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Sustainable Danes

Columnist Sarah Redohl’s search for secondhand furniture sent her searching for answers to an unexpected question: “Just how sustainable are the Danesa?”

Photographs: Unsplash

Text: Sarah Redohl

When we first moved to Denmark, I was determined to furnish our apartment as sustainably as possible. I mentioned my intention to one of the first friends I made after moving here, who suggested I check the oversized rubbish bins in our apartment block. “We found a brand-name sofa in perfect condition that retails for 35,000 DKK,” she exclaimed.

Besides our bed and couch—my partner draws the line at secondhand fabrics—nearly all our furniture was sourced this way. Our dishware and cookware came from a closing restaurant, lamps and bikes bought used on DBA, plant pots and picture frames from the swap section of city recycling centres. My plan worked, but I wondered, ‘Why are sustainable Danes throwing away so many perfectly fine and functional items?’

Form vs function

Denmark is seen across the globe as a green leader; it ranks first on the Climate Change Performance Index, first on the Environmental Performance Index, second on the Global Sustainability Index, and I could go on. So, it was no surprise that sustainability featured prominently at an exhibit I attended with my aforementioned friend about how life in Denmark impacts Danish design at the Danish Architecture Centre (DAC).

Along with sustainability, Danish design has long been recognised for its balance between aesthetic and practicality, between form and function. As I walked through egg chairs and artichoke lamps, past pop-top trash cans and organic green bins, I wondered when exactly form overtakes function to the point that it’s practical to put a spotless 35,000 DKK sofa in the rubbish bin?

Could an eye for design in some ways be a liability to sustainability rather than an asset? According to Denmark’s Ministry of Environment, Danish overconsumption is approximately twice the global average, and Denmark’s per capita consumption of natural resources of 23 tonnes is significantly above the EU average of 15 tonnes. So I wondered, ‘Could form over function be causing the overconsumption I’m seeing?’

Reputation vs reality

My friend left the exhibit with a different question in mind, but one I’ve come to realise is more related to my own than I initially thought. “Do you feel like we just paid to watch a commercial for Denmark?” she asked. Since moving here, there are several things for which Denmark is known abroad that I’ve realised are mostly a matter of good marketing. My own secondhand success, along with my friend’s question, left me wondering to what extent Denmark’s sustainable identity might be one of them.

Denmark has, on occasion, faced accusations of greenwashing (portraying oneself as greener than one is). Some of them come from outsiders like me, who question the role fossil fuels have played in funding the Danish welfare state and the significance of shipping conglomerates in Denmark’s modern economy. Others come from Danes themselves, who accuse Denmark’s government of greenwashing high profile construction projects and claim Danish companies mislead consumers with climate claims.

And yet, Denmark is increasingly seen as a leader against greenwashing. Earlier this year, the Danish authorities issued guidelines warning businesses that any sustainability claims must be backed up by facts from a lifecycle study; Denmark will soon release an English version of the guidelines after receiving requests worldwide. So I wondered, ‘Is it possible for a country to be guilty of greenwashing and lead the fight against it?’

Trash vs treasure

“Copenhageners don’t care about sustainability,” reads the headline of an article written by Dr Anne Katrine Harders, program manager at the DAC. Upon first glance, her premise claims to answer my question, at least for my fellow capital-dwellers. “Sustainability,” Harders writes, “does not play a major role in the complex puzzle of a Copenhagener’s everyday life.”

But, the story isn’t as simple as its headline. Rather, Harders claims, the sustainable choices Copenhageners are making are also the most logical option. For example, cycling isn’t popular because it’s the sustainable alternative but the best alternative. “You know that cycling is more sustainable than driving a car, but even the most ambitious cyclist needs infrastructure,” Harders writes, adding that the same is true for everything from green energy to waste recycling. “Copenhagen is in many ways designed for the sustainable choice to be the most logical and convenient one.”

It isn’t that individual Danes care any more or less about making sustainable choices than others, but that Denmark’s predilection for design has often enabled sustainable alternatives to be the best option. This is even true for something as simple as sourcing a secondhand dresser from the dumpster. The infrastructure is set up so that this is not only possible but also logical, practical, and common. I regularly see my neighbours checking the bins; good stuff goes fast. Some apartments even have their own swap sections, in addition to the ones at city recycling centres. In Copenhagen, there are even maker spaces and workshops devoted to refurbishing these finds.

Watching piece after piece of perfectly fine furniture pile up outside my apartment may not match the mental image I had of one of the world’s most sustainable countries. But, sometimes, you have to dig a bit deeper into the trash to find the treasure. I guess you could say there are two sides to every sofa.

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