The world’s largest furniture retailer is planning to go completely circular by 2030.
Few retailers can rival the global footprint of Swedish furniture giant Ikea. The company operates in 41 countries; its network of 433 stores comprises more than 100 million square feet of selling space for its catalog of approximately 12,000 SKUs. By some estimates, the company’s ready-to-assemble furniture at one point used as much as 1 percent of the world’s wood supply.
But if Ikea’s manufacturing operations dwarf the rest of the industry’s, so do many of its sustainability initiatives, including a push in the past decade to become energy independent by investing heavily in wind and solar power. More recently, the company matched its outsize impact with a similarly wide-reaching pledge: to use all recycled and Forest Stewardship Council–certified wood by the end of this year (at the close of 2019, Ikea reported that 97 percent of the wood that it used was defined as either FSC-certified or recycled wood, a figure that has grown steadily in recent years)—and to make all of its products with renewable materials by 2030. “Because we own our total value chain, we are able to work with the way that we source our materials and think carefully about what kind of materials we source,” says Dominique Fularski, who manages communications for Circular Ikea, the team leading the development of the company’s sustainability initiatives.
Circularity—an economic idea in which business is seen as a closed-loop process (where products are made, sold and brought back when they’re no longer needed) instead of a linear one (where things are made, sold and eventually disposed of)—has been a focus area for Ikea, driven in part by the company’s growing realization that even transitioning to sustainable materials doesn’t address the colossal number of its pieces that end up in landfills. “While we are very good at running a linear business, we have not been very good at bringing those products back as a resource for the future, and that has resulted in a tremendous amount of waste,” says Fularski. “In order to live in the world today and secure the world of tomorrow while still growing our business, we need to solve this problem in a different way.”
To make that goal a reality, Ikea has pursued four strategies: shifting to only renewable or recycled materials; giving customers ways to repair, reuse, resell or recycle their products; designing with circularity in mind, meaning products can be taken apart as easily as they can be put together; and participating in global advocacy initiatives and business partnerships to make circularity a possibility across the world. “Of course, this has implications for almost our entire business model,” says Fularski. “[It affects] everything we do—how we’ll develop the products, source materials, develop the supply chain—but it also opens up all kinds of new opportunities for us to have a relationship with our customers beyond a single purchase.”
Going circular means reevaluating—and, in some cases, reengineering—more than 10,000 products. In some cases, one material can easily be substituted for a better, more sustainable one; in others, Ikea’s materials team may be tapped to create a new material that meets the company’s current standards as a replacement. But some products pose serious challenges. Items like the company’s ceramic vases, for example, are not currently composed of sustainable materials, but there is not an obvious alternative. “We have to make some tough decisions about how we use innovation to solve this,” muses Fularski. “Or how do we, perhaps, phase the material out?”
A big component of this new focus will include selling refurbished secondhand pieces, offering an even more affordable price point to customers in addition to extending the life cycle of the company’s products. In markets like Poland, Sweden and China, Ikea has been testing taking back used sofas and bringing them to workrooms to be cleaned, repaired, reupholstered, and ultimately resold in stores. “We’ve realized that all our sofas, more or less, can be refurbished, and all of them end up looking really great in the end, like new,” says Fularski.
In addition to using recycled and sustainable materials, the design team at Ikea is now prioritizing easy disassembly—and, in turn, reassembly—with the hope that customers will be more inclined to take their Ikea pieces with them when they move rather than disposing of them. The circularity team has identified the wedge dowel, a screwlike wooden fitting with milled grooves that clicks into predrilled holes, as a key element of this strategy; by making hardware and tools unnecessary (goodbye, Allen wrenches!), and decreasing the time it takes to put products together or to take them apart, adopting the simple part paves the way for reuse. Easier disassembly will also make the refurbishment process more realistic and allow for having spare parts available. (So if, say, a table leg is broken or damaged, it could simply be swapped out.)
Ikea is also working to build relationships with waste management companies across the globe in hopes of making furniture recycling a more realistic option for customers. (In some countries, the company is currently unable to pilot its refurbishing program because secondhand items are classified as waste, which means it is illegal for the company to repossess them.) “It is important that Ikea enables a shift in mindset, of seeing waste as a resource,” says Fularski. “In the end, this will be a source for Ikea as part of the circular economy system. We will always sell new products, because that is core to our business—but we also believe we should make it as convenient as possible to live a sustainable life.”
Homepage image: Ikea’s Vimle sofa and the Knixhult pendant—which is handwoven from bamboo that would otherwise be discarded—both scored well on an internal assesment of circularity. | Courtesy of Ikea