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Ikea recycling scheme kicks off, but is it enough?

5th May 2021

Ikea has previously announced a mission statement to become climate positive by 2030. Today it rolled out its ‘buy back’ initiative across the UK, buying back and reselling customers’ second hand items, to avoid them ending up in ‘landfill’.

Ikea Logo

This should come as a delight to a great many, especially younger student buyers and short term renters, who only ever had a temporary use for their furniture, and who can now benefit from a small return on their purchase – although in general purpose vouchers, not cash. Amongst the same audience will be plenty of undiscerning customers who would quite happily have paid less for second hand, had the offer been more readily available.

As UK shopping habits change to become more thrifty, and amidst a growing consideration of how unsustainable practices can damage the planet, it’s no wonder that many second hand markets are thriving. It’s only right that a behemoth like Ikea implement recycling strategies to help support a more ‘mindful’ lifestyle, even if it comes with a slight reduction in sales. That said, I’m not sure they had much choice. The alternative was likely to be caught out in the cold when the tide finally turned against buy-new ‘disposable’ culture, just as it would for supermarket shopping bags – with plenty still swirling dismally around the Atlantic.

Plastic bags pollute the seas

Plastic Pollution at Sea

Ikea has achieved something phenomenal over its 78 year reign, but they didn’t do it by putting structural integrity first. They made shopping for furniture easy, affordable, portable, and guaranteed a degree of timeless style that wouldn’t likely offend the discriminating sensibilities of judicious house guests. All this besides, product longevity is not exactly their forte.

So is recycling enough? How many uses can one reasonably expect to get from a typical Ikea unit, when the sides are made from cheap chipboard (sometimes cardboard) and, oh, it spent its first life in a student dorm? Frankly, its days are already numbered! I can’t help but think recycling is the right message, but the wrong conclusion. Our problem is perhaps that we’re too keen to pay low prices for something deliberately short term – i.e. disposable – when the more mindful option would be to buy what’s built to last. Quality furniture can be passed down and resold over generations, never mind surviving its first owner.

I expect we’ll hear more from Ikea over the coming years about the manufacturing processes themselves. In a bid for greater transparency, customers will want to know more about where, how and with what materials their products are made, and by who – as has been the subject of rising concern in the fashion and clothing industry. We want to feel good about our purchases, and if compromises have to be made, then we at least want the details so we can factor them into our decision making. That’s not to say there won’t be plenty of wilful ignorance regarding a product’s origins, without which the demand for sausages would surely take a dive.

Wood by a forest

In terms of furniture, one should fairly be able to ask, are the materials sustainably sourced, or are we contributing to reckless deforestation? How many components are being flown in from across the globe, contributing to dangerous carbon emissions? And, taking a global stance, can we really feel proud of a business model that exploits cheap labour abroad, only for the goods to be packed into shipping containers, transported halfway round the world, branded and sold at western prices? And OK, maybe this work provides a vital lifeline for those in need, but it doesn’t feel especially ‘wholesome’ to me.

Companies the size of Ikea bear a responsibility to address these issues, especially when they’ve profited enormously from a disposable culture they inadvertently helped cultivate. So, it’s good to hear that Ingka group (Ikea’s parent company) has announced it will invest €4bn into renewable energy. If we can’t rely on the consumers themselves making more planet-preserving choices, then at least the companies they buy from could begin to allocate some of their profits to carbon offset programmes, or other goodwill directives, on their customers’ behalf. And maybe this is even better. How often might we decline to donate £1 to charity, which seems ineffectual – but charge us less on a bill we were going to pay anyway and pledge the profit to charity; somehow this feels a little better, at least in moderation.

Planet earth

The problem with it, I suppose, comes down to trust. Do we (the people) trust large, sometimes faceless companies, driven primarily by profit (despite their highly aspirational mission statements) with something as important as the planet? Since the alternative is either prohibitively expensive – or requires going completely off grid and living off the land – a compromise will have to be struck. It’s very likely that government regulations will increase in the near future to try to ensure big corporations are run more responsibly, and we applaud Ikea for getting out ahead. However, recycling flimsy furniture may not be enough, and it will be interesting to see what else they can offer; preserving their reputation for convenience in a more conservationist world.

All Jali furniture is made in the UK

Finally, what does this mean for us at Jali? Well, we’re not quite the size of Ikea, but we do have lots we are doing – and more we’d like to do – to become fully carbon positive. We all have our roles to play, as consumers and as corporations, and we believe that by improving our ethical manufacturing – as well as giving our customers a way to actively engage in that process – we can (wait for it) help make the world a better place!

N.B. This has inspired me to write a round up of all the ways in which customers can proudly buy Jali, so expect this soon. For transparency, and to avoid the flannel you hear from a lot of other companies, we’ll do our best to get the authoritative figures for all our claims too.