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Ikea’s 8 principles for circular design show how to build a business based on reuse

From focusing on repairability to making items easier to take apart and then reassemble, here’s how the furniture giant is rethinking its product line to eliminate waste.

Ikea’s 8 principles for circular design show how to build a business based on reuse
[Photo: Ikea]
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By the end of the decade, Ikea plans to be a circular company—meaning that all of its 9,500-plus products can be reused, repaired, disassembled, and recycled instead of ending up in landfills. In a new digital tool, the company shares the process that it’s using to evaluate and redesign everything that it makes.

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For each type of product, the company created a “recipe” for circularity. “It tells us what we need to achieve with this kind of product in order for that specific product to be circular,” says Mirza Rasidovic, range engineering leader for Ikea of Sweden. Then it assessed and scored each of its thousands of products for each principle. “That created a baseline for us that enabled us to take a more long-term approach to, okay, how do we create this? How do we make this movement and transformation up to 2030?” he says.

Here are the eight principles Ikea uses to help make the recipes:

[Photo: Ikea]

Using renewable or recycled materials

Circularity focuses on what happens with a product at the end of its life, but it’s also important to use the right materials to begin with. In some cases, Rasidovic says, the company has discovered simple changes that can happen quickly. A product might be made from virgin plastic because the material is clearer, for example, but if it’s colored plastic, recycled material will look the same. “For consumers, there’s no difference in the product, but the product is much more sustainable,” he says. In other cases, Ikea is working with partners on longer-term innovation to make new recycled materials for different products, or to scale up production of new materials.

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Designing for standardization

By using a standard set of parts, materials, and colors as much as possible, it makes it easier for consumers to later make repairs because components are easier to find. It’s also easier to adapt a product or to pair it with matching products.  “Smart standardization actually enables the customers to have many different choices in the future,” he says. (If Ikea is making repairs or refurbishing products itself, standardization can also make that process more efficient.)

[Photo: Ikea]

Designing for care

Circularity also means making products that last as long as possible. Ikea’s design team looks at which parts might wear out fastest and how they might be redesigned, and how to make products easy to maintain. “It’s designing a product in a way that is simple and easy to care for, so customers can actually do that in a way that prolongs product life,” says Rasidovic.”It’s not only about keeping it clean, but about preventing product deterioration either in appearance or in function.”

[Photo: Ikea]

Designing for repair

Each product also has to be simple to repair. “The starting point, as we see it, is that the repairability should be possible for the consumers, and it should not require special competence or tools,” he says. During the design process, designers consider what might break and how it could be fixed, and the company also studies product reviews from customers to look for components that might need to be redesigned and which spare parts stores should offer. The company provided spare parts for some products in the past, but as it evaluated every product for circularity, it discovered more that could easily be added to the list.

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Designing for adaptability

Since customer’s needs change over time, it’s also useful to make products that can adapt—for example, modular furniture that can expand or contract, or furniture covers that can easily be swapped out to change the appearance.

[Photo: Ikea]

Designing for disassembly

Making furniture easier to disassemble and reassemble makes it easier to move without the risk of breaking—an important factor both when someone is moving to a new home, trying to sell the furniture to someone else, or return it to a retail store for resale, as in Ikea’s furniture take back program. If a product is beyond the point of reuse, disassembly can make it possible to retrieve some parts for refurbishment, or to separate components for recycling.

Design for remanufacturing

In some cases, components from some products could later be sent back to a manufacturer to be made into new products; making the right choices at the design stage can enable this.

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[Photo: Ikea]

Design for recyclability

After each product is used as long as possible—including repairs and resale to new customers—any components that can’t be reused should be simple to recycle. Recycling infrastructure may be different in each of the countries where Ikea operates, however. “In the European Union, a lot of discussions are ongoing in those lines to really make move substantial movements in enabling recyclability, for example,” says Rasidovic. “That is the similar dialogue happening in many different places. We see that we need to be in the forefront of this and enable this in our products today. Although we know that when we reach all of the millions of customers in 30 or so different countries, we realize that when they take it home, they don’t necessarily have the recyclability capabilities today.”

Better laws can help push the circular economy forward, Rasidovic says, by making new requirements for repairability or recycled content, for example. There are still technical and logistical challenges to fully making the switch for every product—and setting up the infrastructure, like take-back programs at stores, to support it. But the company thinks that it can reach its 2030 goal, and by being as transparent as it can about the process, it wants to help other companies make the same move. “This transformation is not only about a company that transforms,” he says. “This is about a global transformation that we hope is happening.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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