EXECUTIVE INSIGHT: Homewares and an Ambitious Sustainability Agenda
12 March 2014 at 8:48 am
From soft toy drives to programs lighting refugee tents, today’s corporate sustainability programs have it all.
Pro Bono Australia’s CSR journalist, Nadia Boyce, speaks with IKEA’s National Sustainability Manager Richard Wilson about what the company’s current sustainability strategy means for the Swedish furniture giant and the challenges it brings.
The strategy, called People and Planet, is focused on encouraging a sustainable life at home and covers a range of programs from corporate volunteering and workplace giving to environmentally-friendly products and partnerships with children’s hospice Bear Cottage, Heartkids, UNHCR and UNICEF.
Two themes unite the organisation’s programs – children and the homeless. According to Richard Wilson, the strategy “is really going to stretch IKEA”.
“It’s bold,” he says.
With an ambitious agenda that is both multi-faceted and proactive, Wilson is no doubt conscious of the challenges that lay ahead.
Using Core Business for Good
New movements could be the source of inspiration for IKEA to raise the stakes.
The company is increasingly drawing on its expertise to develop products to benefit society and Wilson says he is optimistic about the possibilities offered by the Creating Shared Value movement, which emphasises generating profit by addressing social or environmental issues through corporate strategy.
“CSR has been the norm, it has been for a while. Some do it really, really well,” Wilson says.
“If we can create value for the community as well, that’s great.”
IKEA is making LED lightbulbs part of its core business – offering an opportunity for both environmental benefit and revenue.
“We think, what’s the benefit, and how can we do that?” Wilson says. “The light bulbs are a great blend of commerciality and purpose.”
The global initiative will result in the equivalent of one British pound donated to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) for every LED lightbulb sold. The funds will help improve access to lighting, renewable energy and primary education in UNHCR camps across Asia, Africa and the Middle East – improving communities for the children and families who live there.
Also in partnership with UNHCR, IKEA is piloting a flat-pack shelter in the developing world.
More than 600-800 of the shelters, which require no tools to assemble, have been distributed in Africa to provide relief to those in refugee camps. The UNHCR will seek feedback from refugees before commissioning wider-scale production.
Wilson says these kinds of initiatives allow IKEA to put its expertise to good use.
“It’s what we should be doing,” he says. “The benefits far outweigh those coming from a CSR perspective.”
According to Wilson, putting figures to what is achieved by sustainability programs is not the point.
“It’s not about the numbers,” he says, “how many trees, how many litres of water saved. When you’re talking about the social, that human element, it’s hard.”
On top of being socially proactive, as a furniture manufacturer, IKEA must take into account its own operational footprint, particularly in terms of sustainable supply chains and manufacturing.
Two of IKEA’s primary materials, wood and cotton, are energy-intensive to produce and harvested from finite natural resources.
The company is partnering with NGOs such as the WWF and with farmers on the ground, a move which Wilson says has revealed environmental and social issues to be increasingly intertwined.
“In some cases they are certainly linked hand-in-hand. Now that we’re working with farmers we see a big social emphasis,” he says.
According to WIlson, it remains difficult to set parameters where the organisation can realistically make a difference in a world where there is increasing need, both socially and environmentally.
“It’s hard to draw that line,” he says. “Where do you go and how far do you go? IKEA’s not of the nature to walk away when it’s too hard.”
Wilson says that where corporations can’t help, they could encourage those who can.
"We try and influence,” he says. “Because we work with some of the NGOs – we try and sense, ‘what is that fine line?’
“It’s potentially lobbying governments as well.”
As the Australian arm of what is a multinational corporation, IKEA’s Australian sustainability team must also align with global charity partners and programs.
Wilson says the company addresses the issue of diversity in needs from country to country.
“We do have a lot of freedom at national level,” he says.
“[In national terms] we look at where we can have the biggest impact.
“There are many unique circumstances in Australia like natural disasters – whether floods or fires. That is something where we work independently [of IKEA global]. It goes right down to store level.”
During the Queensland floods of 2011, IKEA stores loaded up trucks with furniture and set up a base in a community hall to assist locals.
“This is where we can use our home furnishing expertise,” Wilson says. He flags it as an example of a “full spectrum” focus on sustainability – from the very top of the organisation right down to assistance at a grassroots level.
He says IKEA falls under the same umbrella as many other Australian corporates – working successfully in the sustainably space but not necessarily being vocal about it.
“One of our key philosophies is humbleness … sometimes IKEA doesn’t talk about what it does, we just do it,” he says.
“I think it’s probably a bit like that across Australia.
"Perhaps we don’t talk about it enough…some [corporates] perhaps could talk about it a bit more. It’s about getting those voices out there.”
Of those doing the best work in the space, “it’s often those not shouting the loudest,” Wilson says.
“In the finance sector, they’re doing it in a great way, the way they invest,” he says.
“In the food sector, they’re doing a great job engaging small business from the ground up.”
Addressing sustainability issues, Wilson says, will only increase in importance.
In his view, as a consumer-facing business, “you are definitely under more scrutiny”.
“There is demand from the ethical consumer,” he says.
There can be little doubt that Wilson believes there is still work to be done.
“I’m the one person in Australia with sustainability in their titles out of 1800 coworkers.” he says. “But it’s certainly not in isolation. When sustainability came along, it was a name for something we had been doing.
“We’re far from having this worked out. In the sustainability profession, they often joke that you want to make yourself redundant.
“We’re all learning. When you’re trying something new, there’s always that element of failure.”
On the topic of what is key to a successful sustainability agenda, Wilson is emphatic.
“Support from the top,” he says. “You also have to really understand the problem I think, and not put your own agenda in front.
“Take time to really understand what you’re trying to achieve. When you have clarity around what success looks like, it’s a lot easier.
“This country is founded on mateship. In my mind it is about those partnerships.
“It’s finding the right ones. I think that’s the hard part.”