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Retail

Silly Billy: what the Ikea bookcase tells us about the true cost of fast furniture


J

o Jackson remembers the day when it was clear that nothing was going to be the same for a while. It was mid-March and Made.com, an online purveyor of millennial-friendly furniture, had big plans for growth in the year of its 10th anniversary.

Made’s Essentials Tice Garden Sun Lounger.
Made’s Essentials Tice Garden Sun Lounger. Photograph: Made.com

“At first, there was this moment of the rabbit in the headlights, as we acclimatised to this new normal,” says Jackson, Made’s chief creative officer. She is talking from home, six weeks into Britain’s pandemic lockdown, which has laid waste to business plans – and businesses – in almost every industry.

Sales dipped initially, but then something changed. “People began working out their new work-from-home environment and looking, for hours, at the colour of their walls or the state of their sofas,” Jackson says.

Made’s Kugel blue concrete garden coffee table.
Made’s Kugel blue concrete garden coffee table. Photograph: Made.com

Sales rallied. Some spikes in demand were predictable; sales of Made’s office and garden furniture went up by 33% and 50% respectively. Others, perhaps, revealed a collective search for comfort: bedding sales have almost doubled.

Made’s Margot office chair in blush pink velvet and copper.
Made’s Margot office chair in blush pink velvet and copper. Photograph: Robert Rieger/Made.com

Other big online furniture retailers have reported similarly strong demand. Revenues have doubled at Wayfair, the US furnishings giant. Ikea, which is preparing to reopen its stores, has doubled down online, slapping its new slogan, “Conquer the great indoors”, on desk chairs and storage solutions for tinned food.

As the walls close in, many of us are sprucing them up. But there is a payoff. While online retailers have stayed open, the means of disposing of old furniture have all but disappeared. Public waste centres and charity shops have closed their doors, while many “freecycling” websites and for-sale pages of community forums have suspended trading.

“It’s a big concern when you think about how much we normally receive,” says Allison Swaine-Hughes, the retail director of the British Heart Foundation (BHF), which took in more than 185,000 sofas alone last year.

Across Britain, councils have reported a spike in flytipping, including furniture. Swaine-Hughes, who says the BHF is monitoring its stores for dumping via CCTV, is concerned that landfill sites may swell with newly abandoned items. “We want people to hang on to those items until we can gratefully receive them,” she says.

Flytipped boxes, furniture and domestic possessions dumped on a single parking space in London last year.
Flytipped boxes, furniture and domestic possessions dumped on a single parking space in London last year. Photograph: Richard Baker/In Pictures via Getty Images

Pandemic makeovers are tightening the focus on the toxic implications of “fast furniture”, years after the fashion industry – and its consumers – faced their own environmental reckoning. A familiar paradox lies at the heart of a business model that produces £15 bookcases and £2 T-shirts: how can you be sustainable while selling keenly priced products, largely made of natural resources and plastic while at the same time inviting your customers constantly to upgrade them?

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Furniture used not to be cheap – or fast. Old dressers and chests of drawers were heirlooms that we took with us as we moved and grew families. A clash of styles in our living rooms mattered less than it did in our wardrobes.

Much of what followed can be traced to a precocious Swedish entrepreneur. Ingvar Kamprad was only 17 when he founded Ikea on his uncle’s kitchen table in 1943. Fountain pens and udder balm were among his first products, but furniture soon came to dominate. Ikea opened its first showroom in a small Swedish village in 1953.

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Kamprad, who died in 2018, became a marketing genius, a democratising influence on design and a flatpack billionaire. His business model relied on volume, which kept prices down, and inexorable growth, as well as a safe, contemporary aesthetic that became known as “global functional minimalism”.

The Ikea warehouse experience.
The Ikea warehouse experience. Photograph: Alex Segre/Alamy Stock Photo

Yet that growth remained steady, for a while. Ikea did not reach Britain until 1987, when its local rivals included MFI. “Even by 1998, when I started working for the company, we had stores in a few countries and most of the production was still in Scandinavia,” says Johan Stenebo, who held senior positions at Ikea for 20 years, including a stint as its environmental director.

But Ikea began to look to eastern Europe and Asia for cheap resources and labour. “We did that to get the prices down and earn profit,” Stenebo says. It worked. Take, as one example, the Billy bookcase, an Ikea stalwart now made by robots at a rate of one every three seconds. Since its launch in 1978, its price has come down by about a third.

Ikea’s Billy bookcase.
Ikea’s Billy bookcase. Photograph: Ikea

“Get the prices down and you increase sales – we created that demand, not the consumer,” says Stenebo, who quit Ikea in 2008. Disillusioned with corporate mores, he wrote Ikea: How to Become the World’s Richest Man. “That’s why I have a problem now with discussions about climate change,” he adds. “It’s corporate-driven but we always talk about consumer behaviour.”

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The family dresser, passed down through generations, was a vanishing commodity in this new market, which promoted modern design. We did not need quality furniture like it anyway; the shrinking, transitory flats of generation rent could be furnished at an unthinkably low cost. Today you can buy an Ikea sofa, coffee table, TV bench, double bed and mattress, dining table with four chairs, wardrobe, bookcase and chest of drawers for £401. How much of it would you take to your next place or bother to sell?

The cost to the environment is greater. Cheap furniture is typically made of chipboard – glue-bound wood chips – and laminated with plastic. Recycling centres do accept it, but it is complicated and costly to process. Incineration or landfill is often the easier route. A BHF survey of 2,000 first-time buyers and renters last October revealed that one-third of people had thrown away furniture that could have been sold or donated.

And that is just the end of the cycle. It might begin with unsustainable or illegal logging, followed by energy-intensive milling and production in giant factories, the use of chemical treatments and plastics, as well as foam stuffing and yards of upholstery with its own supply chain. Then there are the emissions of global shipping.

The conservation charity WWF focused on trees in its 2016 report on furniture sold in the UK, Are You Sitting Comfortably?. It found that 68% of the dozens of retailers it assessed were failing to put in place robust policies for timber sourcing or communicate them to customers. Furniture worth €2bn (£1.78bn) was being imported to Britain from “high-risk” countries where illegal logging is rife.

Logs stacked in a pine forest.
Logs stacked in a pine forest. Photograph: abadonian/Getty Images/iStockphoto
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“This sector has sat on its hands and is way behind other industries,” says Julia Young, who leads WWF’s work on forests. “Wood furniture relies on a material that is under a lot of pressure globally, with increasing demand.” At a minimum, she says, retailers should be certain that wood has certification from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

Furniture price wars have compelled businesses to sideline sustainability even when it seems cheap. “I remember one guy telling me that a typical sofa sold in the UK contained wood that cost about £9,” Young recalls. “But if you bought it sustainably, with FSC certification, it would cost £10. And that’s probably in a sofa that might sell for £450.” But when you are selling sofas by the container load, the small additional costs of sustainability add up.

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As the world’s top furnisher, Ikea feels the pressure to act. “Sustainability is not new for us,” says Malin Nordin, the head of circular development at the chain’s parent company, Inter Ikea Group, which had retail sales of €41.3bn (£36.6bn) last year. She directs me to Testament of a Furniture Dealer, a pamphlet Kamprad wrote for employees in 1976. “Wasting resources is a mortal sin,” he said, while also setting out Ikea’s “duty to expand”.

I ask Nordin how a product like Tärendö, a dining table made of plastic-coated chipboard with steel legs and plastic feet, could ever be sustainable when it costs £30. She sends me a newer document: Ikea’s People & Planet Positive sustainability strategy, published in 2012. It sets out goals to, among other things, make all its products from recyclable and renewable materials by 2030.

Ikea’s Tärendö table
Ikea’s Tärendö table. Photograph: Per Liedberg/Ikea

Ikea plans to be able to take back and repurpose or recycle its own furniture at the end of its useful life – and to tweak designs to make this simpler. “We will make the needed mind shift to start seeing these products not as a single-use item, rather a material bank for the future,” Nordin explains in an email.

These are largely goals, rather than widespread practices. But at least they exist. At WWF, Young praises Ikea’s commitment in the face of the greatest scrutiny, but not all retailers have the scale or pressure to invest in change. “For most companies, it’s just not part of their pitch to the customer,” she says.

Since 2015, WWF has produced a Timber Scorecard, on which it rates major retailers for their sourcing policies and commitment to achieving sustainable supply chains. Ikea scores highly. Many other brands do not. They include Made. “They’re under the radar,” Young says of the company. “It all looks lovely, but they’re failing to take responsibility for their impact on the environment.”

Jackson is not familiar with the scorecard. Made’s PR team later point out that the ratings are about the display of information, but they do not provide details of Made’s sourcing policy. “Made is absolutely focused on doing the right thing for its customers, suppliers and partners, and sustainability is a huge focus for our business,” a statement reads.

Jackson accepts that Made’s website and marketing lack prominent information about sustainability, not least given the brand’s younger target market. But she says much is happening behind the scenes. “We don’t want to be quick to put out a potentially greenwashing-sounding statement,” she says. “We want to take our time to do this well.”

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Made is planning to launch a service for taking away old furniture when new items are delivered, either to be disposed of responsibly or passed to a charity retailer. “Or, in some cases, if it’s our own product, we’ll take it back to reuse or repair it,” Jackson says. Made is also working on a rental scheme, an alternative business model that Ikea has already tested in some markets.

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An industry belatedly facing up to its environmental footprint is in experimentation mode. Demand for change is growing. “We’re definitely seeing a shift in spending towards recycled, sustainable and long-lasting furniture,” says Hamish Mansbridge, the CEO of Heal’s, which has sold furniture from the same London store for more than 200 years. It now sells garden furniture made from recycled ocean plastic and a sofa upholstered in fabric made from yarns salvaged from the fashion industry.

Joni Steiner, an architect based in London, is trying to transform office furniture. Rather than relying on a vast factory in China, he co-founded Opendesk in 2012, which largely exists as a library of original designs of minimalist furniture, made in sustainable plywood. Customers, which have included Nike, Google and Greenpeace, pick a design and then get quotes from the platform of workshops, which includes one man in his San Diego garage and a team of eight on a Yorkshire farm. Makers get 71% of the sale price, while Opendesk, which needs to employ only four people, gets 22% (Steiner says this split would traditionally be reversed).

Small workshops with their own direct customers are also noticing shifting demands. “They’re more interested in how things are done, rather than just something that arrives on the doorstep from a factory somewhere,” says Tim Smith, who runs Create Furniture in Tottenham, north London. His customers increasingly request work-in-progress photos and have become more willing to invest in bespoke, handmade cabinetry.

Yet Smith acknowledges the seductive economy of faster furniture. It is easy to sell the advantage of a fitted wardrobe (starting price: £1,500). But cabinetry is relatively simple – it is boxes with doors. To hand-make a family dining table in solid wood, Smith would have to charge upwards of £4,000. “But then you might as well buy something in a shop that isn’t going to be that different for £400,” he says. “People’s desire to get nicely made stuff that is sustainable only goes so far.”

The 1970s Ikea Impala armchair
The 70s Impala armchair from Ikea. Photograph: Ikea

Growing demand for vintage furniture is part of the solution. Sites such as Vinterior and Pamono are matching abandoned heirlooms with new, grateful custodians. Where they have survived, some of Ikea’s older pieces have become desirable. Last year, a Swedish auction house sold a 1972 yellow Ikea Impala armchair that had cost about £30 when new. It fetched almost £2,000.

But, at the same time, big furniture is racing to furnish homes in major emerging markets. In Stockholm, Stenebo cannot see an easy way back for flatpack chipboard, whatever happens in the post-pandemic version of normal. After he wrote his book about Ikea, he decided to swap global retail for local education. He now teaches economics and business at a high school in Stockholm. “We’ve just done five weeks on corporate pollution and global warming,” he adds. “I used to be part of the problem, but making a mistake is one thing. Correcting it is more important.”



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