Last weekend I spent couple of hours at IKEA in Brooklyn, with many fellow New Yorkers, looking for good deals on home furnishings. Wandering around, it’s not difficult to notice that many of the furnishings at IKEA are made of wood (roughly 60 percent), but I doubt many IKEA customers (including myself I have to say) pay attention to how sustainable this wood is. Nevertheless, IKEA does.
In its sustainability strategy plan for 2020, People & Planet Positive, which was unveiled last October, IKEA presented a bold goal – becoming forest positive, or ensuring that 100 percent of the wood the company uses is sourced in compliance with its forestry requirements by 2020.
These requirements include demands such as not sourcing from forests that have been illegally logged, where the suppliers do not adhere to international conventions on how to treat workers or from recognized commercial genetically modified tree plantations. IKEA believes that complying with these requirements will help to “promote the adoption of sustainable forestry methods across the industry and contribute to ending deforestation.” The result would have a positive impact on the environment, even with IKEA’s growing use of wood.
Given that, as the Guardian reports, since IKEA alone accounts for almost one percent of all wood used commercially worldwide, these commitments are extremely important. However, IKEA has discovered that with the pursuit of bolder sustainability goals comes more scrutiny, with questions raised not just about the company’s ability to meet its ambitious forestry goal, but also about the validity of IKEA’s definition of sustainable forestry.
This is an interesting story not just because it raises questions about IKEA’s credibility, its efforts to transform its business and achieve a “transformational change”, but also because it provides some valuable lessons to every company interested in pursuing ambitious sustainability goals.
Just like other companies working to make their supply chain significantly more sustainable, IKEA uses certifications to decide which wood can be considered as coming from a responsible source. Right now, it mainly uses the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification. This choice says a lot about IKEA’s approach to sustainability, as it chose what is considered to be a more rigorous forestry certification and didn’t leave the door open for the more controversial SFI certification.
IKEA probably knew that choosing FSC over SFI meant it might have some problems meeting its goals, because only seven percent of the world’s forest areas are currently FSC-certified. And, indeed, in 2012 it seems like IKEA won’t be able to meet its goal of having 35 percent of the solid wood used in its products FSC-certified. It’s also not clear if IKEA will succeed in meeting other intermediate goals such as having 50 percent of the total wood used at IKEA FSC-certified by 2017.
If IKEA thought it would at least be able to balance the difficulties meeting its wood goals with receiving some credit for using FSC rather than SFI, the company was wrong. It’s not that IKEA wasn’t praised for this step, but it didn’t prevent criticism about the company’s decisions and integrity, especially with regards to logging FSC-certified wood, as it does in the Karelia region of northwest Russia.
The Global Forest Coalition, a coalition of environmental NGOs, claimed earlier this year that IKEA “is logging old-growth forests and other high conservation value forests in Russian Karelia through its subsidiary Swedwood.” Their main claim was that IKEA is logging trees in this area which are 200-600 years old.
Robert Svensson, of the Swedish NGO Protect the Forest, a Global Forest Coalition member, explained that they are demanding that IKEA ensure the protection of the remaining forests with high conservation value on the lands they lease. “This is the least they can do to compensate for the losses of valuable forest and biodiversity that they have caused. There is already so little old-growth forest left that it threatens the long-term survival of many plant and animal species, so continuing to log such forests is deeply irresponsible,” he said.
IKEA doesn’t deny the facts, but nevertheless rejects the allegations of wrongdoing. In its statement, the company explained that “Karelia is a region of high conservation value and the decision to source wood in the area brings great responsibility that IKEA takes very seriously. Approximately 17 percent of Swedwood’s total leasehold in Karelia is exempt from cutting, either by legislative demand or voluntarily. This is far above all legal requirements and more than what is required of us in the FSC standard.”
Should IKEA have a more rigorous approach to maintain the integrity of its 2020 sustainability program? If so, to what extent? On one side it’s clear that the FSC certification has flaws, but on the other side isn’t it the case with basically every certification that works to make current practices more sustainable and needs to make some sort of compromises?
IKEA chose what I believe is the right path, which is engaging in a dialogue with the NGOs as well as making a clear case why the FSC is still the best way to scale up a more sustainable forestry system. It’s probably not the perfect path, and there are surely ways to improve it (recycling more wood, for example), but the path to a sustainable future is never the perfect one, but the most feasible one. Luckily, IKEA understands it and hopefully others will, too.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and the New School, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.