IKEA: The sustainable guardian

By Addie Thomes

 “We can think we’re a step ahead but what next?” asks Richard Wilson, Sustainability Manager at IKEA Australia. “You can spend a lot of time trying to articulate what sustainability is or find a definition, but is a never-ending concept.”

A relatively new term sustainability may be, but its basic premise is entrenched in IKEA’s post-war origins. “In that period when there wasn’t very much around people still wanted home furnishings, so doing more with less was really how IKEA was born. Now the world and sustainability is more complex with various different pressures, especially with resources and population growth, but we still stay true to the essence of doing more with less, only we’re doing things smarter.”

And sustainable innovation will never cease. Lifestyles change, manufacturing techniques evolve - the goalposts are forever moving.

Despite this inevitability, periodic targets can and continue to be hit by IKEA in Australia. Its latest sustainability report, People & Planet Positive 2016, tells a story of a commercial giant acting with a genuine conscience. Yes, IKEA is a massive consumer of resources such as cotton and wood, but crucially it is not shy in recognising and thriving on its responsibility to drive sustainability, not only in its own operations but also its suppliers, customers and surrounding communities. The results so far make for impressive reading.

Waste not want not

“We’re asking how we can use resources and products again, how we can give them another life,” says Wilson of IKEA’s circular economy concept. “We have a three-pronged attack comprising new designs of products, waste management and add on services for customers like repairs, parts replacements and product returns.”

The first of these target areas is a daunting one given IKEA’s range is made up of more than 9,500 different products. This said, many lines have already been redesigned so that they are made from 100 percent recycled materials. In the coming weeks, a new 100 percent-recycled kitchen will be launched, with all components made from revitalised waste such as recycled wood and PVC.   

Making the most of existing resources feeds naturally into IKEA’s waste management processes, the next key component of its circular economy. In 2016 IKEA Australia recycled 73 percent of its waste, and is well on course to hit the 80 percent target set for 2020. “Some big developments for us have come in Queensland where we have installed food waste composters, so all food waste that comes through the store is recycled on site,” Wilson explains. “We couldn’t find an external supplier that would take food waste so we invested $80,000 per store in our own composters, which turns the waste into fertilisers by removing the water content.” These fertilisers are then donated to local orchards and horticulturalists to encourage the adoption of organic growing methods.

“This has only been implemented for a few months so what will be interesting to see is how this helps us get closer to our 80 percent target,” Wilson adds. “There are some other challenges with recycling in Australia, namely because the recycling infrastructure here is not as advanced as some European countries where IKEA is present, but we’re working hard to ensure this doesn’t hold us back.”

Indeed, IKEA is forming creative partnerships will recyclers and upcyclers to help address the amount of waste being consigned to landfill. Staggeringly, 1.5 million mattresses make their way to Australian landfill sites every year. “It is a mind-blowing statistic,” comments Wilson. “It’s not only in landfill sites, you see a lot of them on the side of the street too.” In a bid to tackle the problem, IKEA has been working with innovative mattress recycler Soft Landing. Wilson explains: “We offer a payback service for any mattress, not just IKEA ones, and take it to Soft Landing to recycle. It is a non-profit enterprise and something we are looking to expand. A mattress contains a lot of material that can be re-used, not just for making more bedding.”    

Sustainable supply chain

IKEA has also made some impressive strides at the other end of the product life cycle. Worldwide, around one percent of all harvested wood and cotton is used in IKEA products, and the company is well aware of its responsibility to enhance its supply chain in the most sustainable way possible.

Since 2005, IKEA has invested more than AU$6.6 million in sustainable cotton sources and helped around 110,000 farmers learn more about sustainable farming methods through hands-on transfers of knowledge. It has also partnered with WWF and others to create the Better Cotton Initiative. Wilson adds: “As we have grown our farmer network we have talked to them and introduced them to more sustainable practices. It is a very water-intensive crop that is usually grown in water-stressed areas. And it is not just about our cotton, we are helping to transform the whole industry and are embarking on a similar journey with wood for our furniture. We can’t grow without incorporating more sustainable and recycled wood, and last year we hit 61 percent of what we call more sustainable wood sources, i.e. a mixture of FSC certified forestry wood and also recycled material. We are well on the way to make this 100 percent by 2020, and want to take this further after that.”

Ensuring that not only cotton and wood suppliers but suppliers of all materials adhere to IKEA sustainable standards is what Wilson describes as a “small army of IWAY auditors”. On average, IKEA works with a supplier for roughly 12 years, the focus very much on the long term. “Over that time you can achieve a huge amount in areas from working conditions in factories to sustainable production processes,” Wilson says. “It is about sharing competence and seeing what we can do together.”

Solar strength

Materials sourced and products made, IKEA is now selling these items in stores that are becoming increasingly energy efficient.

Globally, IKEA uses 71 percent renewable energy across all operations. In Australia, somewhere in the region of 20,000 solar panels have been installed on store roofs, saving 13,658 tonnes of carbon emissions. This is a reduction of 39 percent, and the 7,030 MWh of energy generated by the solar roofing is equivalent to the annual electricity use of 967 family homes.

“But you can’t just rely on solar and renewable energy sources,” insists Wilson. “You also need to be as efficient as possible in terms of usage. Our three new stores that have been built in the past 18 months are ultra-sustainable, going beyond building code basics and double glazing. Simple things like minimising lift operations up and down by having single floor warehouses are making a difference, but the biggest impact has come from retrofitting LEDs, which has led to a 30 percent energy saving.” September 2015 saw IKEA achieve its goal of 100 percent LED lighting, with new ranges of affordable bulbs also helping to reduce customers’ energy bills.

Knowledge is power

Lowering knowledge and access barriers to sustainability for customers and communities is another central pillar to IKEA’s sustainability strategy.

“We have 1.7 million IKEA Family Members in Australia and a very high proportion of them are interested in sustainability and living a sustainable life, but almost half don’t know where to start so we are knocking down the barriers for them,” Wilson says.

The company visits more than 500 homes every year to understand how customers live and ensure relevant sustainable products are brought to market. IKEA Family Members can enjoy discounts of up to 40 percent on certain sustainable ranges on sale in special sustainability shops, located in prominent retail spaces in IKEA stores. 

Staff, or co-workers, have an equally crucial role to play as sustainability ambassadors. A recent internal survey found that 80 percent of the 2,800 co-workers feel they are actively involved in sustainability at IKEA, whether it be warehouse workers or those selling sustainable products to customers.

“We also give our co-workers a day paid each year to volunteer in the community with charities,” Wilson adds. “We are in the third round of this and want to take it further and make a bigger difference. We’ve always been focused on people and communities up and down the supply chain, both around the world and closer to home.

“This is really important us. We help communities and charities close to our stores by providing furnishings and carrying out makeovers, which greatly helps them with costs and gives them a brilliant place to work from. Charities do some amazing work and we can make a real difference to places like shelters by fitting out smart kitchens and living spaces. If we can make these places more welcoming and warm for those using them, then that is a great thing.”  

From working with suppliers and educating its customers on sustainable living to helping the lives of those in need in local communities, IKEA’s sustainable programme stretches far beyond the reduction of its own environmental footprint. It is a sustainability drive with a caring conscience, as Wilson summaries: “At the end of the day this all revolves back round to our wider IKEA vision, which is to create a better everyday life for the many people.”


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