IKEA's bid to make sustainability sexy

IKEA became the first big UK retailer to sell solar panels this week, but its vision doesn't stop there. MT caught up the Swedish flatpack legend to find out more...

by Gabriella Griffith
Last Updated: 23 May 2016

‘There’s still a perception out there that sustainability is about living in a cave with the lights off and giving things up,’ says Joanna Yarrow, the head of sustainability at IKEA and self confessed campaigner.
‘But we’re finding if you provide people with the opportunity to experience a sustainable way of life, have a good look at it, try it on and sit on it - it loses its mystique and makes a lot of sense.’
Trying it on and sitting on it has been IKEA mantra since day one. Its vast, labyrinth-like showrooms have been allowing UK customers to get a taste life in an IKEA home for over 25 years – turning a shopping trip into an experiential jaunt (or a hellish errand - depending on your tolerance for busy shops). Now, the retailer is giving green-living the tangible IKEA treatment.
 The Swedish retail giant rolled out the sale of solar panels in the UK this week. Following a trial in its east London store, the German-made panels went on sale in Southampton on Monday and will be rolling out to the rest of the UK over the next ten months.
‘It’s a global first for us, the first time we’ve moved into providing a product for home energy generation and the first UK retail to offer a whole solution,’ explains Yarrow.
‘We’ve even tackled the problem of selling solar panels in a country where the sun doesn’t shine so much.’
She referring to the technology which has gone into IKEA’s solar panels. Made in Germany, they have a thin film of CIGS (that’s copper indium gallium selenide don’t you know) which allows the panels to generate energy even when it’s overcast. Which it often is.

IKEA's head of sustainability Joanna Yarrow

The panels start at £5,700 for 18 (including installation and aftercare by German manufacturers Hanergy) – not a bad price and with expert installation, you don't have to worry about baffling spare parts when you've finished putting them together. And with energy prices rising fast, investing in panels might start to look like a feasible alternative to coughing up to British Gas and its pals – making IKEA’s launch well timed.
‘A few years ago households could get away without even looking at their energy bills – they tended to be fairly stable and not a huge part of their annual spend but that has changed enormously and season after season people are paying more,’ agrees Yarrow.
But IKEA isn’t simply jumping on the sustainable bandwagon to encourage its customers to go green. The retailer is practicing what is preaches, and has been doing so for some time. In 2012 it launched its People & Planet Positive report – which lays out its goals for the next few years.
‘We are aiming to be energy positive by 2020 – which involves generating more than we use,’ she explains.
IKEA now has solar panels on many of its facilities. It also has a number of wind farms – its latest purchase was a windfarm in Ireland, to be used to power its Dublin and Belfast stores. The four turbines now operating for IKEA in Ireland bring the total owned by the retailer to 137.

Panels on an IKEA store in California
I wonder what Yarrow makes of all of the criticism which has been heaped onto wind farms of late, everyone from the Duke of Edinburgh to UKIP MEPs have blasted wind farms as ‘useless’.
‘I would say they are a fantastically benign way to generate energy; they are practically zero carbon, its hard to find a lower impact form of energy and commercially they make sense,’ she argues.
‘We’re currently generating 30% of our energy ourselves through solar and wind power and we’re aiming to get that up to 70% by 2015,’ she says.
A noble mission but surely an expensive one. According to Yarrow the retailer has put aside some €1.5bn to invest in its energy positive vision.
‘It’s a considerable investment but we’re not just doing out of altruism, there’s a strong business case there as well,’ she explains.
‘If we can stabilise costs and protect ourselves from fluctuating energy prices then our balance sheets will be more predictable. It terms of resilience and robustness we see it as no time like the present to be investing in sustainment. It’s even good for staff attraction and retention – there are plenty of staff out there that would chose to work in a more sustainable company.’
It hasn’t done the company’s any reputation any damage. In 2011, a collaboration between IKEA and the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory was nominated for a Katerva Award – that’s the equivalent to a Nobel prize for sustainability.
This is all well and good but can IKEA make sustainability sexy? It still falls into the reserve of green campaigners, causing anyone who doesn’t vote Green to fall asleep halfway through the word – ‘sustaina…zzzz’.
‘I hope so,’ laughs Yarrow. ‘It’s a challenge I’ve been battling with for 15 years and one IKEA has risen to time and time again – how to make shelving sexy, how to make storing food sexy etc.  In my experience if you can offer something with good design, maybe even quirky, you can get people motivated.
‘We’ve got a lot of exciting products in the pipeline I’m hearing about from Sweden. If people can relate to these things in a sexy way in certainly helps.’
Presumably not a darkened cave in sight.

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