Sustainability: Taking steps, living by example

NRF 2022: IKEA U.S. CEO Javier Quiñones on committing to people and the planet

Cost or investment? Big gestures or small steps? The keynote session, “When climate becomes a business imperative: A conversation with IKEA U.S. CEO and Chief Sustainability Officer Javier Quiñones,” framed the topic of sustainability from a fresh — and optimistic — view.

Kate Hardin, executive director of Deloitte’s Research Center for Energy & Industrials, opened the talk with data from a recent survey of 23,000 people across 23 countries. It showed that 72 percent of respondents believe climate change is an emergency, and 57 percent are worried or anxious about climate change. But 55 percent had purchased a sustainable product or service within the last four weeks, and 30 percent said they had paid more for that product or service — significantly more. Almost 20 percent reported that they had waited longer for it.

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This suggests, she said, that consumers are beginning to think about this and take action.

Sustainability isn’t about a single choice, Hardin said. It’s about billions of choices made every day.

In terms of business, there’s often a focus on the “costs” of new technologies, of taking action in this area. “What we would suggest is that actually, there’s another way of looking at this, which is thinking about the costs of inaction,” Hardin said. “What are the costs of not making these choices?”

Hardin introduced Quiñones to extend the retail connection to sustainability. As it turns out, his connections to sustainability have been both professional and personal for decades.

When he joined IKEA in 1997 as a part-time worker, the first thing he did was attend sustainability training. Today, as both CEO and CSO, he doesn’t sit in meetings and take one hat off to put the other on, he said. Managing both is “very natural.”

Living by example

“It’s so important, and for me it’s about living by example,” he said. “It’s part of who I am, and part of the role of all leaders at IKEA. It’s part of everyone’s job description, actually.”

Sustainability, he said, is part of IKEA’s DNA. The Swedish retailer aims to positively impact people and the planet, including collaborating with suppliers to create fair working conditions, using resources wisely and inspiring customers to live more sustainable lives at home.

But one difference stands out amid the finding that consumers would be willing to pay more for sustainable goods and services: “We want to make sustainability affordable for the many, not only affordable for a few,” Quiñones said. “That’s extremely important in the way we see this from the brand’s perspective.”

In 2015, the company decided to focus on LED lighting as the most sustainable option, and to eliminate any other types of bulbs. When that effort began, LED bulbs went for $7-$8. Now, however, they’re as inexpensive as $1.29.

Overall, IKEA has the goal of being a circular and climate positive business by 2030. In 2021, it added another step in that journey: a Buy Back & Resell program to give gently used IKEA furniture a second life. IKEA has also continued to invest in sustainably managed forests, and owns solar and wind farms.

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For others just starting out, he said that sustainability efforts must come from the company core, with leaders willing to be fully committed. It’s also important to remember that it may require a cultural shift, and that doesn’t happen overnight.

The good news, however, is that Quiñones, a self-described “extremely positive” person, believes retail is ready. In short, the industry must be, because “time is ticking.”

“The important thing here is that we start, that we have long-term plans, but that we also break it into the short term,” he said.

It may only be one step forward on what promises to be a journey, but that’s still one step forward. “Start with movement,” he said. “Getting paralyzed is not an option.”

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