November 26, 2014

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IKEA's Sustainability Strategy: Save the World, One Product At a Time

With 338 stores and steadily growing, superstore IKEA's footprint continues to expand. Yet, the company is pursuing profitability and sustainability as two ends of the same stick.

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By Aman Singh

  • 154,000 workers.
  • 47 percent of all managers are women [compared to 17 percent of the American Fortune 500's board seats or the female representation at the recently concluded World Economic Forum].
  • 338 stores worldwide.
  • 8 percent comparable store sales growth in FY2012.
  • A third of total energy consumption met through renewable energy.

Is IKEA's newly minted sustainability strategy working? Titled People & Planet Positive, the strategy was borne out of the retailer's business mission: to create a better everyday life for the many people. The 2012 report marks the first update for the superstore whose goals start from the obvious – a fourfold increase in sales by 2020 – and go on to include the other two pillars of sustainability – engagement of customers, employees and suppliers, energy dependence, as well as community development.

In typical European fashion – understated with an emphasis on data – the release headline read: The IKEA Group is Growing and Financially Strong. Mind you, the release announces the retailer's 2012 Sustainability report, not the latest quarterly report on financials. What better way to position sustainability?

I spoke to Chief Sustainability Officer Steve Howard briefly on the cusp of the report's release. Excerpts:

Aman Singh: What are some of the key highlights of the 2012 Sustainability Report that you would want every CSRwire reader to know?

Steve Howard: We've divided the report into two parts. First is the forward-looking piece, which talks about our new sustainability strategy and lays out our 2020 goals. Implementing these goals has IKEA 2012 sustainability report meant a huge amount of work and unleashed an incredible amount of enthusiasm across the workforce. 

The second piece deals with our impact. In terms of our operations, extending our work on energy has been significant. We completed installing 50,000 solar panels across our business locations by the end of FY 12. Last year, we committed to invest $2 billion in renewable energy by 2015. We're already committed $500 million of that.

IKEA now owns wind farms in six countries. Thirty-four percent of our energy came from renewable sources last year. We've committed to reach 100 percent by 2020. Not bad for a furnishing company.

In our supply chain, we committed to reaching 100 percent compliance with our suppliers. We have 80 auditors working on this goal as well as independent team validating the work of our auditors. [Once we rolled this out] some suppliers agreed to collaborate while others decided not to. So we parted ways with as many as 60 suppliers. That has real business consequences – for us as well as the suppliers.

This goal has been a real test for us on how serious we are with our promises and commitments. Because our strategy is embedded and understood across divisions, our decision to part ways with 60 suppliers was not received with any criticism. We've also worked with our supply chain partners on funding projects and have reached more than 100,000 farmers on improving farm conditions, water conservation, etc.

Again, our goal is to reach every single one of our farmers by the end of 2015.

One of IKEA's goals is to have at least 95 percent of coworkers, 95 percent of suppliers and 70 percent of consumers view IKEA as a company that takes social and environmental responsibility seriously. How's that going?

Most of our suppliers, customers and coworkers are in the "I don’t know" category. They judge us and have opinions about IKEA but don’t know what we do on sustainability. What we also know is that people care. Once we communicate the urgency, they do care about things like climate change, the VIDJA lamp IKEAfuture of their children, etc.

Moving forward, we will strengthen our customer communications. For example, last year we replaced the doors of one of our frame cupboards with honeycomb fiber, which is as strong as solid chipboard but uses 40 percent less material. Cupboards need strong doors, not heavy doors. And this reduces the cost to produce the cupboard, therefore, reducing the price for our customers, which makes it a better customer proposition.

Similarly, the VIDJA lamp was redesigned last year to take out unnecessary components [as many as 24 of the 33 original components were removed] and replaced with LED lights, resulting in half the weight and the same performance.  Additionally, we can now load 128 VIDJA lamps on a pallet vs. 80 previously, which means we can ship more at once, reducing our fuel usage and shipping costs.

Just like that, every IKEA product has a story. That's the direction for our business. Soon everything will be traceable back to source but it’s a lot of hard work and we are starting to talk about these stories. But it will take us some time to get the communication across to our customers globally. 

That's emblematic of a true lifecycle approach. With thousands of products and a growing footprint internationally [IKEA is in China and will soon debut its first store in India] there must be some challenges in balancing sustainability goals and growing scale?

While having a mission and being a values-led business helps, it all comes down to a significant execution and implementation effort. Our people are motivated to lower prices and find sustainable solutions. I use three numbers to talk about sustainability within IKEA:

  • 1.5 planets: needed to provide resources for today's population
  • 3 billion: extra consumers expected to overcome poverty across emerging markets by 2030
  • 6degrees centigrade warming: A catastrophe.

These numbers are real. And hit hard. We're over-consuming against the urgency of climate change. IKEA: product developmentThis hits the heart of business: we are either sustainable or bust. We have to do whatever is needed. And we know that.

We can help our customers save energy by switching over to LED lights. We're essentially banning non-LEDs by committing to sell and use only LED lights in our products. We can help people save water in a meaningful way by using energy saving equipment. Simple things like LEDs, for example, can reduce our customers' expenses by 30 percent. That's equal to a 10 percent pay raise!

This is our opportunity…and it's highly motivating.

How does reporting on these metrics help? Whose reading the report?

We just want to be transparent. We're not expecting IKEA customers or coworkers to rush to read our sustainability report. It is meant for a specialist audience that believes in the phrase, you can only manage what you can measure.

Businesses – and management teams – like to have clear targets so that they can report against them [and benchmark, analyze and improve performance]. So why not use the same logic for sustainability?

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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