Catching up with Swede success

They did it first, they did it flat-pack - Ikea doesn't need to jump on the green bandwagon because they've been sitting up front and driving it since the mid-1980s. Tom Idle spoke to environment manager Charlie Browne

‘We want to make it easy for our customers to do their bit to help the environment and our trials have shown us that they want to take action.”

This was the voice of Marks & Spencer boss Stuart Rose, speaking excitedly to John Humphries on BBC Radio 4.

“Just imagine if M&S customers right across the UK cut the number of food bags they use by 70% – that’s over 280 million bags they’d be saving every year,” he went on. From next month, the retailer is asking its customers to pay 5p if they want food carrier bags. It’s a bold move by one of the big food sellers, but the news wasn’t quite as exciting as it should have been.

Listening to the bulletin, I was on my way up to Milton Keynes to pay a visit to the flagship store of furniture retailer Ikea. Two years ago, I met the company’s environment manager Charlie Browne as he proudly announced the Swedish giant would start charging for its plastic carrier bags. Today, they’ve done away with them altogether, so this latest statement from M&S as part of its Plan A environmental initiative isn’t quite so unique and impressive as it thinks it is. In fact, Charlie thinks all retailers have been “too slow to get their act together” but he applauds them nonetheless. “It shifts the benchmark of excellence and now Tesco and all the others will have to do it,” he says.

Since 2005, Ikea has not given away 100 million plastic bags. They’ve saved around £800,000 in doing so.

But saving money and resources has been the foundation on which the 242-store empire has been built. The business began in 1943 when the founder Ingvar Kamprad was given some money by his father for doing well at school at the age of 17. He used it to set up Ikea – so named because of his own initials, I.K. and the first letters of Elmtaryd Agunnaryd, the name of the farm where he grew up in Sweden. Ikea was originally a mail order business selling pens, wallets and stockings – meeting the needs of people with products at reduced prices.

“People from that area of Sweden have a reputation for being frugal and cost-conscious,” says Charlie. “It’s always been about how we can do things more simply, easier and cheaper and in a more efficient way.” To save money and in an unconsciously environmental way, Ingvar used to use the local milk delivery trucks to get his goods to the station to be sent out.

“It’s part of our DNA, you see.”

It wasn’t until the 1950s that Ikea broadened its horizons and ventured into the furniture market. Ingvar wondered how he could get cheap furniture to a mass market and so the concept of delivering flat-pack furniture was borne out of a desire to embrace resource efficiency, rather than any other unique retailing ambitions. It was about getting 200 tables onto a truck, rather than 20. It was about delivering products to market in a more cost-effective way.

The big advantage for Ikea as a result of its heritage of good waste husbandry, is that since environmental issues have became mainstream for business, the company has been one step ahead, especially in this country.

“We came to the UK in the mid-1980s and environmentalism was a very fringe, tree-hugging, hippie-type thing. But we were already starting to put things into place.” As for Charlie, he started engaging in the firm’s environmental issues in the mid-1990s, mainly concentrating his efforts on waste management and recycling. Today, his efforts (and those of the 250 other staff the company employs solely to look at the environment across the global operation) have contributed to 80% recycling targets.

The Milton Keynes store is two years old and provides a good stage to display the sustainability ambitions of Ikea. Some of the things being used here, such as biomass and rainwater harvesting are, as Charlie says, “things people are only really talking about as a possible consideration”.

My behind-the-scenes eco-tour – and one that Charlie has done a thousand times before, usually for school kids and students doing projects on sustainability – begins on the shop floor, at the check-outs.

As we stand and observe the habits of customers that pass through the check-out area, it’s clear there has been a cultural shift in the way people shop here. While it has scrapped its plastic carrier bags altogether, Ikea now offers customers the option of buying its Big Blue Bag – a strong, reusable bag – as well as a smaller version, the Baby Blue. But, what the company has found is that people don’t bother with either of them, preferring to load their flat-pack tables, dish cloths, picture frames and pot plants into trolleys, and wheel them straight to the boot of their cars.

Last year, Ikea sold £15.2B of products across its worldwide operations and it opened 21 new stores. Every year, 522 million customers come through the doors of an Ikea store. So, this shift in a shopping habit is being forced on a big slice of the general public and they, let’s face it, will have to adopt the same practice when they do their weekly food shop once all of the major supermarkets follow the lead set by Marks & Spencers on plastic bags. We bump into the store’s customer relations manager, Keith Owen. “Tell him, Keith!” says Charlie. “Tell him what reaction we’ve had from our customers!” Keith does as he’s told and explains to me how positive people have been towards environmental initiatives adopted here.

And it’s no wonder Ikea customers have been so engaged. Everywhere you look there are signs and information boards telling people what the company is doing to improve the environment and, more importantly, what they can do to help. Next to the customer informaton desks, a big, brightly coloured recycling box offers to take back old batteries and light bulbs. And although there is currently no infrastructure to take back old sofas and beds, the company is working on it.

The unique Bargain Corner has been an environmental, as well as economic masterstroke. Slightly damaged cabinets, desks and bedframes are offered up at knock-down prices, customers lap it up and goods that would have been shredded or landfilled are being sold.

We exit through a staff-only side door and look at the waste-processing facilities that deal with the 600 tonnes of cardboard amassed every year. And the slightly dangerous wood-shredding machine is another great investment – the timber that would have been thrown away is crushed, the metal parts extracted by another huge machine, and the resulting woodchips are fed into the biomass unit to help heat the whole building. “It is part of our reduce, reuse and recycle philosophy,” states Charlie. In fact, here in Milton Keynes, 100% of the required energy to heat, cool and run the building now comes from renewable sources.

And building new stores with on-site renewable applications is now a part of corporate strategy. Geothermal energy is first-fit choice on all new builds. But because of the large amount of space needed to install the equipment, retrofitting on old stores proves more difficult.

Across the car park, we enter another door to find the 60,000 litre tanks used for the rainwater harvesting system – a simple yet effective application that feeds all of the WCs on site. And there are light sensors everywhere to ensure the lights in the operations areas cannot be accidentally left on – something of a bugbear for Charlie. “I’m a bit of an operations animal,” he tells me. He’s not wrong. After my meeting with him, he is off to see his technical team, to see how “we can squeeze another £15,000 of savings from this store.” And that’s just by turning off lights that don’t need to be on.

Charlie Browne is comfortable here. Not because he has done everything that needs doing “there’s still lots to be done,” he admits, not least his ambitions for customers to use public transport to get to the stores. But he is comfortable talking to the media about “real actions”. “I don’t know whether I’m an environmentalist masquerading as a retailer, or a retailer masquerading as an environmentalist. But we got rid of 100 million bags in the past two years, we’ve put biomass in our stores and we’ve got 80% recycling rates.

“It’s about making a real difference on the inside of a company.”

And I can’t argue with that.

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