Guide to IKEA’s Sustainable Design Strategy (Part 1)

Design is implemented throughout numerous levels within an organization, starting from its strategic planning to the production process and final delivery of the product or service to the consumer. Strategic design and good design management for the organization are essential to achieve both innovation and enterprise business targets, which subsequently lead to a greater ability to compete in the market .

Tomorrow’s business must innovate or deteriorate. They must design or die! .” (Janice Kirkpatrick, designer, at the launch of Design in Business Week, 1998)

As a leading manufacturer and seller of furniture and home-related accessories, IKEA concentrates all its resources on delivering to its consumers innovative products at the lowest prices possible. While creativity at a low price requires more challenging design thinking, the achievement of this balancing act has put IKEA among the world’s leading companies in the furniture industry.

While IKEA’s business is growing, its leaders have taken responsibility for both people and planet and applied sustainability goals to its growth. In his book, Sustainability Principles and Practice, Robertson describes sustainability as recognizing the dynamic and cyclical nature around us, including all the visible and invisible elements on Earth. It is about being educated and involved in the changing world and the determinations of what most needs to be done to preserve the planet’s resources and restore what is broken. Then, Robertson defines the word “sustainability” as referring “to systems and processes that are able to operate and persist in their own over long periods of time.”

IKEA has established a sustainability strategy called “People and Planet Positive”. This strategy aims to help make people’s homes more sustainable and provide a better life for people and their community. This IKEA sustainability strategy includes resources and energy independence plans, which limit the consumption of the planet’s resources, replace them with recycled and renewable materials, and reduce waste.

IKEA first store
The first IKEA store, located in Älmhult in Sweden.

Implementing IKEA’s People and Planet Positive strategy requires sustainability-driven design and innovative processes. A linkage between strategic design and IKEA’s sustainability plan must be made to produce a sustainable product for a low price that reaches the end consumer through environmentally friendly stores and transportation facilities. In order to achieve this linkage, IKEA initiated “Democratic Design.” This design strategy is based on a number of factors at the intersection of delivering a product that meets consumer expectations of quality and functionality at a low price on one side and the sustainability strategy on another. The Democratic Design strategy will be covered in more detail later in this report.

The role of design is involved in different stages throughout IKEA’s sustainability strategy, starting from the selection of raw materials and ending with delivery of the final product to the customer shopping cart at its stores around the world. This report aims to emphasize the role of design in each of these different phases of the sustainability plan and illustrate how the company is applying holistic design strategic planning and production processes to achieve its sustainability strategy, innovative product designs, and market-leading business results.

How IKEA was born

In the 1920s, IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad started his professional life early by selling matches at the age of 5, and by the age of 7, he began to buy bulk matches in Stockholm and resell them individually to make a good profit. Then he expanded his business to sell other products, such as flower seeds, greeting cards, pencils, and other products.

In 1943, Ingvar Kamprad established IKEA, which originally sold pens, wallets, picture frames, table runners, jewelry, and nylon stockings at low prices. The name IKEA is an acronym for the founder’s name, Ingvar Kamprad (IK), the farm where he grew up, Elmtaryd (E), and his hometown, Agunnaryd (A).

IKEA stores
IKEA stores around the world highlighted with blue color.

The idea of self-assembly furniture came late in 1956 when one of his employees removed the legs of a LÖVET table to fit it into a car without damaging it. This discovery of flat packs became one of IKEA’s competitive advantages and an essential part of IKEA’s design and sustainability strategies, which will be described later in this report.

In 2007, IKEA established 300 stores in 35 countries with a total visitor count of 583 million, a credit to its products’ low price and good design. In 2008, its general sales reached €21.2 billion, compared to €4.4 billion in 1994.

Design Culture at IKEA

While the design and innovation inside IKEA is affected by its sustainability strategy, it is also greatly influenced by the organizational culture and management practices inside IKEA. The company environment reflects a focus on people and creativity, which is actually Kamprad’s personal philosophy. The working environment within the company supports this idea, as do its top managers. While other companies pay lavish salaries and provide luxury first-class flights and expensive hotels for this level of management, IKEA managers do not fly first-class and are expected to share hotel rooms.

IKEA design process
The IKEA design process for the FJÄLLBERGET chair

While this sounds odd, this environment gives more focus to the main objective of the company, which is to make people’s lives better and democratize design. The management style inside the company is informal, and its offices support this idea, as most of them are designed with open plans.

Ingvar Kamprad described the position of co-workers at IKEA when he said, “The intelligence of people on the ground becomes critical to strategy, not top-down command.

IKEA and Sustainable Design

The IKEA Group Sustainability Strategy for 2020 report introduces how the world is changing rapidly around us, and the threat of global warming and climate change appears more obvious than before. The global population was 1.65 billion at the beginning of the 20th century, which is now similar to the current population of both China and India. This increasing mass of people has consumed the planet’s resources without restrictions or constraints.

Currently, the global society is consuming resources at the rate of 1.5 planets similar to Earth, and global carbon emissions continue to rise, pushing worldwide temperatures up four degrees Celsius by the end of the century. This increase in global temperature will affect the sea level, agriculture, and other environmental phenomena.

“Our vision is to create a better everyday life for the many people,” the IKEA Group Sustainable Report stated.

IKEA believes that working for the good of the environment through sustainability is another facet of achieving the broader good for all people and is compatible with its vision to provide a quality product at a low price that is affordable for people with ordinary incomes and young consumers. As Mikael Ohlsson, IKEA president and chief executive officer, implied in the IKEA Group Sustainable Report 2012, IKEA’s stately new “People and Planet Positive” initiative aims to inspire consumers to live in more sustainable homes.

IKEA sustainable design
IKEA sustainable design

The United States is another example of the need to apply sustainability to IKEA’s chain supply processes. One IKEA goal was to reduce store waste by 90 percent. Most other manufacturers have tried to achieve this by increasing product prices, but IKEA did not because of its restrictive policy to provide low-priced products to its consumers. The solution, then, was shortening the supply chain, which meant building stores next to stations to decrease transportation costs from the factory to the stores. This concept is known as “eliminating the middleman.”

The “eliminating the middleman” strategy meets well with IKEA’s sustainability practice to reduce Carbon emissions and apply sustainability to their product transportation process.

Applying sustainability to IKEA’s design process aligned with Birkeland’s definition of design for sustainability as:

  • Responsible: Redefines project goals with a focus toward basic needs, social equity, and environmental justice.
  • Synergistic: Creates positive feedback between different function elements.
  • Contextual: Re-evaluates design conventions and concepts to participate in social transformation.
  • Restorative: Strengthens people’s and nature’s health and psychological well-being.
  • Eco-efficient: Minimizes the amount of input materials and energy as well as the output of pollution and waste.
  • Creative: Provides a new paradigm that exceeds traditional thinking.
  • Visionary: Focuses on visions and desired outcomes, and produces methods that achieve them.

IKEA Design Strategy: Democratic Design

Many believe that there are great product designs out there, but they are hard to afford by ordinary people because of their expensive price and high production costs. IKEA’s Democratic Design integrates into its business policy and designs the principle that everyone has the right to get a high quality, sustainable, and good design products at the lowest price. This target merges with IKEA’s sustainability strategy to make everyone’s home environmental friendly by saving energy, reduce waste, and depend more in recycled and renewable materials.

There are four aspects of the Democratic Design strategy that form its holistic view and integrate with the sustainability strategy, as we will see later in this article:

Design at IKEA

IKEA’s product design is what the consumers buy when they visit its stores and the retail’s stores, and in order to achieve design and sustainability strategies, product design should balance the following four dimensions:

  • Form: Everyone is looking for good and beautiful designs to add to their homes, so product design should be beautiful and appealing to everyone.
  • Function: Functionality becomes more and more important to our daily life; beautiful products need to be functional and user friendly. Consumers do not want to buy a product that is hard to use or unusable in their daily life.
  • Quality: The quality of a product is another important component. Everyone is looking to get the best quality at the price in hand.
  • Sustainability: Every design at IKEA needs to support the sustainability strategy. For example, the Lampan is a light product that does not need packaging and saves space in storage and transportation.
  • Low price: Low price is one of IKEA’s key commitments and one of the important roles of Democratic Design.

These elements are closely related to product design at IKEA. Designers have to achieve all the five elements in order to create a product that complies with IKEA design and sustainability strategies.

Working with Suppliers

IKEA developed the ability to work with suppliers directly to bring designs to life. IKEA now has around 1,000 suppliers in 53 countries and ensures the quality of production and working conditions at each of these suppliers through its development of a code of conduct (IWAY).

The IWAY code of conduct was introduced in 2000 to identify IKEA’s requirements for suppliers regarding products and services, and IWAY describes what suppliers expect from IKEA in return. The IWAY code of conduct includes standards about the following:

  • Start-up requirements
  • General conditions
  • Environment: Air, noise, water, and ground
  • Chemicals
  • Hazardous and non-hazardous waste
  • Fire prevention
  • Workers’ health and safety
  • Housing facilities
  • Wages, benefits, and working hours
  • Child labor
  • Forced and bonded labor
  • Discrimination
  • Freedom of association
  • Harassment, abuse, and disciplinary actions

Raw Materials

Choosing raw materials is part of the production design process, and these materials should meet IKEA’s sustainability guidelines while keeping price at their lowest. The raw materials used in IKEA’s products are renewable, recyclable, and recycled. IKEA is using a number of raw materials in its products that are sustainable and inexpensive, such as:

  • Bamboo: This strong and fast-growing material grows 10 times faster than wood, which makes using it sustainable and environmentally friendly.
  • Wood: The wood used in IKEA products meets the IWAY Forestry Standard, which ensures that the wood is sourced from IKEA managed forests.
  • Wood Plastic Composite: This consists of polypropylene and wood fibers that together create stronger and less expensive plastic products.
  • Flax and Linen: Linen is extracted from the fibers of flax plants that grow in cooler climates naturally — without any human interaction in the aggregated process.
  • Better Cotton: The Better Cotton is an initiative between IKEA and WWF to enable 100,000 farmers in India and Pakistan to produce cotton with fewer chemicals and less water consumption.
  • Recylced PET Plastic: The advantage of using PET is it can be melted down and recycled into pellets and usable textiles.
  • Water Hyacinth: This is a good renewable plant that can be used to create durable hand-woven products.

Life at Home

The fourth part of IKEA’s Democratic Design strategy is life at home. IKEA’s mission is to create a better everyday life for many people, and this is achieved through a combination of factors that enable ordinary people to get high-quality, sustainable, and well-designed products at the lowest price possible.

The self-assembly packaging model is another way to keep the price down, because it reduces the storage and transportation costs and takes the consumer buying process to a more interactive level, as consumers become part of the production process when they assemble the design at home.

In this part, we explored some aspects of the sustainable design inside IKEA and how its plan implicated number of tools and strategies to achieve the sustainable design including the Democratic Design. In the second part of this article, we will continue to explore the rest of IKEA’s sustainable strategies including the People and Planet Positive, the human-centered design and the Design for Sustainability (D4S) strategies.

Rafiq Elmansy

Rafiq Elmansy is the founder of Designorate.com, author, and design and innovation consultant. He is an affiliated faculty teaching design at the American University in Cairo. He holds a master degree in Design Management with Distinction from Staffordshire University, UK. He has more than 17 years experience in the field of UXD and interaction design, and his books are published by John Wiley, O’Reilly Media and Taylor and Francis. He is also a contributor at the Design Management Review. Rafiq is a jury board member for the A'Design Awards, Poster for Tomorrow, and Adobe Achievements Awards. His design artwork was exhibited in many locations including Croatia, South Africa, Brazil, and Spain.