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IKEA’s sustainability: the controversy

Updated: Oct 20


With almost 400 stores in over 30 countries, IKEA is a corporation whose success cannot be denied. Yet, how sustainable is the brand really?

What particularly fascinating about IKEA is that it is almost impossible to visit the store and get out with just one thing. IKEA is made that way – you want to buy things you never even planned to purchase, à la Gruen effect. A psychological phenomenon makes consumers lose track of their original intentions and lead to impulse buys. In other words, good design equals good profits. Not much about sustainability, huh? Low pricing policy encourages customers to spend more money and promotes consumerism. If you haven’t noticed, IKEA is McDonald’s in the furniture world.

The brand’s home décor is so cheap that it is designed to be replaced, not fixed. A “renewable metabolism” is something opposite – when the materials are made to be reused or recycled. That’s what IKEA says it aspires to achieve in the nearest future. It should be the ultimate goal for any kind of business because unsustainable consumption has been driving ecological destruction. When a corporation puts the planet and people on an equal footing to its profit, it can have a powerful impact on other businesses or individuals and undoubtedly shape how we see the climate crisis.

Nevertheless, let’s get real – can a corporation that promotes mass consumption of low-cost items, has 915 million customers each year, and EUR 34 billion in sales revenue, ever be sustainable?

For the past few years, IKEA has put sustainability as one of its goals. Just a week ago, they stated that they would buy any of your old or broken IKEA furniture for recycling purposes. Some shops replaced their legendary Swedish meatballs with vegan “plant balls”. They hope to become “climate positive” by 2030, saying that the IKEA team is “committed to having a positive impact on people and the planet”. In 2012, the brand released its People & Planet Positive roadmap, a document outlining its sustainability strategy that includes sourcing 100% of its wood, cotton, and paper from “more sustainable” sources, making sure that 90% of products are eco-friendlier with substantiated environmental improvements, and producing as much renewable energy as it consumes.

The brand is committed to creating a sustainable future. They plan to reduce plastic pollution and by the end of 2020, totally phase out single-use plastic from their furniture range while replacing them with wooden cutlery and sustainable paper straws. Today, more than 60% of IKEA products are already based on renewable materials. Their 2030 plan is nothing but impressive. Sustainable plastic products will be made from renewable sources like corn, sugar beet, and sugar cane instead of virgin fossil-based. They will avoid the use of cotton made using forced labor and make sure their wood comes from a certified source.

The idea sounds great, but it is still a struggle to imagine a massive low-cost furniture brand becoming sustainable. Only in 2017, IKEA used 13.56 million cubic meters of solid wood and wood-based board materials, not including paper and packaging. That’s 1% of all wood used commercially around the world! The whole idea of IKEA committing to protecting our planet sounds controversial. The brand’s website repeatedly says “zero waste”, but have you seen the amount of unnecessary packaging they still use? Technically, IKEA’s document never even promised that the cotton would be organic – just “more sustainable”. The amount of wood won’t be decreased, too – the brand will just choose certified suppliers over others. Also, I cannot help but wonder what exactly they mean by becoming “climate positive”is it just being better than before or actually being different?

If the preservation of the environment is on the list of IKEA’s goals, the team will have to change its concept completely – cut off its massive production of wood, paper, and plastic items, which will lead to the prices getting raised and, therefore, losing their IKEA charm. The problem is – the sustainability culture is all about acknowledging that LESS IS MORE. The philosophy has nothing to do with the message IKEA has been putting in the masses, and it contradicts its business approaches that worked for decades before.

For now, it seems like the brand wants to be eco-friendly only because that’s the right way to be. Environmentally responsible business strategy has become a great marketing trend in a world where it’s more significant to adapt to the ever-changing consumer marketplace than to do whatever you want to do with your business. And their manipulative strategies are the single reason why the brand has been on the market for over 70 years. IKEA gets it – talking about sustainability kind of eases the guilt of their mass consumer (check out my green marketing blog). It’s hard to know if the brand actually plans to save the planet or just make you feel good while buying their products and increasing profits. Should you feel bad about it? Probably not.

No business is perfect. If IKEA’s sustainability objective is based on balancing financial imperatives, let it be. IKEA is moving in the right direction, that’s far more important. Hopefully, in a decade, we won’t have IKEA we know today. Hopefully, it will be a completely different approach, because we need change. Whatever worked for the market 70 years ago feels outdated now. If IKEA wants to make a difference, it will have to sacrifice some of its values and transform their business. I am excited to witness how it happens and what way the brand chooses to go.

Meantime, let’s appreciate IKEA for its dedication and not forget – consumer’s preferences, tastes, and choices are the key determinants of demand. Where there is demand, there will be supply. Go green 😊

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