. But I think that since we were able to prove the validity of the business model, we opened the eyes of some of our colleagues. I think our and other DTC furniture companies’ success is just a good thing, the furniture industry needs to be shaken up a little!

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