If you live in Sydney, Australia, and want to get rid of an old Ikea chair or bookcase, you can take it back to your local Ikea store, which will buy it back from you and resell it to help it avoid ending up in a landfill. The program, along with programs for furniture leasing that the brand is expanding globally this year, is a part of of Ikea’s broader strategy to become climate positive—meaning it reduces more greenhouse gas emissions than its entire value chain creates—in only a decade.
Hitting the climate positive goal will mean transforming every part of the business, including the way it designs products, the energy used in suppliers’ factories, and how customers use products that are often seen as disposable today. Those changes will have to happen quickly. “I think their timing is very aggressive,” says Mark Griffiths, the global leader of the Climate Business Hub at the nonprofit WWF, which is working with Ikea on its environmental strategy. “It’s a decade away, and if you think about how big that company is, and how many suppliers they have, and what they need to do, it’s a huge mountain to climb.”
In late 2019, the Inter Ikea Group, the company that controls the Ikea brand, announced that it was investing 200 million Euros to accelerate the move to become climate positive by 2030. The company recognizes that this level of transformation is necessary. “The ambitions and commitments are quite bold, but it’s based on the science,” says Lena Pripp Kovac, chief sustainability officer at the Inter Ikea Group. As with some other major companies, the Ingka Group, the company that controls Ikea retail stores, has a target to cut emissions in line with keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. (The corporate relationship between Ikea’s various companies is complex, as this flowchart demonstrates, but the brand as a whole is moving toward the climate positive goal.) Few companies plan to move as quickly.
The company’s total annual carbon footprint in 2018 was 26.9 million metric tons, and involves everything from the ingredients used in the food served in stores to the fuel used to ship goods from factories. The energy that customers use at home to power Ikea products makes up more than 20% of the total footprint, so the company is working to make its energy-using products more efficient (and offering solar panels for sale in some stores to help customers switch to renewable energy). Customer trips to stores make up another 15% of the footprint, and some stores are now beginning to offer options like cargo bikes that customers can borrow to bring furniture home. Production, including the energy used at suppliers’ factories, is another 11%. But the largest piece of the footprint, at 36.4%, comes from materials, making changing how the company makes its furniture a particularly important piece of the climate strategy.
As the world’s largest furniture retailer, with 9,000-plus different products for sale in each store, the company uses materials at a massive scale. In a year, to make every bookshelf and coffee table and dresser and all of the other wood and particleboard products it sells, for example, it uses around 18 million cubic meters of wood, enough to fill 7,200 Olympic-size swimming pools.
The brand already sources most of its wood from FSC-certified forests; some wood comes from plantations, including locations in Slovakia where fast-growing poplar trees grow on partially degraded land where it would be harder to grow other crops. Other wood is sourced from sustainably managed forests. If it’s grown and harvested in the right way, wood isn’t a bad material choice, since it’s renewable and takes up CO2 from the atmosphere as it grows. “Wood stores carbon as long as it’s intact,” says Rod Taylor, global director of the forests program at the nonprofit World Resources Institute. “But then the circular economy becomes really important, because if it’s a cheap throwaway product—like some of Ikea’s products—its half-life in storing carbon will be relatively short.”
There’s also a limited amount of sustainably grown wood available and a finite amount of land to grow more. So even as the company works to ensure that it’s getting wood from the right places, it’s also starting to incorporate other, improved materials into its products—one rug that looks like sheepskin, for example, is actually made from recycled plastic bottles—and it’s also rethinking its products more fundamentally, with the view that all Ikea products can themselves serve as raw materials in the future. “Decoupling material use is important,” says Kovac. “We know that if we’re going to reach the [masses] . . . we need to be much more efficient in our supply chains and in our product design, as well as in the way we actually own products in the future.”
Ikea has analyzed all of its products to see how they can become circular, meaning that the materials can be reused in loops rather than ending up in landfills. The company’s designers now look at how products can be designed for their expected lifespan, how they can be designed to minimize waste in production to later be adapted, upgraded, or repaired, and for easy disassembly and recycling. “Every product function needed to be assessed,” says Kovac. “A paper napkin has one circular profile, a toilet brush another, a sofa another. We got to know which product should be repurposed, which could be refurbished or recycled or reused, to make sure that we have those capabilities in the range of products that we have in the future.”
The company is making a range of other changes, from figuring out how to fit more products on trucks to moving to zero-emissions deliveries to customers. It stopped selling single-use plastic products on January 1, 2020. But some of the biggest changes are outside of its direct control. Part of the new 200 million euro investment will go to help suppliers move to renewable energy in production; the other part will support more responsible forest management and restoring degraded land (restoring forests can help absorb carbon, which will help Ikea reach the goal of being “climate positive” and reduce more emissions than it creates). The brand will also have to convince consumers that it’s worth taking the time to repair or return old products that they might have tossed on the curb in the past.
“Once they’ve sold the product and it’s sitting in someone’s home, how do you make sure that the product comes back to Ikea to be renewed, restored, or recycled after its first use?” says Griffiths. “How do you convince the end consumer, a very important component of the whole value chain? It comes down to education, communication, and showing consumers that this is actually in their interest to do . . . it’s cheaper, or they get a better experience.”
These changes, and encouraging suppliers to change, will likely be the most challenging part of the transition, he says. And though Ikea can have an impact on its own because of its size, it’s also critical that other companies embark on similar paths. “One single company isn’t going to get us there from a climate perspective,” Griffiths says. Many others may not move as quickly; Griffiths says that H&M was interested in working on a similar timeline, but after it analyzed what was possible, decided to aim for the year 2040 instead. “What we’re saying to companies is go and do the math, and then let’s work out how quickly you think you can do it,” he says. “And then let’s get to work.”