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Is Ikea the Paragon of Discount Wastefulness?

Can we afford to keep shopping at places where an item’s price reflects only a fraction of its societal costs?

Ikea enjoys a charmed stature as a progressive outlet delivering smart and stylish furnishings for a new kind of forward-looking home. Who doesn’t like high design at rock-bottom prices–served with that agreeable touch of Scandinavian merchandising?

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Turns out all that modular furniture and bookcases may not be such a wondrous bargain after all. An article in the July/August issue of The Atlantic argues that behind its friendly face Ikea promotes the worst kind of consumerism and waste.

“…put down your 59-cent Färgrik coffee mug and ask yourself: Can we afford to keep shopping at places where an item’s price reflects only a fraction of its societal costs?” writes Ellen Ruppel Shell in a brief article drawn from her book, “Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture,” published last month by Penguin.

(Note: as of this posting Ikea had not responded to my queries about Shell.)

ikea couches

Nobody disputes that Ikea table lamps and kitchen carts are pleasingly designed. The problem, Shell contends, is that they’re designed for only brief use; when they’re worn or broken they’re tossed into the landfill, a practice badly out of keeping with the new emphasis on durability. In this way Ikea is as wasteful and inefficient as any discount chain, and it suggests that products have no lasting merit. (Anybody who has tried to assemble an Ikea dresser knows how much the company values craftsmanship. )

What’s more, Shells says in her book, the drive toward a disposable culture has unsettling human intimations: “If Ikea thinks it’s crazy to care deeply about objects, why does it sell a wok named after a girl?”

ikea

Ikea takes full promotional credit for lighting its stores with energy efficient light bulbs, Shells says, but it deliberately positions its stores far outside city centers. As a result, the average Ikea customer gas driving 50 miles round-trip.

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ikea wood

According to some counts, Ikea is the third largest wood consumer in the world. The company declines to pay up for lumber that is certified to be legally and responsibly harvested. Instead, Shell says, it buys from low-wage sources in Europe and Asia and oversees them with 15 “forestry monitors,” which is presumably a woefully small staff for the vast the territories.

“Eight of them work in China and Russia,” Shell writes, “but illegal logging is widespread in those vast countries, making it impossible to guarantee that all wood is legally harvested.

newsletterPromo(“Ethonomics”, “right”);

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