An implausible paradox or a match made in Swedish heaven?
by Georgia Winrow
The Covid-19 lockdown has undoubtedly changed the consumer landscape. Popping to the shops on a Saturday afternoon has been replaced with arranging an online shop (which you later find out will take 2 weeks to arrive), or diligently queueing outside the local supermarket. When some non-essential shops began to reopen a few weeks back in response to the easing of lockdown measures, the queues which we have since become accustomed to at the supermarket were replicated at stores such as Ikea, with customers turning up in their thousands desperate to get their consumerist fix that they had been deprived of for so long.
'Is it Ikea that we are obsessed with, or is this just our consumerist habits rebounding the first chance we get?'
Images of shoppers snaking around Ikea car parks with the signature blue and yellow trolleys were met with disbelief from some social media users; the general consensus was ‘why bother?’. The idea of queuing from 5:30 in the morning just to get your hands on a Poang chair seems delusional – but it does conjure up the question, is it Ikea that we are obsessed with, or is this just our consumerist habits rebounding the first chance we get? I would argue the latter.
Sustainability has been at the forefront of discourse surrounding the increase in uncontrollable consumerism in recent years, with terms such as fast-fashion and single-use becoming part of our everyday vernacular. Ikea, which has long been a household name and internationally renowned homeware brand, initiated their focus on sustainability in 1990 with the implementation of the first Environmental Policy. Following this, they became a recognised member of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) in 1993, and employed their first Forestry Manager in 1998. It looks like Ikea turned up a decade or so early to the environmentally-conscious party.
'Consumers can recognise the products whilst still maintaining their ‘Ikea virginity’ – now that’s clever marketing.'
Whilst beginning their sustainability journey, Ikea was simultaneously enforcing their distinguishing features that had been crafted decades before, which are now synonymous with the Swedish brand. To understand how deeply-rooted these concepts are, you only have to play a little game. What is the first thing you think of when I say the word Ikea? Swedish meatballs? The modern recipe was initially tested in 1985. Flat-pack furniture? That was introduced way back in 1956. The BILLY bookcase? That was born in 1979. The recognisability of Ikea produce continues to attract consumers even before they set foot in a store; consumers can recognise the products whilst still maintaining their ‘Ikea virginity’ – now that’s clever marketing.
The affordability (and therefore the longevity) of Ikea produce has been at the forefront of the business model since the opening of the first Ikea showroom in 1953. According to the Ikea Group website, ‘the showroom [was] born out of a price war with a main competitor of IKEA. As both companies lowered prices, quality was threatened. By opening the showroom, IKEA clearly [demonstrated] the function and quality of its low-price products.’ In a time when furniture was made to last, consumers were evidently suspicious of the lower prices that Ikea was offering, and rightly so. In a 2009 article for the Guardian, Helen Brown reminisced of her first Ikea purchases: ‘The legs came off the coffee table and two of the dining chairs. To be fair, the coffee table and chairs were each under a tenner. I was daft to think they'd last.’. Ikea are well aware of the direct correlation between price and quality, and subsequently the public perception, so much so that the current tag line for the Bjorksnas bedroom collection is ‘Bedroom furniture made to last practically forever’ (‘practically’ clearly incorporated there as a legal caveat).
'The longevity of Ikea furniture has similarly not been an issue for [students], just as long as it can last the whole of a 3 year degree, or a 1 year tenancy agreement, before being disposed of.'
Ikea’s key demographics have long been made up of students and 20-something renters. It doesn’t take much questioning to understand why the characteristic affordability of Ikea products has been attractive to this group for so long – student loans don’t stretch very far, and if you can kit out an entire room for less than £300, you’re going to do it! The longevity of Ikea furniture has similarly not been an issue for this group, just as long as it can last the whole of a 3 year degree, or a 1 year tenancy agreement, before being disposed of. This so-called ‘fast furniture’ movement has resulted in 22 million pieces of furniture being discarded every year in the UK, according to the North London Waste Authority.
Ikea’s already incredibly successful business model has only increased in popularity in recent years, perhaps with a little help from Scandi-inspired interiors trends such as Hygge (pronounced hoo-gah), the Nordic concept epitomised by mindful living spaces. In 2019, Ikea reported an 8% growth from the previous year, and an increase in online sales alone of 27%. There are currently 313 Ikea stores globally, and with 22 located in the UK.
In February 2019, Ikea opened its first ‘sustainability store’ in Greenwich. ‘Designed and built to the highest environmental standards,’ the store utilises sustainable technologies including rainwater harvesting, and is the first retail store in the UK to have been awarded an outstanding rating by BREEAM in a sustainability assessment. Marketed not only as a typical Ikea showroom and warehouse, the Greenwich store also doubles up as a community hub and even teaches customers how to ‘upcycle, repair and prolong product lives’. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting mixed messages. In the remainder of 2019, it’s reported that ‘2000 customers engaged on sustainability topics in the Learning Lab’; could we not have skipped the store part, and gone straight for the repairing aspect? This isn’t the first time that Ikea have launched a recycling campaign whilst continuing to drive consumers to their stores: in 2002 the IKEA Recovery Concept was started ‘to ensure that returned products are, where possible, repaired instead of being wasted’.
Current environmental policies and goals are in direct correlation to the times in which we live, and you only have to take a look at the UK Annual Summary 2019 to see how much of a prominence sustainable initiatives have. Ikea have pledged to progress from a linear business model to be ‘fully circular’ by 2030, using ‘less of the Earth’s resources and ultimately giving back more than we take,’ but what does this mean? The premise is that Ikea will design and manufacture all future products in a way which will make it easy for them to be reused as something new, or recycled by using renewable or recyclable materials. A promotional video explaining ‘Why the future of furniture is circular’, opens with the observation ‘we see a world of rapid climate change, dwindling resources and unsustainable consumption’. This completely fails to acknowledge the part that Ikea have played in this global catastrophe, instead choosing to ‘greenwash’ its now sustainability-conscious customers into believing their business is still relevant. The circular design principle does provide an explanation for the Greenwich Learning Lab, and is of course a hugely positive step, but we mustn’t shy away from the fact that Ikea still needs people to buy new furniture for their business to survive.
'The Ikea promise of sustainability is surely a smokescreen; utilised as a sales pitch to entice environmentally-aware millennials and Gen Z consumers.'
The Ikea promise of sustainability is surely a smokescreen; utilised as a sales pitch to entice environmentally-aware millennials and Gen Z consumers. The Country Retail Manager for Ikea in the UK and Ireland, Peter Jelkeby, is now also the Chief Sustainability Officer. However, Jelkeby’s job security is wholly dependent on consumers continuing to buy new Ikea goods; if customers were entirely dedicated to the sustainability model that Ikea supposedly promotes, he would be out of a job. The business aims of Ikea are unquestionably similar to any other multinational corporation: profitability comes first. The hugely attractive over-emphasis on sustainable practices is the shiny veneer hiding unattractive truths, much like the veneer covering of Ikea’s chipboard furniture. Consumers are thankfully seeing through the cracks, and a recent survey revealed that 73% of millennials would be willing to fork out a little more for more sustainable products .
'I have always considered Ikea to be tantamount to Marmite: you either love it or hate it.'
I have always considered Ikea to be tantamount to Marmite: you either love it or hate it. But it seems that even those among us that hate it are still returning, unable to resist the temptation of irresistible prices. The added bonus of sustainability practices makes for a guilt-free shopping experience for the average consumer too.
Now is certainly the time to be retraining our shopping habits; the only way to reduce waste and minimise our carbon footprint is to either repair, recycle our homeware or buy second-hand in the first place. If buying new really is the only option, our default should be to look to local, independent stores first. Yes – it may be more expensive, but if there’s one thing that my parents have taught me, it’s that sometimes it’s worth investing a little more in something that will last 15 years, rather than fall apart in two – it may even work out cheaper in the long-run! There are an increasing number of local initiatives aimed at repairing or reselling second-hand homeware amongst other items; before you begin browsing brand new products when your furniture suffers a minor breakage, see if you can get some help with repairs and learn some new skills in the process. With all this being said though, in the unlikely event that I was ever in desperate need of new furniture or homeware, I would be reassured upon returning to the big blue box knowing that the Ikea brand is implementing a forceful focus on their environmental impact.
Georgia Winrow is a born and bred Lancastrian. Due to begin her undergraduate studies in the Autumn term at the ripe old age of 23, Georgia intends on pursuing a creative career upon completing her History degree at Lancaster. An avid coffee drinker, magazine collector and interiors lover, give her a follow at @georgiawinrow to see what she gets up to.