Behind the scenes of Ikea’s environmental sustainability pledge

Late last year, Ikea unveiled plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions from its production systems by 80% in absolute terms by 2030 from their levels two years ago. University of Surrey's Patrick Elf provides an in-depth overview of Ikea's Live Lagom project, which provided the basis for its ambitious sustainability commitment.

Late last year, in the run-up to the COP 24 climate policy conference in Katowice, Inter Ikea chief executive Torbjorn Loof announced that he hopes for “a leadership that steps up, sets clear targets and dares to nail a number of commitments without us having all the solutions”.

He made it clear that Ikea is aiming to take a lead in climate action as a business, urging policymakers and politicians to match this kind of commitment. Ikea’s pledge on climate action sets very demanding goals for the business: to cut greenhouse gas emissions from its production systems by 80 per cent in absolute terms by 2030 from their levels two years ago. In other words, the Swedish furniture retail giant is aiming for a cut of 2.72 million tonnes CO2e from a baseline of 3.4 million tonnes of CO2e.

This pledge forms part of Ikea’s wider ambition to turn the world’s biggest furniture group into what Ikea calls a “People and Planet Positive” business.

To be planet-positive in Ikea’s sustainable business philosophy means giving more back to the environment and society than you actually take in the course of running your enterprise. It also means being guided by science in setting goals for corporate action. There remain many uncertainties in ecological science, but we understand enough about the pressures on our environmental life support systems to be able to set targets accordingly – especially where the risks of climate disruption are concerned. Almost all climate scientists today agree that the international community need drastically to reduce CO2 emissions in the next 10-20 years in order to allow our planet to sustain our civilisation. A planet-positive company also needs to minimise waste and keep resources flowing in a circular economy of reuse, repair and renewal – hence Ikea’s grand ambition in its People and Planet Positive strategy to be a circular economy business by 2030.

Being planet-positive also has a social dimension. To become a people-positive enterprise is a demanding and radical undertaking. It is hard enough to base sustainable business strategy on physical laws and ecological dynamics, but the human dimension of sustainability involves understanding how our behaviour is often irrational, highly complex – and rarely occurs in predictable linear ways. To become a sustainable enterprise involves influencing the consumer demand side of the business as well as the material supply side. That means understanding the barriers to more sustainable living by consumers, and designing new ways to build a relationship with them to promote sustainable ‘pro-environmental’ consumption.

“To become a sustainable enterprise involves influencing the consumer demand side of the business as well as the material supply side”

To take on this challenge, Ikea UK & Ireland teamed up with experts in pro-environmental value and behaviour change: the environmental charity Hubbub UK and researchers at the Centre for Environment & Sustainability at the University of Surrey. This collaboration helped design and evaluate a three-year project to change unsustainable behaviours and to improve understanding of how Ikea can help its customers to live a more sustainable lifestyle at home, and make the vision come true to make healthy and more sustainable living more accessible, affordable, and a little more interesting.

Over three years, ending last year, Ikea ran this behaviour change initiative under the name Live Lagom. Picking a Swedish word for its products and services follows a long tradition. The word “lagom” comes from the Swedish proverb “lagom ar best”, which loosely translates to “the middle way is best”. In relation to consumption, it implies that “the right amount is just enough”. In short, lagom refers to an ethic and culture of sufficiency, not maximisation of consumption. The research project proved successful as a proof of concept, and Live Lagom is now a corporate programme in Ikea UK and Ireland.

During the three years of the initiative, Ikea sent an email each October inviting its Ikea Family members to join the Live Lagom project. Following a short application process, between four to eight households started on their journey in the following 10 months in one of the 19 different locations where Ikea operates a store across the UK and Ireland. During this time all households received expert advice on how to live more sustainably at home, took part in workshops that aimed to generate more awareness and create important skills, and were also invited to join a closed Facebook group to discuss their progress and to blog, exchange ideas and offer tips with other participants.

To analyse what happened during this time, participants filled in baseline and follow-up questionnaires over the course of the project. As an incentive Ikea provided the participants with a voucher that they were allowed to spend on a range of products that can help participants to live more sustainably. Examples include LED light bulbs, shower timer, but also food containers among others. A large dataset – with qualitative as well as quantit