Ikea to launch rental flat-packs, but how green is the Swedish furniture giant?

Ikea will start renting and recycling furniture worldwide as part of an eco-friendly drive to address concerns its affordable, flat-pack business model leads to overconsumption and waste.

Ikea to launch rental flat-packs, but how green is the Swedish furniture giant?
File photo: Vegard Wivestad Grøtt / NTB scanpix / TT

Sceptics see the Swedish giant's initiative as a mere marketing ploy, while supporters see a genuine sea change. Either way, Ikea says it plans to become a circular business by 2030.

It has already begun repairing and re-packaging products in every store that have been damaged in transit, as well as allowing customers to return products — including furniture — for resale or donation to charities.

Ingka Group, which operates 367 Ikea stores worldwide, earlier this year launched a pilot leasing furniture in four countries, a project it now plans to expand to all of its 30 markets.

But renting a kitchen? The idea is actually not that absurd, said Cecilia Cassinger, a professor of strategic communication at Sweden's Lund University.

“Ikea's products can be used and reused over a long period of time, thus reducing waste,” she said.

But Ikea's 2030 goal could be difficult to attain, given its current carbon footprint.

“The main challenges in making a shift to a circular economy are related to sustainable logistics (transport, storage, product assembly), services (repair, maintenance), and waste management,” Cassinger said.

The company aims to reduce its overall climate impact by 70 percent on average per product by 2030.

“The biggest opportunity for reducing the Ikea greenhouse gas footprint comes in raw materials and the life of products in the homes of Ikea customers,” the company said in a 2018 sustainability report.

According to another report issued earlier this year, Ikea's raw materials represented more than a third of its greenhouse gas emissions, at 36.4 percent.

Transporting goods and customers' transportation to stores — which are usually located outside city centres — meanwhile accounted for 19.4 percent of emissions.

Environmentalists, such as Greenpeace Nordic, say Ikea's new initiatives are a good first step but say the company still has a long way to go before it can be considered environmentally friendly.

“Ikea has the potential to become a fully circular business… but there are still major loopholes in terms of their ecological footprint that the new model does not provide a solution for.”

For example, its production units are located far from its main markets, requiring long journeys that pollute the environment.

Most Ikea products manufactured by its subsidiary Ikea Industry are made in Poland, Russia, Slovakia and Sweden, but its biggest sales markets are Germany (15 percent), the United States (14 percent) and France (eight percent), according to 2017 figures.

Greenpeace is also critical of Ikea's large-scale use of natural resources like palm oil and wood, as well as plastic.

Ikea has vowed to eliminate single-use plastics by 2020 and help suppliers convert their plants to be climate-positive.

“Do we need to own everything we have at home?” said Lund University's Cassinger, stressing that the consumer also has a responsibility to make green choices.

Ikea's 2030 goal can only be reached if the company manages to extend the lifetime of its products, she said.

And that's a demand increasingly being made by consumers, said Ingka Group's chief sustainability officer Pia Heidenmark Cook.

“We have done a lot of research, talking to people in 10 markets and we have seen that consumer behaviour and consumer expectations are changing,” in particular regarding the environment.

Experts note however that Ikea's products, with their typically low second-hand value, hardly conform to the new trend of “consuming less but better”.

Ikea practically invented the throwaway culture by revolutionising furniture as trendy, affordable and disposable items.

So how does it adapt to changing consumer trends, while still running a profitable business?

Ultimately, Cassinger called Ikea's business model into question.

“Sharing and leasing may be ways of becoming more sustainable,” she said.

“But another option could be to scale down production and focus on fewer product categories of higher quality and price that may be used for a longer period of time and that can easily be repaired and maintained by Ikea consumer services, as opposed to being replaced by a new product.”

READ ALSO: Zlatan reveals his love for Ikea: he's furnished his LA mansion with it

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Green Party leader: ‘Right-wing parties want to push us out of parliament’

Per Bolund, joint leader of Sweden's Green party, spoke for thirteen and a half minutes at Almedalen before he mentioned the environment, climate, or fossil fuels, in a speech that began by dwelling on healthcare, women's rights, and welfare, before returning to the party's core issue.

Green Party leader: 'Right-wing parties want to push us out of parliament'

After an introduction by his joint leader Märta Stenevi, Bolund declared that his party was going into the election campaign on a promise “to further strengthen welfare, with more staff and better working conditions in healthcare, and school without profit-making, where the money goes to the pupils and not to dividends for shareholders”. 

Only then did he mention the party’s efforts when in government to “build the world’s first fossil-free welfare state”. 

“We know that if we want welfare to work in the future, we must have an answer to our time’s biggest crisis: the threat to the environment and the climate,” he said.

“We know that there is no welfare on a dead planet. We need to take our society into a new time, where we end our dependency on oil, meet the threat to the climate, and build a better welfare state within nature’s boundaries, what we call a new, green folkhem [people’s home].” 

He presented green policies as something that makes cities more liveable, with the new sommargågator — streets pedestrianised in the summer — showing how much more pleasant a life less dependent on cars might be.  

He then said his party wanted Sweden to invest 100 billion kronor a year on speeding up the green transition, to make Sweden fossil fuel-free by 2030. 

“We talk about the climate threat because it’s humanity’s biggest challenge, our biggest crisis,” he said. “And because we don’t have much time.” 

In the second half of his speech, however, Bolund used more traditional green party rhetoric, accusing the other political parties in Sweden of always putting off necessary green measures, because they do not seem urgent now, like a middle-aged person forgetting to exercise. 

“We know that we need to cut emissions radically if we are even going to have a chance of meeting our climate goal, but for all the other parties there’s always a reason to delay,” he said. 

“We are now seeing the curtain go up on the backlash in climate politics in Sweden. All the parties have now chosen to slash the biofuels blending mandate which means that we reduce emissions from petrol and diesel step for step, so you automatically fill your tank in a greener way. Just the government’s decision to pause the  reduction mandate will increase emissions by a million tonnes next year.” 

The right-wing parties, he warned, were also in this election running a relentless campaign against the green party. 

“The rightwing parties seem to have given up trying to win the election on their own policies,” he said. “Trying to systematically push out of parliament seems to be their way of trying to take power. And they don’t seem above any means. Slander campaigns, lies, and false information have become every day in Swedish right-wing politics.” 

He ended the speech with an upbeat note. 

“A better, more sustainable world is possible. There is a future to long for. If you give us a chance then that future is much closer than you think!”

Read the speech here in Swedish and here in (Google Translated) English.