Everyone's favorite Swedish furniture superstore is among the best places to buy cheap, easy-to-assemble furniture. But the company's products aren't built to last—just think a about the amount of splintered Ikea furniture that is tossed on the side of city streets every day. That's the challenge facing Steve Howard, Ikea's newly initiated COO of sustainability: Can a company that makes easily disposable goods ever be truly responsible?
We asked Howard, the former CEO of The Climate Group who joined Ikea in January 2011, about why the company's products aren't simply another symptom of our disposable and wasteful culture. According to Howard, buying a piece of Ikea furniture (say, the Lack coffee table) often makes more sense than buying a pricier alternative. "If a product isn't handled carefully, then it doesn't last as long," Howard acknowledges. "But with the Lack tables today, you've got a table that's got a veneer on it, is strong enough to stand on and has a honeycomb in the middle which is structurally very strong. We can produce five tables from the same raw material [as one solid wood table]."
So here's the question: Does it make more sense to manufacture one pricey table that lasts decades, or five tables that don't last quite as long (though sometimes they do)—but are cheap enough for most people to afford? With the world population expected to skyrocket in the coming decades, maybe we should be squeezing as many tables as possible from the same raw material. Everyone needs a coffee table.
And since the company knows that most people do inevitably want to give up their Ikea furniture at some point, it's working on a takeback program—albeit slowly. In one of its U.K. stores, Ikea is trialing an automated machine that recognizes CFL bulbs. Users simply feed their bulbs into the machine and get a coffee voucher in return. For bulkier items (i.e. mattresses and tables), Ikea may even be willing to pick up items from homes. "For us to do this in a comprehensive way is a major undertaking. It's establishing a reverse supply chain," Howard says. In other words, you may be able to have your slowly disintegrating Billy bookcase taken off to be ground up and converted to more Billy bookcases, instead of just leaving it on the street.
Ikea also hopes to have all of its products either recyclable, made of recycled materials, or renewable by 2015. It's about branding and, of course, the bottom line. "In our transparent world, every product will have a story. You've got to make sure it's a good one," says Howard.
[Image: Flickr user Listen Missy!]