Is IKEA sustainable or evil? No ikea!

IMG_0482The holidays are great for relaxing with the sort of books that you don’t normally read. One of my choices this Christmas was ‘Horrorstör‘ by Grady Hendrix.

The novel opens with a stench of zombies (‘the barely living dead’) that are about to be revived by megadoses of coffee.*

You soon realise that these are actually humans arriving for work at Orsk (a furniture megastore like IKEA – only cheaper).

The real zombies don’t appear until a bit later on – as the store was supposedly built on the site of a 19th Century prison.

The fairly predictable plot involves a handful of employees who stay back one night to try to work out why there is always a mess in the morning with broken goods and soiled furniture.

***************

Horrorstör is cleverly designed to look like an IKEA catalogue – the sort of publication that affords you a false (naive?) sense of control over which sections you will visit and allows you to carefully plan out what you will buy before you arrive.

Once in the store, however, a never-ending maze with no windows or points of reference sets out to deliberately and systematically disorient you. At the same time, enticing displays ruthlessly manipulate you into parting with far more of your hard-earned cash than you had expected.

The building layout, products, and sales concept described in Horrorstör all sound eerily familiar, including the need to follow the ‘Bright & Shining Path’ to avoid getting lost & accidentally being locked in after closing time.

IMG_0488***************

Mind you, if you had to spend the night, IKEA would be one of the better options as not many other stores are set up with fully furnished rooms, food (mmmm Swedish chocolate), candles, and other useful paraphernalia.

In fact, a New York comedian actually moved into an IKEA store for a week while his apartment was being fumigated (with management approval – here).

(See http://www.marklivesinikea.com for more episodes, including what the store is like at night – here – and a death during his stay – here. Other people must have a similar fantasy as AirBnB ran a competition to win a night’s stay at an IKEA store in Sydney – here.)

Some creative souls also filmed a 7-part mini soap opera called ‘IKEA Heights’ in a Californian store during opening hours – without management even realising. (Watch Episode 1 here)**

***************

IMG_0486It is clear from the outset that the main character, Amy, is a rebel when she enters the store near the checkout counters, walks upstream through the self service area, and marches on with blatant disregard for the arrows in the showroom area towards the entrance. (She likens this to a journey from the bowel up the digestive tract to the mouth.)

I really liked the dedicated supervisor character, Basil, who is concerned about Amy’s attitude and never misses an opportunity to quote the company’s great founder or excerpts from the management handbook.

The book’s constant references to the store being ‘your home’ are quite creepy and are definitely not reassuring.

When key pieces of furniture turn into instruments of torture, you are left with the uneasy sensation that buying these pieces might be inviting monsters into your home.

The Tranquility chair, for example, drains one’s lifeblood and imbues a mind-numbing complacency. And some tall narrow wardrobe cabinets are transformed into coffins.

I’ll probably never feel the same when (if) I visit an IKEA store in future. Will I be game to sit in a Poäng chair ever again?***

And will I be able to sleep soundly knowing that I might end up imprisoned in my Bestå wall system? At the very least, I might keep a few spare Allen keys in my pyjama pocket to aid my escape (just in case).

***************

IMG_0484The book left a niggling voice in my brain ‘Orsking’ if the IKEA management team and founder agree that ‘Horrorstör‘ is an amusing parody – and not a breach of copyright or an offensive rip-off that must be destroyed (like Elia’s ‘We go to the gallery’ Ladybird book that upset Penguin Books not so long ago – here).

I also wondered if some clever author could do something similar with a Bunnings catalogue (a huge hardware & garden supplies warehouse in Australia – like Home Depot).

Although Bunnings stores are laid out in a grid rather than a maze, I still see lots of potential – such as garden gnomes coming to life and terrorising customers with garden hoes and welding equipment.

(Images of the Gremlins bar scene – here – and the Fantasia brooms and mops sequence in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice – here – spring to mind.)

A comic book format might work best as Bunnings’ catalogues use rows of sketches rather than photos. The feature film based on the book could even include some romance with a touch of Bollywood (e.g. this fantastic proposal in a Home Depot store that I reckon should have been called ‘Wood you marry me?’ – here).

Then maybe a sequel in Officeworks…?

ikea slides 3

***************

IKEA has undoubtedly inspired many creative stories over the years but I have never seen a whole book before.

One article I discovered suggests that the store was created by a Norse god as a recruiting ground to find brave viking warriors (here). This theory may have some merit.

Having chosen what you want in the mock ‘Valhalla’ showroom upstairs, visitors descend into the underworld. (Valhalla is Norse heaven where the gods & vikings who die in battle ‘live’ forever.)

You are now faced with a vast plain of irresistibly low-priced items that tempt all but the purist of consumers (the market hall) and a treacherous mountain range of flat packed boxes (the self service area) where you must complete a number of difficult tasks:

  • Your first challenge is to find the hidden items using only the code (before the trolls awaken).
  • Next you have to battle your way through the checkout with the items piled up precariously on your metal chariot (paying with cash, credit or blood).
  • Your final quest is a puzzle – to construct the item at home (aided only by a series of cryptic drawings and a strange metal key).

***************

Ellen Ruppel Shell (author of ‘Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture’) argues that IKEA’s low prices exact untold environmental, aesthetic, and social tolls (but I haven’t read her book yet) and numerous authors complain that company has been shrouded in mystery.

In a promising sign, access to information about IKEA has improved over the past few years with the release of voluntary public reports (noting that it is a private company) and other on-line publications such as a group sustainability vision for 2020 (here).

Unsurprisingly, some of IKEA’s initiatives have been pragmatic reactions to scandals and unrelenting external pressure, but I get the impression that the company has had to respond to a far higher level of scrutiny on these topics than many of their competitors.

(IKEA even copped a hard time from some quarters when they changed the font used in their catalogues.)

This might be appropriate given IKEA’s size, range of products, global reach and potential influence over standard practices. However, we (including the environmental cognoscenti) tend to be fairly inconsistent in our choice of which companies, product lines and issues attract our attention.

Publicly available documents (that I have only skimmed) about IKEA’s approach to sustainability mention programs for staff (‘co-workers’) and supplier codes of conduct, as well as a small army of compliance and monitoring auditors. They also outline the company’s involvement with Better Cotton initiatives and cooperation with the WWF on forestry and climate change issues etc (e.g. here).

Although there has only been one significant exposé to date (‘The truth about IKEA‘), other ex-employees have confirmed reports of a cult-like culture and ‘brainwashing’. And various groups over the years have raised concerns about forced labour, racism, the founder’s early nazi affiliations and other problems, including an industrial dispute in the US  about uneven pay and conditions across countries.

Health and safety, including the range of raw materials and chemicals used in the production and manufacturing of IKEA products, appears to have always been on the radar (even if action was sometimes only taken after revelations appeared in the media).  For example, IKEA now has a policy to not use PVC and formaldehyde and tries to minimise its use of other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in production and via off-gassing during each products’ life. The same goes for heavy metals such as chromium and lead.

Ultimately, the company aims to make life more comfortable for renters and anyone living in very compact (small) houses and apartments – which in itself is a good thing (especially compared with the oversized McMansions that proliferate in suburbs across Australia and take over valuable farm land and natural areas).

IMG_0483The company also promotes energy and water efficiency at its own premises and in the downstream homes of their customers (and is voluntarily phasing out incandescent globes in countries where they have not already been outlawed).

IKEA is a massive consumer of timber but claims to use sustainable sources and their flat packs aim to optimise shipping and storage space, energy and associated costs.

It seeks to reduce packaging waste and charges customers for reusable plastic shopping bags.

The company has also come up with innovative pallets that reduce timber consumption in favour of rigid paper pallets.****

On the other hand, critics say that IKEA promotes a throw away culture and that furniture removalists recommend to clients that they buy new furniture instead of moving large used items.

(The company says that consumers are to blame for this attitude as IKEA products are made to last and often come with long guarantees. And don’t most retailers encourage us to buy things that we don’t really need and to replace out of date models even if they still function perfectly well?)

However, there is no avoiding the fact that IKEA products also account for massive volumes of synthetic materials (plastics) and metals that are not from renewable sources and are likely to end up in landfill.

To counter such criticisms, the company says that it uses recycled plastic in some of its lines and is researching ways to recycle products such as sofas.

Critics also complain that IKEA builds most of its stores in locations to which people must drive.

But regardless of whether the company would prefer to be closer in or not, out of the way sites are clearly a rational business choice as the impact of a store of this scale in a central location would be significant (if they could find a council prepared to grant planning permission).

While creating lots of jobs in areas where IKEA stores open, they presumably eat into the profits of other stores in the area and put some of them out of business. A degree of bad publicity and opposition, therefore, may be motivated to some (a large?) extent by competition and not necessarily or solely by the store’s environmental impacts and social standing (e.g. here).

IKEA also says that it invests in research into solar power and other green technologies and donates money and products to UNICEF and other causes. However, critics say that these charitable donations represent only a tiny fraction of its profits.

Questions have also been ‘Orsked’ about whether the company pays its fair share of tax in the countries where it operates.

So is IKEA as evil as some of its detractors claim or not? You can decide how it measures up before your next visit…

IMG_2513

***************

If you have a few hours to spare, Horrorstör is good fun but is not likely to become a classic.

Otherwise, watching the 7-part ‘Ikea Heights’ series on-line may be more enjoyable and cheaper (here) but it won’t last very long.

If you prefer humour over melodrama, try the IKEA spoof series ‘Easy to Assemble’ (here).

Or you could just take the kids to the real thing, eat some meatballs, and escape the real world for a few hours (if you dare).

***************

Notes:

* According to Wiktionary, this is apparently the collective noun. An alternative is a ‘stagger of zombies’.

** This episode includes a murder using a polyester cushion that are apparently better for suffocating people – and which may be a comment about the controversy over IKEA allegedly plucking goose feathers from live geese in the past.

*** Is this why they keep some Poäng chairs in glass cages with a punching bag that hits them continuously?

**** Given that the overall weight is reduced, I assume that the paper uses less timber and may take advantage of offcuts and scrap paper?

***** I spotted IKEA at a train station/shopping centre in Hong Kong where car ownership is low. And Danish stores apparently provide trailers for hire that can be attached to bicycles to help get products home!

Sources (Accessed 13 Jan 2015):

Images:

  • Horrorstör cover & excerpts – Book design by Andie Reid with cover photography by Christine Ferrara & illustrations by Michael Rogalski 
  • IKEA Australia catalogue 2014 – cover & page 6


Categories: Environment

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

5 replies

  1. One had no ‘ikea’ that Ikea generates so much of multidimensional interest!

  2. Gmail (sometimes an evil giant in its own right) hid my notification of your blog update — I’m glad I finally found it. Meanwhile, I could be convinced either way on Ikea. Good: some interesting and inexpensive options I’ve appreciated — frames to fit a couple of vinyl album covers I wanted to keep, an orchid gift that bloomed 3 years, ideas on storage. Oh wait, don’t let’s forget, sole source of lingonberry jam. Bad: I tried their BPA-free microwavable (ha!) containers (ha says it all) that quickly cracked, also, too much cheap furniture destined for the curb. On the subject of store size and location, they’re still miles better than Walmart, who build large stores in smaller towns, then abandon them to stand empty for years while they move on to build bigger stores not far away.
    Thanks for (as usual) and informative and interesting post! — Sandy

    • I understand that IKEA usually only goes into areas with a catchment of at least 1.5 million people. We are meant to be getting a store here in Canberra soon but have less than 400,000 people (more in the region but still nowhere near 1.5m & we are not that far from the Sydney stores). Local businesses are already struggling due to big cuts to government jobs (largest employer here) so I hate to think what impact this will have.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: