Are We Being Greenyasved by IKEA?

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IKEA is coming under fire for its surface-level green activities. (Photo: Zboralski [CC BY SA-3.0]/Wikimedia Commons)

Hot on the heels of the attention-grabbing announcement that IKEA would be unrolling, Leko, a carpool service at store locations in France (not an actual eco-friendly car as some were led to believe), environmental journalist Fred Pearce has broadcasted a few choice words for the Swedish home furnishings goliath: Enough of the greenwashing.

In an opinion piece published in The Guardian titled “Ikea – you can’t build a green reputation with a flatpack DIY manual,” Pearce lays down his case as to why he believes IKEA, a chain with 285 stores (35 in the U.S.) in 36 countries, to be a flagrant practitioner of greenwashing.

This may come to a shock to many considering that IKEA loudly and proudly pontificates about environmental sustainability and corporate responsibility. Aside from faux-Scandinavian product names and the meatballs, I thought IKEA was known for being green. Pearce feels differently about "the place you drive to on a Saturday to fill your house with bits of wood from foreign lands:"

When unveiled it [the Leko marketing campaign] turned out to be a computerised car-sharing scheme in France. Not a new one, but a special customised service from an established car-sharing service designed to get more customers to Ikea stores. Now, I am in favour of car-sharing. Anything to keep down the number of cars clogging up Ikea car parks must be good. But this story is a bit like the one I did on Disney theme parks a couple of weeks ago. It is green tinsel on a business model that is all about persuading people to make long carbon-intense journeys to buy their products. The telling statistic was at the back end of the company press release: "5.8% of Ikea France's customers already used a shared form of transport to get to their preferred store." So 94.2% don't. Allowing for the odd walker and cyclist, that must mean around 90% drive. That's the problem, Ikea. You build your stores in places out of town that are ill-served by public transport. You slap a big delivery charge on any who don't want to take their own furniture home (£60 in my case, I notice). And then you try and get greenie points for making it slightly less hard to reach them in an environmentally acceptable manner. It won't wash.

Ouch. Pearce goes on to state that IKEA didn’t completely cut the lights in store locations during Earth Hour 2009, but instead dimmed them as to not scare away potential customers. Earth Hour 2009 is a global event promoted by WWF, an environmental organization that IKEA has close business ties with.

In any event, I am not quite sure why WWF allowed lights-on Ikea to use its logo to promote how it had "signed up to" (but not obeyed, obviously) the Earth Hour. Nor why it gave Ikea gratuitous publicity on its own site for half-heartedly complying with the Earth Hour. Well, actually I am fairly sure. Ikea and WWF have a long-term "business relationship". Ikea gives cash and a few environmental initiatives, while WWF gives green kudos and some environmental advice.

Double ouch. Pearce also discloses that IKEA is actively opposed to upcoming U.S. laws that will forbid the import of illegal logged timber. Not good. It seems we've reached an unholy greenwashing trifecta for home furnishing stores: Locations that require carbon-intensive travel to get to, semi-compliance with a major environmental event, and shady business when it comes to tracking timber supplies.

I for one adore IKEA. As I’ve mentioned previously, there's a store in my neighborhood in Brooklyn and I was horrified about its arrival. Horrified is a mild word. I was about ready to move out. But once the big blue doors opened, I was surprised as to how little it affected my historic, waterfront neighborhood. Traffic isn’t a mess and there are great, free water taxis that shuttle shoppers from Brooklyn and Manhattan. There's also a huge waterfront park that didn't exist before and hundreds of new jobs.

It doesn’t hurt that I love the IKEA’s affordable, design-forward products (even though I can’t put the furniture together for the life of me). I love the lingonberry jam and holiday ornaments. I'm downright obsessed with the new wall-hangings produced by women in rural Indian villages. Heck, I even like the piped-in music they play in the store. I’m writing this post on an IKEA desk and after this I’ll probably go out to my IKEA couch and watch the television that’s sitting on an IKEA media console.

Am I going to more skeptical about IKEA’s environmental initiatives in the future? Probably. Do I feel duped? Just a tad. But as a dedicated IKEA shopper, I’m not going to let this accusation of greenwashing stop me from purchasing Flatsürfen side tables for my IKEA showroom of an apartment. Will it stop you?

Via [The Guardian]