If you live in a big city, or fairly close to a major urban center, you've probably got some IKEA in your home. In his debut novel, Generation-X: Tales of an Accelerated Culture, writer and futurist Douglas Coupland dubbed the company's products "semi-disposable Swedish furniture."
If you've ever tried to disassemble an IKEA bookcase that doesn't fit up the stairs to your new place and left it on the curb, free-cycled it or given it away on Craigslist, you understand the origins of this moniker. But oddly enough, when it comes to sustainability and eco-friendliness, the world's largest furniture retailer is well ahead of the curve.
If you've stepped inside the blue and yellow walls of an IKEA store in recent months, you've probably heard a P.A. announcement urging you to purchase reusable blue shopping bags and explaining that the disposable kind are still available for a surcharge of five cents each, with proceeds going to environmental group, American Forests. While this may seem like corporate pandering, IKEA stores use over 70 million disposable plastic bags a year in the United states alone. With the Bag the Plastic Bag program, IKEA hopes to cut that number by half, to 35 million within a year, and in the process to generate $1.75 million that will go toward American Forests' efforts to replant forests and offset CO2 emissions. The program was launched on March 15 of this year in the US, and on October 22nd in Canada. In the UK, where the program was launched in spring of 2006, the reduction has been an astounding 95 percent.
The partnership with American Forests extends even further, with IKEA planting enough trees every year (about 33,100) to offset annual carbon emissions produced by IKEA staff and visitors using cars to commute to and from the store.
These two initiatives are only part of the Swedish furniture giant's many environmental initiatives, which include a code of conduct for suppliers that provides “rules for working conditions, minimum wages, overtime rates, trade union representation rights, waste management, chemical management, and emissions to air and water." This code also states that "IKEA will not tolerate child labor, discrimination or the use of timber from intact natural forests.” The company has also worked over the last decade to phase out PVC and to simplify packaging and has adopted a new motto, "Low price – but not at any price" that is backed by goals such as reclaiming 90 percent of store waste by 2009, constructing new stores in compliance with a certified green building standard
An exemplary convergence of green technologies is in evidence at IKEA's distribution centre in the UK, which features light wells that automatically shut off electric lights when natural light reaches the right intensity and a geothermal heating and cooling plant under the parking lot to meet the needs of the facility's offices.
While the company has finally recognized that these behind-the-scenes environmental efforts make a compelling selling proposition for customers, and has started publishing its environmental and social reports on its website (going as far as incorporating and responding therein to criticism from groups such as Greenpeace and the WWF), IKEA's real success lies in making sustainability sexy through quality offerings. A quick glance through the company catalog provides a number of products made in whole or in part from recycled materials, such as the Bölsö side table (http://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/40092489). The company is also adding organic foods to its in-store restaurants and Swede-shops, including coffee, strawberry jam, blue cheese and (where such sales are permitted), schnapps.
Posted by Christos Tsirbas
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