Ikea begins bag revolution

When Tom Idle visited Ikea to ask UK environment manager Charlie Browne why it decided to charge for its carrier bags, he met a company constantly striving to be the best

Having spent the past two months engaging with the media to discuss Ikea's most significant environmental pledge yet, you'd be forgiven for thinking that UK environment manager Charlie Browne had become tired of peddling his employer's environmental credentials. Not a chance of it. In fact, the Swedish firm's latest initiative has now developed further, and Charlie is likely to be busier than ever.

On June 5 - World Environment Day, no less - the home furniture chain announced it would start charging its customers five pence for each plastic carrier bag they take home. But, not content to rest on its laurels, Ikea is taking its reduction in waste strategy a stage further by introducing a new type of carrier bag that will further shift the benchmark for best technology available.

From September 1, the new bag (the details of which are being kept under wraps) will be rolled out into three of the 14 stores nationwide - and then to the rest of them by October. There will be a 10p charge.

The plastic switch
Historically, customers would take home their cutlery and home furnishings in paper bags, but the UK operation switched to plastic "about five or six years ago for logistics and cost reasons.

"For every one pallet of plastic bags needed, you need ten pallets of paper. So there was a whole raft of issues - monetary, logistical and environmental," adds Charlie. "This year we decided that we would make a pledge on World Environment Day to cut our bag usage by 20 million bags. It was kind of like sticking our head up above the parapet because our customers come in expecting to be given a carrier bag, just because that's what everybody else does. So we feel like we've taken a leadership role."

They've certainly done that; laying down the gauntlet for other retailers to follow their lead. So, what will this pledge actually mean for the environment? "Last year, we gave away 32 million bags. Laid end to end, they would stretch from London to Tokyo and back again.

"So our pledge was to reduce that by 70%." And in a bid to make the process holistic and transparent, Ikea's 'bags for life', which customers can bring back into the store to be used again, have been reduced in price - from 50p to 25p, with no profit involved. For every plastic bag sold, the 3p profit is being donated. "The money we are raising on carriers is going to reforestation and community forest projects."

But what impact is this 5p charge likely to have on Ikea's business? It's hardly going to cause too much concern for customers is it? "Well, you'd be surprised," I'm told.

"In the first three weeks, we saw a 95% drop. In the first week of the project, we sold 100,000 bags. Over the same period, we would have 'sold' 1.8 million. Our 'bag for life' sales have gone up by 200%. One thing we didn't expect to see, which has happened, is a real change in customer behaviour patterns. They are putting their products into their trolley and wheeling it to their car.

"I knew it was going to be successful and I knew it would stir a lot of discussion."
The key to this success seems to be the company's decision to keep things simple and transparent, making it clear where their 5p will be going. But some managers at Ikea weren't entirely sure about the customer reaction. "I had one services manager say to me: 'Charlie, when you send the communication package out, make sure you include a couple of sets of body armour.' They were really expecting a negative reaction from the public but it's been overwhelmingly positive - beyond what anybody could have thought."

So, now it's up to Tesco, Sainsbury's and Waitrose to follow suit, isn't it? "We've opened the debate to show that it can be done by a major retailer. For me, this is a little bit about leadership.

It's about saying we can do these things. However, the food retailer business has got harder challenges than us."

Procurement
Around half of Ikea's product range is timber or timber fibre. With so many different suppliers involved, Charlie is confident in tracing his chain of procurement right down to individual forests in the Baltic states where the timber comes from. "What makes me feel comfortable sitting here talking to the media is that we can secure our supply chain right into the forests.

"We actually have 15 professional foresters and that's all they do. They work with all of our individual suppliers down at ground level, looking at sustainability and where the timber's coming from, whereas other retailers actually buy from the grey market. So, we have supply chain security right to the end." Trading organisations work in all of the countries, abiding by the company's own system of standards, namely IWAY ("the Ikea way on purchasing home furnishings"), an independently accredited international audit document. "Although we have work to do in improving standards, especially in emerging markets such as China, we believe in step-by-step engagement and improvement with suppliers."

And this concept of sustainability seems to be reaching back to the customers visiting the stores. In fact, Ikea is currently working on a new green initiative that hopes to encourage a shift in consumer behaviour. As Charlie explains: "When a customer comes into a store, perhaps they want to change their lifestyle. They might want to change their kitchen, so they're thinking about ripping their old kitchen out. But they're thinking about the cabinets, not sustainability issues.

"So that's what we're trying to encourage: thinking about the types of energy-efficient boilers they can buy and the loft insulation. Maybe when we sell a sink, we should have some communication saying 'did you know that if you turn off the tap when you're brushing your teeth, you'll save x amount of water?'"

So, is there an obligation for retailers to offer take-back options for things like old kitchen cabinets? Charlie seems to think it will become law soon, in very much the same way that electrical and packaging wastes are being tackled. "The challenge we have is the infrastructure to deal with it. We offer take-back on the low-energy bulbs we sell. But we've only got one reprocessor in the UK that we can send them to."

Despite Ikea's attempts to be seen as green, its huge developments (consisting of ugly warehouse-style buildings and vast concrete car parks) are hardly the picture of sustainability. Charlie counteracts this observation with the notion that "people want stuff".

"I'm an environmentalist and I believe in what I'm doing," he says. "If people want stuff, who do you want to buy it from? A company that's trying to work with
it? Or do you want to buy it from a company that is playing at it?"

And Ikea is certainly not "playing at it". With its relocation into inner city areas with new "concept" stores, Ikea is actively looking to promote that their customers use public transport and are considering offering discounted delivery prices for those using the bus. They already offer their staff an interest-free loan to buy a bike, a bus pass or even an LPG conversion. Around 70% of their energy is sourced from renewables. The Milton Keynes branch even has rainwater harvesting facilities, a biomass boiler and a waste-to-energy plant (powered by shredded wood from damaged products). And all new stores will be eco-designed using the Ikea ICON code of practice (based on the American BREEAM-equivalent, LEAD).

When it comes to recycling, Ikea UK currently averages an impressive 74% rate. Last month, the Wembley store that I visited managed 84% - not bad for an inner-city shop. If you compare that to the average industry recycling rate of 45%, the Scandinavian firm is certainly cracking their very ambitious environmental targets. All this without an environmental management system. ("Like a lot of big companies, we tend to steer away from ISO 14001 and EMAS because they seem to be quite a lot of money and we have our own audit called Commercial Review.")

In Charlie Browne, Ikea have a dedicated environmentalist. "I closely follow the current wider environmental debates. I'm a walker and a climber and I love the outdoors and nature." He even rides a fold-up bike to work.

So, any advice for our readers, Charlie? "You've got to believe you can make a difference."

Ikea: The facts
  • In the UK, Ikea sold more than 11 million low-energy light bulbs last year
  • Those light bulbs will save 250,000 tonnes of CO2
  • That's 2.5M tonnes of CO2 over the lifetime of the bulb (around 8,000 hours)
  • UK supermarkets gave away 17.5 billion bags last year - enough for 290 for every person in the country
  • In 2005, Ikea gave away 32 million plastic carrier bags - that's 2 million bags per store

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