Photo via 2010 online catalog @ www.ikea.com.
The news: When IKEA launches its massive glossy 2010 catalog next week, an in-house ad spread nestled at the back also announces the company's latest effort at either massive PR or a new era in showcasing sustainability, depending on your point of view. The company that stands for low-price furniture and flat packs admits that the quest for sustainability is a 'never-ending job' (which certainly seems true in today's business paradigm). IKEA also has debuted a 'never-ending list' of some of the surprising and far-reaching steps it has taken. However, and unfortunately, IKEA (typically) approaches its communications regarding sustainability with a backward glance rather than any forward momentum.
Never-ending list - it's all old news
We can always find plenty about which to attack IKEA, the Wal-Mart of the furniture world. Yet IKEA's deep-seated ethic of making products - whether a Billy bookcase or an Ektorp sofa - cheaper and more efficiently is a guiding principle that works (to a certain degree) with sustainability goals. After all, IKEA's innovations of the flat pack and moving from particleboard to the board-on-styles (BoS) system of rigid frames filled with honeycombed paper - to name just two - show a hive mind that wholeheartedly embraces resource-use efficiency.
As IKEA says about itself:
"...we are constantly questioning what we are doing and how we can do better. As a result we have started to make a list of improvements, new designs and social initiatives aimed at taking better care of the environment, the earth’s resources and each other."
Where's that vision thang?
Sounds good, right. But where IKEA wanders into trouble is the timing and strategic planning around the good stuff it has done. As a journalist, trying to get to speak to IKEA insiders is as hard as scheduling an interview with the CEO of Exxon; then when you get them, they tend to speak hesitantly and only of stuff they've already done. You don't need a PR person in the room - IKEA employees are naturally shy of trumpeting their vision. But that's not because they aren't doing things now - like they say about themselves, they are constantly questioning what they do. They just don't want to talk about it until it is done. Which would be okay if they then knew how to talk about it when they are done - in a timely fashion and with fanfare.
PS - Products for sustainability?Swedish reticence (and quite possibly a Scrooge-like approach to spending communications bucks) holds IKEA back time and time again. A great design initiative IKEA called PS (post scriptum) has been a stop-start process that has never gotten the recognition it deserves (PS products won't make it to the U.S. in 2009). I love that IKEA highlights designers or products. But how to showcase the ones stressing sustainability? There's nothing at stores - tagging, call-outs, whatever, to help consumers. Going to an IKEA store you might never know some Dvala bedding uses cotton from IKEA's 'Better Cotton Initiative'; has never had optical brightners added; or may have been produced by IKEA and WWF joint cleaner cotton farming projects. You could be making a good choice, but you can't make a better choice because IKEA is extremely hit or miss at pointing this stuff out to customers.
Cheap is only cheaper by the dozenOn the positive side, IKEA does seem to understand that to try to make cradle-to-grave products, services, or stores that truly fit the definition of sustainability - economically, environmentally, and socially - is a very difficult, and yes, never-ending task. So they never stop working. But on the negative side, IKEA's inherent quest for cheap only works if you sell massively. At some point in all of our understanding of how to live a sustainable life, we crash up against our society's continual consumption paradigm. And then, we pause. Once we've fulfilled our needs with (mostly) things we cherish, the idea of walking through IKEA's fanciful showrooms and subsequently picking up six doo-hickeys we don't need in order to get to the back warehouse where we pick up the one thing we do need is less attractive.
Perhaps that is ultimately IKEA's Achilles' heel. And Wal-Mart's too. As humans, we can't help but try to maximize our dollars by buying things we need cheaply. But where does it stop? The never-ending job needs to do a better job as showing us the best choices and teaching us when to just say no.
Part II, on Monday: From meatballs to solar lamps, highlights from the 'never-ending' list
Read more about IKEA at TreeHugger
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