It made design a democratic deal. And now Ikea's big challenge is democratizing a sustainable lifestyle. In conversation with Asunta Erile, CEO and Chief Sustainability Office of Ikea Italy

Large companies, those that have a global impact, are interesting realities to observe in order to understand the new ways of designing and producing to achieve a circular economy. Not only because every small change in this direction by a giant is bound to have a great impact . But also and above all to understand how complexity can be best managed, which processes (as well as principles) must be put in place to manage a business that has production sites and suppliers in several countries and that speaks to a diversified audience (one that perhaps not equally so sensitive to eco-sustainability issues).

We have chosen to talk about all this with Asunta Enrile, CEO and Chief Sustainability Office of Ikea Italia. A title, this latter one, that all IKEA CEOs have: "to underline the commitment that all countries have on this topic", Enrile explains. "CEOs are therefore the first ambassadors of these values"

IKEA aspires to a circular business by 2030. What are the challenges that still separate you from the goal?

At the basis of IKEA's democratic design is the mission to improve everyday life while respecting the limits of the planet. To do this we must face the great challenges, those described by the United Nations and with which we, at Ikea, face before making any choice: gender equality; accessible and clean energy; decent working conditions and economic growth; reduction of inequalities; responsible consumption and production; fighting climate change. To address them all, it is necessary to act now, together, acting on several fronts, balancing economic growth and social impact with the protection and regeneration of the environment. Coordinating all this and demonstrating that sustainable business is good business, as well as being the only way that allows us and the planet to thrive in the long term, is our biggest challenge.

What initiatives have been implemented so far and which are in the pipeline for the immediate future?

To date, around 9,000 out of 12,000 products in the world are already made with materials designed from the outset to be reusable, repairable and recyclable and we aim, by 2030, for all of them to be. We select raw materials in a responsible way for people and the environment.

Among the initiatives that go in the direction of circularity are the 'Bring and Resell' service: we buy back IKEA furniture and, if in good condition, we put it back on sale as second-hand products. We are experimenting with long-term rental formulas to extend the life cycle of products (which can be rented and returned and then sold as used) and the sale of spare parts for cabinets, sofas, beds and dressers to extend the life. of furniture.

We have created a Circular Hub in Italy, in the Milanese store in San Giuliano, to inspire and guide the majority of people to make more sustainable choices in everyday life. This is also thanks to the ‘learn & share’ area where customers are given advice on how renovate, repair and customize the furnishings. The goal of this new space, which we will also implement in other stores in Italy, is to extend the life cycle of products, allowing customers to purchase them at affordable prices.

The challenges are ambitious and they are not limited to just one goal. This is why we act on several fronts, even on the territory. For example, last year we made some limited edition products with wood from trees destroyed by the Vaia storm: the proceeds from the purchase were dedicated to the redevelopment and reforestation of the areas affected by the storm.

We have also recently signed the Pact against Food Waste promoted by the organization Too Good To Go, which is only the most recent of the actions implemented by our Food department, against food waste after having implemented projects in all the stores of the world against food waste such as to save more than 10 million meals in a few years.

How does the model that gave life to the Fortskrida fabric work?

Fortskrida, made 100% with recycled materials, is a concrete example of how we can extend the life of materials and use a waste material as a resource. To create the collection we used part of denim  a fabric that ends its life cycle in landfills or incinerators and part of PET, creating a new material.

The plastic material is washed and transformed into small pellets, jeans are frayed and become soft bales of fabric. The two materials are then joined and spun on looms. 12 pairs of old jeans and 160 recycled 1 liter PET bottles make up 100 Fortskrida pillow covers. Thanks to the collaboration with external partners we have been able to complete this virtuous process and make it available to our customers.

Read here the in-depth study dedicated to Fortskrida

Which areas of your business cycle are most impacting from an environmental point of view? and how do you intend to transform them into sustainable processes?

For a large-scale company like ours it is important to act on the entire value chain, from investments in renewable energy to product development, so that they are designed from the outset to be converted, repaired, reused, resold or recycled.

It was the first year in which, globally, we generated more renewable energy than we consumed for the exercise of our activities (132%), thanks to our investments in solar and wind technologies. We have acquired two solar farms with 400,000 solar panels in the United States and an 80% stake in seven wind farms in Romania. We currently own 547 wind turbines and 2 solar farms in 14 countries. We want to encourage people to use and produce renewable clean energy. For this we are increasing the availability and demand for clean energy in partnership with a growing number of customers and service providers around the world.

Our offer of solar panels present in 9 markets allows customers to save € 400 per year. A total of 63,000 tons of CO2 were avoided, for a total saving of 10 million euros for consumers.

On the materials front, progress is remarkable: since 2015, 100% of the cotton we use comes from more sustainable sources. This means that it is recycled or grown with methods that reduce the consumption of water, pesticides and chemical fertilizers (Better Cotton). IKEA, together with WWF and others, founded the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) over 10 years ago, an organization that aims to improve global cotton production on an industrial, social and environmental level.

IKEA is also alongside FSC and WWF to safeguard the forest heritage and its ecosystem. The goal of the new “IKEA Forest Positive2030 agenda is to further accelerate work to improve biodiversity and mitigate climate change globally. This way consumers can be sure that IKEA items are sourced and produced responsibly.

You have declared that you want to enhance interaction with customers and collaboration with local communities on sustainability issues. How?

The planet needs collective action and everyone's commitment is essential. We believe in broad and inspiring networks that allow everyone to be relevant in terms of sustainability.

I am thinking, for example, of the collaboration and support we give to social entrepreneurship: since 2012 it has generated work for over 30,000 people worldwide, including those who are marginalized, mostly women, and far from the labor market. By sharing our networks and know-how, we allow social entrepreneurs to access a global market and lay a solid foundation for their independence. While IKEA can offer its customers unique handcrafted products. Growing up with our partner social entrepreneurs means supporting positive economic and social development and creating long-term sustainable change, as well as fostering equality, inclusion and a decent standard of living.

What role does communication and dissemination of a correct understanding of what the circular economy play in achieving your sustainability goals?

A central role I would say! Sustainability is not a privilege for a few but directly affects each of us: only by placing it at the center of our daily actions, of our choices, can we reverse the course. This is why it is essential that everyone feels involved in this process, each for their own part.

With the Circular Hub project we wanted to show how simple and within everyone’s reach it is to implement actions that go in the direction of circularity: here we show visitors for the first time the various stages of the process that lead to the repackaging of the products, from the recovery to the storage of spare parts of the furniture that allow to extend their life.

Durability has always been the workhorse of sustainability. However, this means decreasing production and therefore sales. And, consequently, raise the prices. What does this mean for a business like yours, which makes affordability a value?

At IKEA we usually say that we want to make a difference for people with big dreams and thin wallets and this is what we will continue to do, now and in the future, transforming ourselves from a linear business to a circular business, experimenting with materials and solutions that are both of quality, sustainable and affordable. Just as we have made design democratic, our challenge now is to make sustainable choices affordable for all.