February 10, 2014
The Risk-Monger lives about one kilometre from one of those monster yellow and blue box warehouses famous for tempting large populations with the pleasures of cheap, disposable furniture. While he understands and appreciates the great marketing and finance expertise (not to mention controlling a more than efficient supply chain), he has issues with the IKEA PR machine that pretends that the behemoth legitimately commits to sustainability.
What pushed me to take aim at the one place in Belgium where I could get a breakfast for one euro? Recently I visited my neighbourhood IKEA as I had decided to change the light fixture in my bathroom (after 45 years, the present one was giving me problems). I found a cleverly designed LED fixture for €39.99. I was reassured by the publicity that said it was a green, low-energy consumption product (I could even pay for it with the famous Belgian “eco-cheques” introduced to get me to consume more, but in an “environmentally reassuring” way).
The problem with this fixture (to be attached to the wall) was that it was, itself, disposable. When I looked at the bulb, it was not a standard type that could be replaced. Hardly – this LED “bulb” was screwed in with a special hold that screamed: “Don’t change me; just throw the whole thing away in a couple years!” The instruction manual even admitted that the bulb was not to be replaced. How could this possibly merit an eco-reduction that would get me to feel good about my consumption?
Oh sure, the bulb is guaranteed to last 10,000 hours “under normal circumstances” (assuming no power surges or fluctuations, no frequently turning lights on and off …), but since I am told it uses so little energy, most of us will not worry so much if it is just left on. So instead of 45 years for a fixture, I will be forced to buy a new one in three to four years tops (how much CO2 and resources go into making and recycling light fixtures compared to using a couple more light bulbs?). I am not against LED lighting (actually the technology is quite interesting), but rather I feel that shops like IKEA need to accept that, although it is less profitable, it is far more sustainable to be selling bulbs rather than disposable fixtures.
This is the twisted logic of IKEA’s “Sweden = environmental puritan” philosophy. We are Swedish and we love the environment so you can trust us (TetraPak tries the same high-octane sustainability self-legitimisation and they too are anything but!). But the more I examine IKEA’s sustainability claims, the more irritated I become (almost as much as that poor sod trying to stuff his new disposable kitchen into his Toyota Prius). So after I put back the disposable “green” light fixture, I started to wander around the aisles holding a microscope to IKEA’s green PR hypocrisy.
They talk about how they are reducing energy and promoting the use of renewables, and then I find the cheap TV section, with dozens of flat-screen TVs running, blasting enough heat to kick in the air conditioning (in January!). I suppose, at this price, I could pick up an extra TV to warm my kitchen. OK, I don’t really need one, but why not ?
How to over-report on your under-sustainability (in 98 pages)
IKEA, if anything, is a contradiction through and through. Their 2012 Sustainability Report played up IKEA’s commitment to sustainable wood and cotton, but the numbers are pathetic – only 22.6% of the wood they use is certified and as for their use of cotton, only 34% comes from “preferred cotton” sources (although kudos that they did not try to use the “organic” cotton lie so frequently touted in other corporate brand PR). When you look at most of the wood products IKEA has on offer, it is often particle board (laminated compressed wood and chemical resins) – hardly recyclable or sustainable, but rather inexpensive. It is shameful that WWF does not criticise them at all (… OK, the Risk-Monger has already established how NGOs like WWF can be bought). Instead key directors from WWF and Greenpeace endorsed the report (p 13).
One of the most astonishing statements from IKEA’s 2012 sustainability report is that in the next year, they intend to start measuring the progress on the sustainability of their products (p 16). In other words, as far as CSR is concerned, until now, they have not tried to measure the real impact – no GRI, no benchmarks to show they have actually made progress … just a lot of PR. I wonder how disposable light fixtures will fare in such a measurement, were it ever to be performed to accepted CSR reporting standards. They have an internal sustainability scorecard (p 40) that they are developing for some of their products. With a top score of 400, the average sustainability ranking of the products they have chosen to test is 89/400 … and that is internal, mind you! If your internal report card gave you a grade of 22%, would you do a 98 page sustainability report to stroke your ego? Seriously, has anybody else read this nonsense? Clearly Greenpeace and WWF did not before endorsing it. That no CSR groups have ever held IKEA to the same sustainability standards as other retailers is inexplicable.
What I find amusing is that towards the end of their 2012 Sustainability Report (p 93), they declare that they used the GRI as a “guide when compiling this report” … so I guess that is OK then.
A self-interested charity?
The best attest to this sustainability contradiction is that IKEA is not even a company. Founded by one of Europe’s richest men, Ingvar Kamprad, IKEA has a rather shady structure. In order to avoid paying taxes and giving its due back to society, IKEA formed itself into a non-profit based in the Netherlands (Europe’s friendliest country for non-profit frauds). Actually, truth be told, it is a complex web of three foundations and other murky organisations, also in Luxembourg and Liechtenstein. So rather than paying taxes (or even having to report profits) to support the local infrastructures IKEA so depends on (most big box locations are outside of urban areas needing special roads and services), they scavenge off of the state, pay low wages and knock small businesses out of the market. Screw corporate responsibility!
Sounds despicable until IKEA’s PR machine kicks in and tries to paint blue and yellow as the colours of charity. As a non-profit, they give a nominal amount to groups like UNICEF and other, mostly UN, agencies or for projects managed by WWF and then fold the rest (all unreported) into building a bigger personal and commercial empire. I sometimes wonder how UNICEF or WWF feel about receiving this “blood money”.
There is a limit on how high one’s PR can float above reality before the contradictions bring it down. For the Risk-Monger, it was the €40 disposable light fixture bathed in green colours. Others may find LED cool so they don’t think about the waste. I know many are attracted to their “paper over plastic” approach, choosing to ignore the immense amount of paper wasted in their famous but senseless flat-packaging because they have fooled themselves into thinking that paper can be recycled infinitely without ensuing environmental costs (like energy use or wastewater?). None of us seem to consider their societal irresponsibility as a reason not to shop there (so perhaps unashamed tax dodging is a good corporate strategy).
The Gauntlet of Temptation
Don’t get me wrong – if you really need to buy something for the house, and you don’t like throwing money away, IKEA is the place to go. But once you enter, you are subjected to their consumeristic strategy, which I find, quite bluntly, very offensive. Before getting to the light fixture section, I was made to walk the “Gauntlet of Temptation”, repeatedly given ‘in situ’ images to attract me into buying items I don’t need and had never considered before entering their emporium. “Hmmm, after seeing it so many times today, maybe I should get those LED lights I could stick onto the back of my new flat-screen TV. I don’t need them, but now I want them!” From a marketing strategy, these tricks are brilliant; from an ethical perspective, less so.
So why do so many love IKEA and choose not to look at the obvious? Consumerism is about feeling good about yourself. We generally consume out of boredom, to amuse ourselves and to reinforce a self-esteem that is otherwise battered by the “You Suck! if you don’t buy my product” marketing strategy. We are rarely critical (most often completely blind) about totally unsustainable products or activities that we like (driving cars, eating meat, drinking Nespresso …) choosing to attack things we don’t like and feel we can live without (chemicals, banks, energy companies, Walmart…).
We like the cheap chic at IKEA, so we want to believe that they are sustainable. We let them pretend in their reports, and we pretend to read them. But the bottom line is that most everything about IKEA – from its disposable furniture mentality to its CSR non-reporting practices, waste of resources and tax-dodging mindset – all of this totally reeks of unsustainability. If we were authentic in our assessment, we would campaign to boycott them (… but then I’d have no TV in my kitchen).
The Risk-Monger would like to apologise for the gap in his blogs. January was a tough month with exams and a few personal projects. A reminder for those interested in smaller risk-bits, I comment fairly regularly on the outrageous fact-free claims found on social media. You can follow more satire in small doses at https://www.facebook.com/riskmonger.