Ikea Tries To Assemble A Sustainable Operation, Despite Disposable Products

The cheap furniture giant's products are getting more stable, and they are now making more from less.

Ikea

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!]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

Read More: IKEA Creates a Sustainability Scorecard for Its Products

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3 Comments

  • Tse-Sung Wu

    Seems like "upcycling" is also known as "manufacturing"- only that you're using as raw materials stuff that's been discarded by humans.  It may still take a bit of energy to create that new thing.

    Maybe another way of thinking about this is that recycling can sometimes allow you to skip the expensive step of mining and refining a raw material.  Aluminum is the best example of this.  Far better to make an aluminum object starting with Al, whether an ingot bought from some factory in Iceland, or from a bunch of soda cans, than from bauxite mined in Jamaica.  

    This is a reason I've liked the Natural Step as a system for evaluating environmental impact.  If we can harvest sustainably from the biosphere, it might be better than recycling from the anthroposphere if the latter requires lots of energy and water.  Intuitively, it shouldn't- but I don't think it's been proven that recycling is always better than getting something from Nature's supply chain.

  • Bette Boomer

    Kudos to Ikea for understanding that the new sustainability is all about recycling,downcycling & upcycling.

    We’ve all got a pretty good handle on recycling. Downcycling (or downstream recycling) is recycling a product into a material of lesser quality. Eventually, recycling sends material so far down the food chain that it isn’t useful or feasible to recycle any further. There is delay in getting it to the landfill.

    What about upcycling? The term was coined by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, authors of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. In it they state that upcycling is a component of sustainability in which waste materials are used to provide new products. The difference here is that upcycling creates a product of similar or greater value, in its second life. Aluminum and glass, for example, can usually be upcycled into the same quality of aluminum and glass as the original products.

    Many in the clothing business are also jumping on this bandwagon. Clothing designers take discarded garments, customer returns, or excess production from garment retailers and turn them into new-different pieces. It’s not an easy process to establish as Patagonia has discovered. They launched a Common Threads Initiative and are still working out the kinks.

    You might want to follow this issue in the coming weeks at www.betteboomer.com as we’ll be writing
    extensively about its impact and a developing eco-fashion industry. But remember, it all ends up in a landfill eventually.
     

  • Guest

    Kudos
    to Ikea for understanding that the new sustainability is all about recycling,
    downcycling & upcycling.

    We’ve all got a pretty good handle on
    recycling. Downcycling (or downstream recycling) is recycling a product into a
    material of lesser quality. Eventually, recycling sends material so far down
    the food chain that it isn’t useful or feasible to recycle any further. There
    is delay in getting it to the landfill.

    What about upcycling? The
    term was coined by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, authors of Cradle
    to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. In it they state that upcycling
    is a component of sustainability in which waste materials are used to provide
    new products. The difference here is that upcycling creates a product of similar
    or greater value, in its second life. Aluminum and glass, for example, can
    usually be upcycled into the same quality of aluminum and glass as the original
    products.

    Many in the
    clothing business are also jumping on this bandwagon. Clothing designers take
    discarded garments, customer returns, or excess production from garment
    retailers and turn them into new-different pieces. It’s not an easy process to
    establish as Patagonia has discovered. They launched a Common Threads Initiative and
    are still working out the kinks.

    You
    might want to follow this issue in the coming weeks at www.betteboomer.com as we’ll be writing
    extensively about its impact and a developing eco-fashion industry. But
    remember, it all ends up in a landfill eventually.