Sabai, a new furniture brand comes from two women under the age of 30 who aspire to make home furnishings more eco-friendly and affordable. Their goal, according to co-founder Phantila Phataraprasit, is to pioneer a new standard for the furniture industry. Many companies intentionally design products, she says, that need to be replaced in order to increase their sales—products which then 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 a way, she says, that’s both financially and ecologically beneficial.
“To our knowledge, Sabai is the first ever direct-to-consumer furniture brand to pilot a national buyback program,” Phataraprasit says.
Working with Floorfound, which has a nationwide network of warehouses and the capacity to handle the logistics that comes with such an expansive footprint, the young duo have been able to take their business across the US.
Phataraprasit spoke with Forbes on their new bootstrapped business, the nuances of the furniture industry, and their hopes for sustainability.
Chhabra: What are the biggest challenges with a buyback program?
Phataraprasit: I think one of the biggest challenges about a buyback is the scale of it. Logistics are top of mind for any DTC company, and that is especially true here. With our decision to build out a buyback program, we were committing to double the logistics – figuring out how to bring a sofa into our clients’ world, and then also take it out. You need to be able to address the customer facing aspect of the business, transportation, holding and processing, and then facilitate a whole new customer transaction. It’s a big ordeal with little financial payoff due to the nature of secondhand pricing, and something that is certainly a commitment bandwidth wise for a small startup.
Being able to address the end of lifecycle for our pieces, and to be able to roll out nationwide from the start, was a dream we’ve had from day one and it’s really wonderful to see it in action. To us, it’s more about fulfilling our promise of true sustainability with customers and really challenging the industry to address their part in America’s waste problem.
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Chhabra: Some of your competitors have started offering some version of a buyback program. How will yours be different?
Phataraprasit: I actually haven’t seen any competitors offering this, though we have seen this model used in other industries and also abroad. Fashion companies like Eileen Fisher have piloted programs targeted at taking responsibility for their product, and IKEA has launched a very ambitious and wonderful buyback program in many countries but it’s only operational outside the U.S.
Our goal with this program is not to be one of a kind but to lead the charge and hopefully make this program ubiquitous in 5 years. Funnily enough, the day we launched The Sabai Standard, a competitor posted their commitment to full life cycle programs. And that’s exactly what we want to see – this isn’t about being unique, but pushing the industry to do it’s part.
Chhabra: How much furniture waste is created annually?
Phataraprasit: It’s estimated that 12 million tons of furniture waste is created annually in America, with only 20% of it being recycled. That means over 9 million tons of furniture will find itself in a landfill each year.
Chhabra: What do you do with the furniture you purchase?
Phataraprasit: The furniture that we purchase is sold through our secondhand line – Sabai Revive. The pieces are discounted and work on a consignment store model to some extent. Pieces are held for 90 days and sold at a discount, with a percentage of the sale price (20% in store credit or 15% in cash) going back to the customer if the piece is sold. If the piece is not sold, it is donated so that it can continue to be used. Our pieces are also designed to be easily recycled when it does come to that.
Chhabra: Can furniture truly be circular?
Phataraprasit: Absolutely! That’s exactly what we’re striving for here. Our pieces are made largely from recycled or upcycled materials, and also to be recycled easily – we’ve recently removed glue from our manufacturing process because that inhibits what parts can be recycled. From there, our goal is to maximize each product’s time in use, but ultimately, each piece can then be recycled again, theoretically starting a new life as a new Sabai piece.
Chhabra: What is your personal background and why were you inspired to go into this space?
Phataraprasit: I started Sabai while in my first year of law school, having spent the year prior working in finance. While my background is not in the furniture space, I grew up around it as my extended family is involved in the furniture industry in Thailand and definitely developed an appreciation for design. My family is also very entrepreneurial as well as environmentally conscious, so I always enjoyed coming up with different business ideas and solutions with sustainability in mind.
I think there is something to be said for sustainability practices in other countries, and the commitment to using pieces with intention, and repairing products rather than throwing out the old for something shiny and new. This is certainly a mentality that is slowly building in the U.S., but I wanted to do my part to push businesses to innovate and create with sustainability at the forefront.
Chhabra: What is the story behind the name?
Phataraprasit: We wanted to convey a sense of comfort and ease through our name. I’m from Thailand, so my co-founder, Caitlin, asked me if there’s a word for that in Thai, and sure enough there was! “Sabai” is a word that is very commonly used to describe anything from objects, to experiences, to feelings and can mean cozy, comfortable, easy, and effortless. We thought this was perfect because we want our customers to not only feel quite literally comfortable in our furniture, but also wanted the experience of creating a sustainable home to be a breeze.
Chhabra: How would you describe the furniture industry?
Phataraprasit: It’s an incredibly welcoming and friendly industry – but there is certainly a commitment to the status quo. We’ve come up against quite a few hurdles as we’ve built out Sabai just because we’re young women and aiming to do something new, and that can be scary for people. But I think as we’ve been able to prove the validity of the business model, we’ve opened up the eyes of some of our peers. I think ours and the success of other DTC furniture companies is only a good thing, the furniture industry needs a little shaking up!