Where does an Ikea product go when it approaches the end of its useful life? Maybe Craigslist, or the annual yard sale, or—for the optimistic or guilt-ridden—a storage unit. Probably the worst option of all? The landfill. But Steve Howard, the Scandinavian company’s chief sustainability officer, believes in a future where Ikea furniture never really dies at all. Instead, it gets reincarnated.
"Can products have more than one life?" Howard asks. "Can you help extend the life the products you do have?" At a recent event, he said Westerners had (finally!) reached "peak stuff," a bold statement for the world’s largest home-furnishing company, whose warehouses are bursting with an eye-popping array of stuff. But Howard isn’t naive about Ikea’s contribution to overflowing landfills. The company’s furniture, which is trendy and cheap, is also seen by many customers as disposable.
"It’s interesting that there’s a perception that products that are affordable are somehow also disposable," Howard told Fast Company. "And we’ve got to challenge that. We think it’s our obligation as a business to make sure there are good channels available for people to resell products that are good and when products are actually finished, those are recycled as well." He calls this concept the "circular store," a place where customers repair or recycle their expired couches, mattresses, and rugs (something the company has been talking about since at least 2011), instead of throwing them out.
One only has to look around at the various pilot projects happening at Ikea locations across the globe to get a sense of Howard’s vision for increased sustainability—though the company notes that it's at the beginning of a "challenging" task of creating a closed-loop economy. "It will change the way we select materials, work with our suppliers, make our products, and interact with customers," its most recent sustainability report notes, which may be why these programs aren't available yet in the U.S. Here’s what the Ikea of the future might look like:
Howard knows some people require an incentive to recycle their stuff, especially if that means trekking across town (or several towns over) to the closest Ikea location. In France and Belgium, Ikea’s "Second Life for Furniture" program lets customers bring old items, from Lack tables to Billy bookcases, into the store and exchange them for a store voucher. The items are then recycled or resold as-is, and the donor has a wallet full of Ikea money ready to spend on something new, so the cycle continues.
Another pilot program, this one in the U.K., offers a "reverse vending machine" for compact fluorescent light bulbs. Insert a bulb, out pops a voucher for coffee.
But the company is also finding it doesn’t necessarily need to lure people with rewards. Many are already anxious about their waste, and the relief of knowing it’s not going to a landfill is reward enough. In Moscow, an Ikea that let shoppers drop off batteries for recycling was an astounding success. "In the space of a few months, we had six tons of batteries in there," Howard says. "People had been storing batteries because they didn’t want to throw them away."
In Sweden, a pilot that promised to recycle any plastic furniture, even if it wasn’t purchased at Ikea, was also hugely successful. "People only brought back broken furniture," Howard says. "They didn’t bring back stuff they were just bored with, which means people were holding onto broken plastic furniture because they didn’t know how to throw it away."
And in 20 markets, Ikea will now pick up old mattresses to be recycled. "We found out that meets a real need for people, because they worry about it," Howard says. "Maybe people don’t worry about the small stuff they put in the trash, but with big household items, it’s a concern. As soon as you create that option, letting people recycle stuff they couldn’t before, people are happy to have the option."
This year the company is assessing the results of its "Resource Chain Project," and looking at ways returned Ikea products can be recycled into new, less expensive products. "We would basically be taking old bookshelves, old furniture, or an old door that’s finished its first life and sending it into new products," Howard says. "You'll have a kitchen that used to be a bookshelf, without seeing any visible difference in them. It's not a revolution, but you have to actually fundamentally change your supply chain to do that."
Part of extending a product's life is encouraging people to take good care of it, and repair it when it breaks rather than tossing it. "We’ve already started rolling out more material about how customers can look after products and repair products," Howard says.
In the coming years, Ikea will launch initiatives that make it easier to access lost or broken parts. Perhaps your local store will have a Makerbot on site, or the company will dispatch blueprints for hinges and screws, or even an entire product, which customers could print from their home. "In the Ikea of the distant future, if it’s a small spare part, it could be printed nearby and dispatched quickly to you," Howard says. "That’s not in the next three years, but easily within the next 10."
Hackers will also become pseudo product consultants, doling out new ideas for ways to repurpose Ikea furniture, which is something they do already, but Ikea isn’t necessarily embracing. "We should reach out to the hacker community to come up with their favorite ways of extending the life of Ikea products," Howard says. In a sense, Ikea could become a sort of open-source retailer for physical home goods.
Many of the most difficult things to recycle are textiles: rugs, linens, cushions, and pillow cases. In Norway and the Netherlands, Ikea is in the very early stages of allowing customers to bring these products in and turn them into something else, like interesting flooring. "We’re still in the very early stages of that," Howard says. (In Norwegian stores last year, Ikea collected more than 25 tons of used textiles.)
But other textiles, like clothes, just need a new home. In Moscow, Ikea set up a clothing swap program (they called it "Cross Dressing," which Howard admits might not be the most marketable name) in a huge shopping center. "People can bring the clothes they’re done with but are still good to wear and swap them," he says. "In Russia, there are limited opportunities to recycle, so this has been hugely popular."
Howard knows shoppers’ home-furnishing needs change over time. A new apartment requires a bigger couch, or a table that can be tucked away when not in use. He wants to see more modular furniture that can be transformed. "Kids change faster than grownups, for example, and you need a changing table for a short amount of time," he says. "Can we change it to a shelf or a desk? Can you make chairs that can grow with your child? We’re taking that whole approach when designing stuff."
All of these changes are still in their pilot programs, but Howard says once a pilot proves successful, "They become big quite quickly." For example, in 2012, the retailer set a goal to sell 100% LED lights, weaning itself and customers off fluorescent bulbs. Within three years, the company had hit its target. "When we line the business up behind these things," Howard says, "you see a different Ikea quite quickly."