On the stage at Lisbon’s WebSummit are two cream-colored sofas set up like a living room. A woman in a black dress takes her place. This is Pia Heidenmark Cook, IKEA’s sustainable development manager. “I feel like I’m at home here,” she jokes before beginning her conference on “People & Planet Positive,” the sustainable development strategy for the furniture giant created in 2012.

In the next few minutes, she unveils a series of goals for 2030, summed up as “transforming the company, its supply chain partners, and the lives of people all around the world.” A modest goal. On the giant screen, slides and commitments fly by. IKEA identifies three major challenges for encouraging positive change within the company: climate change, unsustainable consumption and inequality.

Using these, the company is focusing on three points of action, including positive impact on the climate. “To ensure that we respect the Paris accords, we need to make drastic changes. We have 12 years before 2030 to ensure that we don’t pass the limit of 1.5 degrees of climate warming,” the sustainable development manager says. Several commitments have been made with this in mind: stocking up on wood, cotton, food and other raw materials from sustainably managed sources, reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the supply chain and even reusing waste before sending it to the landfill.

Despite the good intent, the relationship between a large company and the environment is often complex. By making real efforts to minimize its environmental impact, IKEA has built a sustainable development strategy around the principle of the green economy. But many environmentalists take issue with that, considering it no more than greenwashing.

One planet

One ecological paradox is immediately apparent in the introduction to the company’s sustainable development plan: “Having a positive impact shows that we’re always looking to produce more than we consume, while seeking to bring about positive change beyond our own company.” And yet, most environmentalists agree that our consumption patterns are the main cause of the 21stcentury ecological crisis.

In “L’écologie de la consommation” (The Ecology of Consumption), a university article by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York in 2010, the authors highlight an economic phenomenon. “In order to explain the crossing of ecological limits, capitalist companies have always tended to condemn everything outside the economic system itself. And yet, if the worsening of the ecological crisis has taught us anything, it’s that the main cause of the current ecological divide is the economy.”

In 2018, humans will consume the equivalent of 1.7 times the planet’s sustainable resources. The day when we cross the line of sustainability is “the date when our ecological footprint overtakes the biocapacity of the planet.” This is calculated each year by Global Footprint Network in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund. This year, the crossing date was 1 August, a considerable step backward from 1971, the first year the calculation was made.

The crossing date then was 21 December. At the heart of the WebSummit conference was a question: how do we improve quality of life within the limits of a single planet? And how could a multinational corporation like IKEA reconcile growth and sustainable development?

Green marketing

Since 2012, IKEA’s marketing strategy has been to highlight its environmental commitments with “People & Planet Positive,” but its ecological turn is a little older than that. At the Swiss giant’s French branch, a report on sustainable development was made in 2005 and published in 2010. The practice was analyzed by Laval University professor Bernard Dagenais, who specializes in communications strategies and public relations of organizations. According to him, it was part of the company’s social imaging language: “The annual moral report has been added to the annual accounting report, as part of the company’s civic activities management.”

Many companies have taken on environmental language in response to a growing ecological conscience among consumers, which has become increasingly apparent online. “Studies show that businesses with a sustainability-focused marketing campaign get way more appreciation from consumers,” Bernard Dagenais says.

For Valentina Carbone, professor of operations and supply chain management at ESCP Europe business school, environmentally responsible plans have become real “levers of communication” for large companies. Yet she criticizes the lack of real action behind “green marketing” strategies.

In 2010, the ISO 26000 standard was published by the International Organization for Standardization. It created a set of guidelines for businesses to commit to climate action and to encourage organizations to contribute to sustainable development. “Following this publication, several companies have modeled their marketing strategies on these standards and, more recently, on the United Nations’ sustainable development goals,” Valentina Carbone says. IKEA is no exception, with its sustainable development goals conforming “to the United Nations’ sustainable development goals,” People & Planet Positive explains.

Bernard Dagenais talks about an “image scam.” In his article “L’ambiguïté du discours public de l’entreprise : entre générosité et mensonge” (The Ambiguity of Business Public Relations: Between Generosity and Lie), he writes: “In the search for social legitimacy, big companies undertake seduction tactics on public opinion in order to build a trusting image.” In the 1990s, IKEA was sharply criticized for its high consumption of wood in product manufacturing. In response, the company joined reforestation projects through its subsidiary Swedwood and signed partnerships with the World Wide Fund for Nature.

A game of labels

Unlike other companies that are content to offer lip service, IKEA appears to be a unique case. The Swedish company has effectively committed to reducing its ecological impact. However, its environmental impact and its part in greenwashing are not to be taken lightly. The chain’s environmental labels ensuring sustainability and good ethics are the dubious center of IKEA’s sustainable development strategy.

IKEA’s wood consumption is still the main issue for ecologists. The company consumes around 1% of the world’s supply of wood each year. One of IKEA’s 2020 goals is “to supply ourselves entirely with wood and paper products from more sustainable sources.” The brand is approaching its goal. But the idea of “sustainable” isn’t black and white. IKEA has been awarded the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) label, which supposedly ensures that a company’s wood use respects sustainable forest management procedures. But other NGOs don’t trust the label, such as Greenpeace International, which withdrew from the organization in March 2018.

The same problem plagues its cotton sourcing. In order to assure that 100% of its material comes from sustainably managed sources, IKEA brandishes the label Better Cotton Initiative (BCI). This label, too, is strongly critiqued by environmental NGOs. The label’s 2005 creation correlated with a subsequent drop in organic cotton production worldwide, and pesticides became entrenched in cotton culture.

IKEA has taken on several environmental challenges. Efforts to reuse furniture using a “buyback” method have proven effective. For example, in Japan, getting rid of old dressers is expensive. In two years, more than 6,000 pieces of furniture have been bought back, 80% of which were renovated and resold. The same system has been used in France since 2013. Then again, buying back furniture in exchange for a gift card to buy even more furniture encourages even more consumption. Plastic is also being revalued. The company has committed to eliminating all single-use plastic products by 2020, but is also seeking to reuse the ones it consumes. For example, the plastic from pallet straps is taken and modified into plastic balls used in its products.

To further reduce its climate footprint, IKEA could, for example, print its 2019 catalogues on recycled paper. With 200 million copies a year, it is, after all, the third most published book in the world.