Built to last

Ikea is transforming into a circular business by prolonging product and material life. The firm’s head of circular business development, Malin Nordin, explains what this involves

Ikea is on a mission – to become 100 per cent circular by 2030. The company wants to make it easier for customers to buy, care for and pass on products in circular ways, such as repairing, reusing, reselling and recycling them. To do this, the firm is committed to designing its products to be circular from the beginning, using renewable or recycled materials, and to developing circular capabilities in its supply chain.

Malin Nordin has a long-standing passion for sustainability. She has held her position since 2017, and her current focus is to define the circular business model strategy.

Prior to this, from 2011, Nordin worked with business and design development, spearheading the innovation around ‘flat pack’ sofa platform solutions, and a ‘Room for Living’ concept. Her Ikea career began in 2001, when she worked in areas of technical quality and engineering development, including leading a 2005-07 project to lower emissions in the supply chain.

Circular (C): What has been your career path in Ikea?

Malin Nordin (MN): I joined Ikea as an environmental coordinator nearly 20 years ago. At the time, I saw it as an opportunity to bring my training as a chemical scientist into the retail sector. Since then, my journey at the company has taken me through various sustainability projects, including leading the engineering and quality development team.

Eventually, I took on the role of business leader for our living room department. Over time, it became clear that this role was an opportunity to bring a new sustainable approach to this department by offering customers a ‘room for life’. This involved taking a deep dive into understanding customer needs and dreams for their home.

Over time, we realised that the key to enabling circularity in its truest sense was to make our products optimised for reassembly, to enable them to be turned into a new product

We began to see key themes emerging in how people viewed the things they owned, and how they relate to those objects throughout their lives, including their frustrations around managing clutter and wastefulness. This led to opportunities to start working on new, sustainable business development models and, eventually, resulted in my taking on the role of leading Ikea’s circular business development. Now, I’m helping to deliver our transformation journey to make Ikea circular by 2030.

C: What has been your highlight?

MN: I’m lucky that my working life has been a really interesting one. A highlight was my involvement in transforming Ikea’s approach to the living room, creating an updated space for today’s lifestyles.

On one project, we challenged the traditional sofa industry to create lighter, flatter and easier-to-carry pieces for the customer, lowering the cost for Ikea and, ultimately, the customer. This was very much a moment of pride. At the time, it was a good business decision and, in hindsight, I see how this laid the foundations of circularity at Ikea.

Also, our approach of getting to know customers through home visits has provided an incredible opportunity to meet many people throughout the world. This has been an invaluable way to understand our customers and, in turn, better understand myself, which has contributed to my personal and professional growth.

C: How has Ikea’s approach to circularity evolved over time?

MN: Ikea’s company culture is to be cost- and waste-conscious in everything we do, and we view the waste of resources as one of mankind’s greatest afflictions. As such, turning waste into resources has been an integral part of our development. We created our Billy bookcase from industry waste more than 40 years ago, at a time when scraps and dust from saw mills were only thrown away. Today, we treat the same material as a valuable resource for constructing different types of board, and the Billy bookcase has remained with us, and is still a fixture of many people’s homes.

Transforming Ikea into a circular business is one of our biggest ambitions and challenges. Our intention is to be circular in every regard, and we intend to achieve this by recognising and harnessing the four ‘circular loops’ of reuse, refurbishment, remanufacturing and recycling, across our entire business.

We approach the loops like a hierarchy, with product ‘reuse’ at the top as the most desirable; what can’t be reused is refurbished, and so on. Only when we have exhausted these possibilities do we send them for recycling. In essence, we see our products not just as things, but as ‘material banks’ for the future. This affects how we develop products and source materials; how we develop our supply chain and set up logistics; and how, and where, we meet our customers. It means using resources in a smart way, eliminating waste, and prolonging the life of products and materials, ensuring they last as long as our customers need them to.

C: What is your strategy for making Ikea a circular business?

MN: We are striving to deliver four key strategic goals: to use only renewable or recycled materials by 2030, and enable materials and products to last longer; to innovate and take the lead in this endeavour, while working with many stakeholders through advocacy, collaboration, and business partnerships; to explore and test new ways for customers to acquire, care for, and pass on products, impacting three billion people by 2030; and to design all our products using circular principles, allowing them to be repurposed, repaired, reused, resold or, as the last resort, recycled, generating as little waste as possible.

C: What steps have you taken to minimise waste?

MN: We know resources are limited, and we realise there must be better ways to use them – for example, by limiting what is sent to landfill and to minimise or upcycle waste.

For example, about 10 years ago, we started collecting packaging materials from customers to be used again. More recently, we’ve started upcycling packaging material into valuable products, such as our Skrutt desk protector.

Another substantial change was to remove all wooden pallets and replace them with paper ones. This has increased the volume of products in each shipment, and removes the need for return shipments of empty wooden pallets. In practice, this means 50,000 fewer trucks on Europe’s roads and a major reduction in CO2 emissions.

We’ve also worked with partners, such as the World Wide Fund for Nature, to investigate and follow waste streams around the world. We’ve visited landfill sites to get a better understanding of what types of materials end up where.

C: How is circularity being introduced at the product design stage?

MN: To make circularity a business reality by 2030, we are making sure our products are ‘circular by design’. Our products will always stay true to the five dimensions of democratic design: form, function, quality, sustainability and affordability. We’re adding ‘circularity’ to this, which means all products will be able to live multiple lives as they move through the four circular loops.

Since 2017, we’ve published a design guide that defines how circular design can achieve this, and how the design process is influenced. At the beginning, we were very much focused on establishing an understanding what circularity is and what business opportunity it represents for us. However, we quickly realised that some aspects were easier to develop than others, and some required a new way of thinking altogether. For example, one of our early circular design principles was to design for assembly and disassembly.

Over time, we realised that the key to enabling circularity in its truest sense was to make our products optimised for reassembly, to enable them to be turned into a new product. This principle is now shaping the way we design products for the future. It was a simple lesson that created a big change.

C: How are you taking customers on this journey?

MN: While we do our part in developing products based on democratic design, with a circular approach towards reuse and repair, customers also play a vital role in extending the lifespan of products. So, in some ways, our customers have always been part of the journey.

We’ve made some steps towards enabling repair, for example, by making spare parts available. We also know that, today, customers are already active in prolonging the life of their products through exchanges and second-hand sales. Our goal is to make this even easier by providing services, as well as developing prerequisites for care, repair and new ways to acquire – and pass on – products in convenient ways. This will involve a process of testing, fine-tuning and scaling up. Right now, for example, we’re trying out a ‘leasing model’ for our furniture in Sweden, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

We see that many of the needed changes – such as securing global feedstocks and ensuring sustainable home-furnishing choices are affordable for the many – hold the key to global industry change, further challenging concepts that sustainable development is a heavy cost driver.

We’ve realised that no-one consciously wants to be wasteful. So, by making it convenient to pass on products that are no longer wanted, we’re able to give everyone the chance to avoid waste and act in a circular way. At the same time, we acknowledge that not everyone has the time or ability to fix broken things, and Ikea can play a role in sharing knowledge about how to repair products.

We know we have to reach out to customers in simple and accessible ways, showing them that sustainable choices can be found at Ikea, and are affordable. The project to develop these communications is starting now.

C: How does Ikea balance profitability with circularity?

MN: Profitability is an important aspect for any company, and this is no different for Ikea. However, becoming a circular organisation is a long-term strategy, designed to mitigate some of the pressing long-term risks facing our business, such as resource scarcity. If we fail to tackle these problems, this will lead to higher costs for us in the future.

The investments we’re making in innovation and circular business development will be what secures our business growth in the future while, at the same time, contributing to the critically needed shift towards more sustainable business practices.

We see that many of the needed changes – such as securing global feedstocks and ensuring sustainable home-furnishing choices are affordable for the many – hold the key to global industry change, further challenging concepts that sustainable development is a heavy cost driver.

Milestones and targets

  • According to Ikea’s most recent sustainability report, the firm’s climate footprint decreased for the first time, by 4.3 per cent in absolute terms, in the financial year 2019
  • 80 per cent of its home-furnishing range was assessed against the Ikea circular design principles, for the same period
  • 59 per cent of polyester used in Ikea textile products is recycled, against a goal to make this 100 per cent by the end of 2020, for the same period
  • By 2030, all plastic used in its products will be based on renewable or recycled material; product lines, such as the Kungsbacka kitchen front, are already made from recycled wood and recycled PET bottles
  • Single-use plastic products have been removed from the global home-furnishing range as of January 2020, including items such as plates, cups and plastic straws
  • Since 1 September 2015, all cotton used in Ikea products comes from sustainable sources
  • Ikea will launch a plant-based alternative to its famous meatball dish at chain restaurants in summer 2020.

This interview first appeared in the May/June 2020 issue of Circular.

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