Karen Pflug is the chief sustainability officer at Ingka Group, Ikea’s largest retail franchisee with 379 stores worldwide. As part of her appointment in 2021, she is responsible for helping the group transition to a circular business by the end of this decade, while also demonstrating that sustainable living can be affordable and accessible to all. From working with municipalities and policy makers to educating shoppers and incorporating circularity into store design, she shares with Forbes more about the group’s overall mission to integrate sustainability across every aspect of its business.
Taking Concrete Steps For A Circular Transition
Ikea, along with Ingka Group, has a clear objective: go from a linear to a circular business, both from a design and development as well as a services perspective. An ambition many would at first consider to be illusory coming from one of the biggest wood consumers in the world. However, the reality is that the brand has engaged in very concrete actions over the past few years, which are accelerating given its goals: reduce greenhouse gas emissions from its value chain by at least 50% in 2030 compared to 2016 and at least 90% by 2050. It aims to become fully circular by 2030 and for its last-mile delivery services to reach net zero by 2025.
How exactly is Ikea working towards these goals? From a design and production perspective, the business is reviewing its energy and material sourcing to include recycled or renewable materials in every product that is designed, as well as making them easy to be reused, refurbished or recycled. Many concrete examples can be found on its website or annual report, such as the switch to a new bio-based glue, allowing to reduce the climate footprint of glues by 30% by 2030. Most of the CO2 emissions caused by Ikea can be attributed to material use, which is why it represents a key source of review and improvements.
Ingka Group, through its store operations, is also taking steps to adopt circular practices and empower consumers to do the same. Every year it conducts a global survey, the People & Planet Consumer Insights & Trends study, together with GlobeScan, to learn more about how individuals think, feel and act in relations to people and the planet. One of the insights stemming from this research is that consumers expect businesses to take action when it comes to sustainability. This echoes with Ingka Group’s mission to work with municipalities and governments to push for legislation and initiatives that can tackle some of the barriers to sustainable living.
In the Netherlands, the retailer worked with local authorities and suppliers to take back over a million mattresses, saving them from going to landfills, breaking them down and reusing some of their parts. “To increase climate action, we as businesses must continue to tackle emissions across our operations and enable our customers to do the same, whilst pushing for legislation and incentives from governments around the world,” shares Pflug.
Getting the messaging right: great value can become sustainable
A challenge for Ikea remains to change consumers’ attitudes and behavior when it comes to affordable products and the perception of Ikea being a source of disposable, low-priced products. Ikea’s entire leitmotif is making everyday products accessible, and no longer doing so at the cost of the planet. “We need to bust the myth that you can’t have great value with sustainability,” says Pflug. Sustainable living does not have to equate with high-end, expensive furniture. In its quest to become a circular business by 2030, Ikea is making its products last longer: in addition to being designed to be durable, they are also made to be disassembled easily so people can take their furniture with them to their next home.
Stores are a big part of this objective of changing mindsets and educating consumers, especially as the study reveals that 36% of consumers would take more action if they had more information and advice on what to do. “We need to use stores to better tell our stories and get our messaging in front of shoppers,” admits Pflug. As shared above, there are indeed many stories that ought to be shared about how Ingka Group and Ikea are taking concrete, actionable steps to make sustainability an inherent part of their activities. It is gaining more traction in stores: sustainable living shops and circular shops are present in 300 locations, allowing shoppers to purchase items that empower them to live more sustainable lives as well as buy pre-owned furniture. Ikea’s buyback & resell service is becoming more and more popular, with 105,000 customers using the service in 2022, giving 230,000 items a second life, a 50% increase vs. the previous year.
As one of the world’s largest retailers, Ingka Group – together with Ikea – is taking responsibility for its carbon emissions and accelerating its transition to a more people and planet-conscious business. Educating consumers by providing tips, tools and products that fight food waste or allow energy savings is becoming an inherent part of the retailer’s role, especially as it seeks to demonstrate tangibly the deep belief that sustainable living can be affordable. Providing products and solutions that help consumers both save money and live more sustainably is no small task, but undoubtedly seems like one Ikea is passionately working towards to. So much so that Karen Pflug thinks her role might one day become unnecessary: “the ideal is that sustainability is so well integrated into the business that we don’t need this role.”