The next time you’re in the market for some GLIMMA unscented tea lights, you may be too fascinated by the most popular Swedish import since ABBA to notice that the shrink-wrap surrounding that 100-count pack, which used to be sold in big plastic bags that wasted space and increased the number of shipments the company had to make, is just one of the ways IKEA is reexamining every aspect of its business to become more sustainable.
“Everything stems from our founder, Ingvar Kamprad,” says director of public affairs Joseph Roth. In the south of Sweden where Kamprad lived, the people lived an agrarian life, but only after wresting the land into working condition. IKEA was born of the entrepreneurial spirit of a boy who started out selling matches, and today it is a global home-furnishings company with stores in 40 countries.
The appreciation for cultivation and the value of a clean and fruitful earth were important to Kamprad’s countrymen and are central to IKEA’s sustainability platform. “Our corporate culture stems from our rural southern Swedish roots, where people control their own destinies,” Roth says. “They show initiative and take responsibility for their actions. We do the same at every step in our production process.”
One of the greatest assets IKEA has in streamlining its initiatives is that it’s a privately held company that owns every aspect of its production chain—from the design drawing board to its iconic color-blocked stores. This means IKEA is being responsible in lumber and cotton harvesting, resourceful in its designs, economical in its production and shipping, and minimalist in its packaging.
In 2011, the company improved its cotton acquisition by upping its share of sustainable fiber to 23.8 percent. IKEA hopes to eventually source all its lumber from responsibly managed forests that are independently verified. Not sacrificing style for sustainability, pieces such as the LACK tables are constructed of pounded-together waste wood that is then covered by a solid veneer.
With suppliers in 55 countries, IKEA has been able to mitigate some of the common contributors to global warming despite its worldwide presence. In 2012, IKEA Distribution Services earned a SmartWay Shipper Award from the EPA for top environmental performance and efficiency in moving freight. By increasing its supplier network, cutting out the middleman (itself), and using low-emission vehicles, the retailer is shaving miles off its shipping and passing the savings on to consumers.
The content of those freights is getting leaner as well. IKEA’s unassembled products not only satisfy the tinkerer in us all but also save space; it takes seven furniture trucks to carry the amount of furniture in of one of IKEA’s trucks. The flat-pack method allows objects to fit together in a compact array with minimal packaging—lamps, for example, that don’t require any cardboard because the design itself provides enough security. And remember the tea lights? Similar to the way they were once sold in plastic bags with extra space, many of IKEA’s cloth products such as comforters and pillows are now shrink-wrapped to fit more in each pallet, thus reducing the number of trucks per shipment.
One of IKEA’s most publicized sustainability efforts, however, is a link farther down the production chain. “We recognize that we are at the forefront of companies who are making investments in renewable energy,” Roth says, “and we are proud [that] we are able to make such a commitment and set such an example.”
That commitment is represented by the 39 stores and distribution centers in the United States that IKEA has outfitted with solar panels and the more than 100 wind turbines it owns and operates in six countries in Europe. Locations in the United States harvest 49 gigawatt-hours of clean electricity per year. To date, IKEA generates 50 percent of the electric energy used at its locations. Because they don’t require as much air-conditioning—nor will you find any Swedish meatballs being served a la carte—the stores are running almost entirely with on-site solar power.
The most recent installations are atop stores in Round Rock, Texas, and New Haven, Connecticut, as well as in cities in North Carolina, Florida, and Massachusetts. Distribution centers in Maryland and New Jersey also boast solar arrays. IKEA has partnered with solar solutions companies such as Gehrlicher Solar, REC Solar, SoCore Energy, Gloria Solar (USA), and Inovateus Solar to advance renewable energy across its US locations. Rather than leasing out its roofs, the furniture giant owns all of its solar equipment, removing any barriers to using its full potential.
IKEA’s efforts have benefitted more than just its bottom line. At Round Rock, where solar installation was completed in September 2012, the amount of clean energy harvested annually will reduce 1,822 tons of carbon dioxide that would have been produced from nonrenewable resources. That’s the equivalent of eliminating emissions from 324 cars or powering 206 homes for a year. The IKEA store in New Haven generates enough renewable energy to relieve the atmosphere of 836 tons of carbon dioxide annually, which is equivalent to the emissions of 149 cars or 95 homes over the course of one year.
Number of solar panels installed on IKEA buildings across the world. Currently, the company is 50% energy independent through renewable energy.
To reach its goal of 100 percent renewable energy use by 2020, Roth says IKEA is exploring options outside solar and wind generation. Already some of the clean power not harvested on-site comes from energy providers that use their own techniques to generate renewable energy. “In Oregon and Washington, most electricity is generated via hydropower,” Roth says, “so that’s a very renewable and very green energy option for us.”
Beyond electricity, the company has explored geothermal options to replace gas-based heating systems as well. Although not as pervasive as its solar effort—only 20 sites worldwide and one US location have geothermal capabilities—the initiative is impressive nonetheless, especially considering that it’s nearly impossible to do a geothermal retrofit. However, at the new stores slated for Miami and Kansas City, Missouri, Roth says geothermal and solar options will be explored before concrete is poured. In the coming years, if complete renewable energy is still out of reach, the company might explore biomass plants as another potential source.
If shoppers aren’t encouraged by the example IKEA is setting, the retailer is prepared and has already made changes to nudge its customers in the direction of sustainable lifestyles. “Rather than just focus on home furnishings, we want to empower our customers to live more sustainably,” Roth says. IKEA has started by eliminating plastic bags at checkout counters and installing low-flush toilets in its store restrooms.
Its current endeavor is a few years away from fruition, but a changeover to exclusively selling LED lighting products by 2016 is in the works. Already, a host of lamps are incorporating the low-energy, low-heat bulbs and opening a new world for lighting designers. With tiny, embeddable bulbs, lamps are no longer limited by unsightly sockets. As for its own on-site lighting, Roth explains that IKEA is making a separate effort to convert to LED but must act appropriately to absorb the cost. The retailer just completed an across-the-board switch from incandescent to compact fluorescent lamps.
For all its work to produce furnishings in an environmentally responsible manner, IKEA still catches some fire from critics regarding its indirect contribution to consumer waste that ends up in landfills and dumps. IKEA openly discloses the minimalist designs of its furniture that incorporate honeycomb cores and waste wood composite legs. When compared to a solid wood coffee table, a piece like the LACK table is not likely to match in lifespan or durability, but Roth says IKEA’s products are no more likely than anyone else’s to end up in a landfill. He adds that the products’ high recycled content makes them easier to recycle, and the lengths to which the retailer has improved its production efficiency make the pieces more sustainable over their lifespan than products crafted without IKEA’s guiding standards.
As an international retailer selling bulk quantities of housewares and appliances, IKEA is in a unique position to set an industry example and leverage its success to promote sustainable innovation among its partners. Fortunately, all signs point to a company that understands this. Whirlpool, for example, crafts cooktops for IKEA’s kitchen collection and has been an integral partner in making energy-saving induction technology affordable and accessible to IKEA shoppers, customers who traditionally may not have been able to afford such environmentally conscious systems. Such is the way of IKEA, circumventing conventional wisdom for a path all its own.