Ikea is leading the way in making cheap furniture more sustainable – other retailers should follow suit



Last October, the self-assembly furniture giant Ikea announced that it will roll out a new sell-back scheme in order to improve its green credentials and reduce the amount of cheap furniture that ends up in landfill.

Under the new scheme – which is planned to be rolled out in 27 countries including the UK and Canada once local Covid restrictions allow – customers can return gently used Ikea furniture to their local store and receive a fraction of the purchase price back in the form of a gift card. These second-hand items will then be offered for resale at a reduced price. Unfortunately, Ikea made the decision to not offer the returns scheme in the US for the time being, but it is hoped that this will change if the initiative is a success abroad.

While commentators have generally been positive the announcement, there are some who feel that as the world’s largest furniture seller, Ikea could be doing more to combat the prevalence of our throwaway culture. For instance, Lucie Middlemiss, a co-director of the Sustainability Research Institute at the University of Leeds told The Guardian newspaper that while Ikea’s new initiative is a welcome one, the company could do a lot more to improve the sustainability of its business. For instance, Ms Middlemiss feels that Ikea could make a bigger impact by offering a repairs service, products to update the look of older, more worn-out pieces, as well as spare parts to assist DIY fixes.

All things considered, Ikea is already a relatively green business, especially in an industry that historically has been sustainability averse. The company announced that in 2020, it met its goal of sourcing at least 98% of the wood it uses to create its products from sustainable sources, such as Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified forests or recycled wood. In addition, over the next 10 years, the business hopes to establish a fully circular and sustainable business model by reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, reusing and recycling resources in order to send zero waste to landfill, and backing sustainable water and forest initiatives around the world.

But Ms Middlemiss is correct in saying that the buy-back initiative on its own, is probably not enough. For a start, is only likely to appeal to a narrow band of people who are happy to trade in one Ikea product for another, and have a car with which they can transport their previously assembled furniture back to their local store; as a result, it excludes a large percentage of the Ikea consumer-base who rent in densely populated cities and therefore do not have a car. In addition, due the common perception that Ikea offers cheap and not very durable products, how inclined will people actually be to go through the hassle of returning an old item for a fraction of its original price, if they do not feel invested in the product in the first place?

Some innovative businesses are approaching the problem from a different angle. With the decline of homeownership among Millennials, companies like California-based Fernish, are recognising that a generation of renters are not going to be as motivated to spend large sums of money on furniture that they may need to move frequently, and are instead allowing customers to rent out furniture for a monthly fee.

While furniture rental initiatives and buy-back schemes can help improve our throwaway attitude when it comes to cheap furniture, the problem remains that thanks to globalisation, pretty much all the furniture that is commercially available is manufactured abroad, where labour and materials are cheaper. But cheapness comes with an environmental price tag in the form of unsustainable logging practices, excessive packaging, as well as the massive carbon footprint left by the need to ship products halfway around the world. To complicate matters, the ‘Made In’ or ‘Assembled In’ label provides a misleading picture of the complex global supply chain that allows cheap furniture to be produced in the first place.

Therefore, while it is easy to say that if we care about the environment and the well-being of future generations, then we should ‘invest’ in sustainably sourced and locally made furniture, consumer choice alone is not going to change the mechanics of an entrenched global industry. Instead, what is needed is for influential companies like Ikea to take the lead and encourage its competitors to adopt more transparent and sustainable business and manufacturing practices.

For instance, furniture companies could make decisions – like Ikea has done – to only source wood from sustainable sources, as well as fund local initiatives in developing countries to encourage better resource management. While such choices have historically been side-lined in favour of increasing profit margins, the shift in consumer priorities over the past 20 years has shown that companies can actually make money by opting for more eco-conscious alternatives.

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