IKEA – a pioneer with room to improve: Interview with Thomas Breu

A sustainability expert from the University of Bern assesses IKEA’s commitment as comprehensive but also identifies some critical points.

Interview: Yvonne von Hunnius, 10.11.2015

Thomas Breu

Geographer Thomas Breu has been involved in numerous research and implementation projects at national and international levels. He is currently Director of the Centre for Development and Environment at the University of Bern and also leads an international doctoral school in the field of global change and sustainable development.

To what extent do you see IKEA as a pioneer?

Thomas Breu: IKEA’s efforts, particularly in relation to the promotion of new environmentally-friendly technologies like energy-saving light bulbs, have a crucial and pioneering effect. IKEA can be seen as a “populiser”. The first generation of energy-saving light bulbs was launched around 15 years ago. This technology protects the environment but it is difficult to quantify its impact – specifically, due to so-called rebound effects, which reduce gains in efficiency through increased consumption in other areas.

Where does potential still exist regarding the environmental impacts?

It is essential to take into account that given the very considerable distances involved in its supply and distribution chains, IKEA’s mode of production consumes a huge amount of energy. The long distances travelled by the 13 million people who travel to the IKEA shops in the Swiss countryside every year must also be taken into account.

Can you identify any fundamentally critical points?

IKEA’s sustainability strategy adopts the central concerns of the recently adopted UN Agenda 2030 with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The contribution to the Action Agenda, which was also adopted by the UN in Addis Ababa in summer 2015, is not specified, however. A central focus of this financing agenda concerns corporate taxation, which is remains highly fragmentary and enables companies to avoid tax through legal measures. Like other multinational firms, IKEA uses legal means to optimise its tax payments in the countries where it operates. As a result, the global community and, in particular, developing countries that are very severely affected by global change are deprived of substantial tax income, which is urgently required to finance the implementation of global and national sustainability strategies.

Critics note that IKEA has made furniture into short-lived consumer goods ...

IKEA basically operates in a very difficult area between price and quality competitiveness. Through its focus on low prices, IKEA has a very stimulating impact on consumption. Compared to high-price goods, its products probably have a shorter lifecycle before being disposed of and thus contribute to the throw-away mentality. On the positive side, IKEA has enabled less affluent families in Europe and America to access furniture and fittings.

In your view, how ambitious are IKEA’s efforts for sustainability?

IKEA has actually set itself an ambitious and comprehensive sustainability strategy which clearly goes beyond a campaign motivated by mere image considerations. To a certain extent it is also exceptional and certainly achieves positive impacts on the current ecological footprint of its operations and in the use of its products. However, there is an almost inevitable fundamental conflict between IKEA’s overall business model and sustainable development in different areas. The measures it has adopted are suitable for improving the existing business model. A precondition for this, however, is the regular independent evaluation of the measures, particularly also in relation to the impacts of production in the countries of origin.

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Last modification 10.11.2015

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