In Praise of the Unflinching Frugality of IKEA Founder Ingvar Kamprad

The king of flat-pack: Best known for his seclusive, penny-pinching personal life, IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad's ingenuity and obsession with curtailing waste greatly influenced the home furnishing emporium's wide-ranging sustainability efforts. (Photo: Inter IKEA Group)

The "IK" in IKEA is no more. Earlier this week, Ingvar Kamprad, the enterprising Swede behind the largest home furnishings retailer in the world, ascended to the great, blue big box store in the sky. He was 91.

Kamprad struggled with dyslexia as a child, ultimately finding his niche as a bike-riding juvenile salesman who hawked matchsticks, pencils, greeting cards and other household bits and bobs to his neighbors in the woodsy, lake-laden province of Småland. In 1943, at the age of 17, he founded his flagship furniture store as a mostly mail-order affair. While he based his fledgling company in Älmhult, an otherwise unassuming town that’s still home to the retailer’s global design headquarters, the "A" in IKEA actually stands for Agunnaryd, a nearby village where Kamprad grew up. As for the "E" that appears in one of world’s most ubiquitous four-letter acronyms, it represents Elmtaryd, the name of the farm where Kamprad was born.

Ingvar. Kamprad. Elmtaryd. Agunnaryd. There you have it.

Covers of Swedish newspapers with Ingvar Kamprad
Ingvar Kamprad's death on Jan. 28 was front-page news across Sweden, where the billionaire was born in 1926. (Photo: Jonas Ekstromer/AFP/Getty Images)

Kamprad’s story — farm boy in rural southern Sweden overcomes adversity to become founder of slavishly adored multinational retail company with 412 stores across the globe — might appear to be the standard rags-to-riches narrative.

It’s not. While the self-made business magnate acquired riches and then some, he never really shed those rags. (And per the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, Kamprad was worth an estimated $57.8 billion in 2018, making him the eighth wealthiest individual in the world, although it’s unclear how much of that fortune belongs to him.)

The world's thriftiest billionaire

Vintage photo of IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad with furniture
Vintage photo of IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad with furniture. (Photo: Inter IKEA Group)

You see, Kamprad was a cheapskate — not a miserly, Scrooge McDuck type but a man whose penny-pinching austerity was the stuff of legend.

On the surface, Kamprad's lifestyle largely echoed that of a coupon-clipping Midwestern grandmother. Well, minus the semi-reclusiveness, flirtations with fascism and a decades-long sojourn in Switzerland as a tax exile. (He eventually returned to Småland in 2014, following the death of his wife.)

His last car — a Volvo, naturally — was rumored to be two decades old when he gave up driving in 2013. He’s made headlines for only flying coach, staying almost exclusively in budget motels and eating at IKEA’s in-store cafes when traveling. He also stocked his closet with thrift store and flea market finds. "If you look at me now, I don’t think I’m wearing anything that wasn’t bought at a flea market," Kamprad announced in a 2016 Swedish television documentary released just before his 90th birthday. "It is in the nature of Småland to be thrifty."

Even Kamprad’s haircuts were cut-rate. "Normally, I try to get my haircut when I’m in a developing country. Last time it was in Vietnam," he told Swedish newspaper Sydsvenskan in 2008.

One of the more popular anecdotes about Kamprad’s extreme thriftiness is one that involves him arriving at a gala to receive a big award only to be blocked by security. The reason? He rolled up in a public bus, not a limo or fancy foreign sports car as one would expect from a man of his stature.

"I'm a bit tight with money, but so what?" Kamprad once famously declared. "I look at the money I'm about to spend on myself and ask myself if IKEA's customers can afford it. I could regularly travel first-class, but having money in abundance doesn't seem like a good reason to waste it."

Before he died, he wanted to ensure that his fortune went towards helping others. Therefore, his last will and testament stated that half of his fortune be donated to his charity — Kamprad Family Foundation for Entrepreneurship, Research and Charity. The organization's mission is "to support, stimulate and reward education and scientific research to promote entrepreneurship, the environment, competence, health and social improvement." The $23 billion donation from his estate will go towards developing business opportunities in the northern Swedish town of Norrland. The other half of his fortune was left to his four children — Peter, Jonas, Mathias and Annika.

Family photos, IKEA Museum
A collectIon of Kamprad family photos on display at the IKEA Museum in Almhult, Sweden. Kamprad is survived by a daughter and three sons. (Photo: Matt Hickman)

No place for waste

If Kamprad’s tight-wad ways seem pathological and perhaps a bit off-putting, that’s because they were.

However, Kamprad’s refusal to abandon his most defining personal trait — frugality — is also what has helped make IKEA the global retail powerhouse it is today. His personal economy plays heavily into company mythology — and may be a touch romanticized for public relations purposes, as the New York Times suggests. (IKEA is the king of the attention-grabbing PR stunt, after all.)

But would IKEA be an entirely different company if it was founded by someone who didn’t pilfer salt and pepper packets from restaurants? It’s safe to assume so.

There are bits of Kamprad everywhere in IKEA, and not just in its matryoshka doll-esque corporate structure, which all falls under a tax-exempt Dutch charitable foundation. (As mentioned, it's hard to decipher how rich Kamprad truly was considering IKEA's ownership by a complex string of foundations and holding companies based in various countries.)

There’s the unwavering focus on offering consumers an affordable product; the (somewhat problematic) opening of new stores in outlying areas where land is more bountiful and inexpensive; the practice of predominately purchasing materials direct from suppliers; the emphasis on small spaces, mobility and making do with less; and the revolutionary flat-pack design of the furniture itself, which has resulted in more than a few instances of marital duress but also helps to keep shipping and packaging costs down. Kamprad preached extreme efficiency and, as a result, very little in IKEA-land goes to waste.

"IKEA believes in making good things accessible for the many people," says Tina Petersson Lind, Range and Design Manager with IKEA of Sweden. "It’s about democratizing design, that good homes shouldn't be determined by the size of the wallet. So to offer good design that as many people as possible can afford, we work with Democratic Design, which means we include form, function, quality, sustainability and a low price in everything we do. This resonates with the vision and ideas Ingvar had for IKEA and these principles have and will continue to guide us in the future."

She adds: "Just like Ingvar, we simply want to show the world that it’s possible to create low-price products with good form and function and lasting quality in a sustainable way."

IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad with store co-worker
Although Kamprad stepped down from the board of Inter Ikea Group in 2013, he remained a senior advisor up until his death. (Photo: Inter IKEA Group)

An accidental environmentalist

Although he stopped serving in an operational role within the company starting in 1988, Kamprad’s early and near-militant focus on efficiency has helped to transform IKEA into a sustainability-minded retail pioneer.

IKEA was green before green was even a thing — using less and wasting less is built into the corporate DNA. Remember when the store completely did away with single-use plastic shopping bags and began only offering its only iconic reusable blue tote for purchase at checkout? IKEA was well ahead of the pack as the first U.S. retailer to nix throwaway bags beginning in March 2007.

IKEA was also the first U.S. retailer to pull the plug on energy-guzzling incandescent light bulbs in 2011 as well as the first store to offer only LED lighting options beginning in 2015. More recently, the Scandinavian import has turned its attention on slashing food waste with the aim to halve the amount of discarded meatballs and lox produced at its restaurants by 2020.

Swedish flag flown at half mast at IKEA store
The Swedish flag outside of an IKEA outpost in Wembley, England, is flown at half mast in honor of Ingvar Kamprad. (Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images)

The company, which owns wind farms in Europe and North America and tops its newly built stores and distribution centers with solar arrays, is also a prolific investor in renewable energy. In 2015, the affordable furniture emporium's $1 billion commitment to climate-related funding was greater than Sweden's. And within the next two years as part of its People + Planet Positive strategy, IKEA plans to rely only on 100 percent clean energy as well as become "Forest Positive" by only sourcing sustainable wood.

In May of last year, IKEA purchased a Dutch plastics recycling plant in a move that will help further wean the company off virgin materials. Items like a vase made from re-melted scrap glass and a chair manufactured using reclaimed wood chips and recycled glass were among the more notable components of the retailer’s much anticipated IKEA PS 2017 collection.

Vintage photo of IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad with chair
Vintage photo of IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad with chair. (Photo: Inter IKEA Group)

Even more recently, IKEA made waves at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, with the announcement that the home goods purveyor plans to experiment with renting and furniture buy-back schemes as part of a larger bid to become a major player in the circular economy.

"So we are testing radical solutions. There are very different levels of interest depending which city you are in. So in London, for example, there are a lot of people who commute and they are not interested, with passion, in building a second home, so rental there is more interesting," IKEA Group chief executive Jesper Brodin said.

This all said, Kamprad never publicly identified as a dyed-in-the-wool environmentalist despite his company’s strong environmental leanings. And he never really needed to. His fabled frugality was an act of environmentalism itself, a quality that rendered Kamprad something of an eccentric but his company an eco-conscious force of nature.

Ingvar Kamprad’s aversion to wastefulness is helping to save the world, one flat-pack coffee table at a time.

Inset images: Inter IKEA Group