Disposability, Sustainability, and IKEA
Rev. Derek R. Nelson
Lutherans Restoring Creation Blog
February 25, 2011
Walking into an IKEA is a deeply ambivalent experience for me. I am a Swede by ancestry, and what little pockets of quasi-nationalistic pride I have in me come bubbling up as I see the blue and yellow building rising up out of the pavement like a Scandinavian beacon of modernity. The smells of roasting meatballs, dill potatoes and lingonberries take me back to a wonderful year spent studying (frankly, “studying” should be in quotations) in Karlstad, Sweden. I have been, for most of my life, living right at or below the poverty line (As I’m frequently reminding my employer, I’m still way underpaid, but I can’t now nor ever have I been able to honestly claim to be “poor”). IKEA has always been right around what my budget would allow. Some of their designs are so dang innovative, clever and funky that it’s hard not to love them. And some of their stuff is quite well made and will stand up to the test of time.
What’s not to love, you ask? Well, I’m also a furniture maker. That I don’t do so professionally, settling instead for being a lowly college professor, means that I have broken at least a six generation tradition in my family. But I still do make furniture, and I take a great deal of pride in that work. Much of what I make comes from wood logged from my family’s farm in Minnesota. I try to make things that I can give to people that will last for a very long time. That way if they like it, they can give it to their children or grandchildren, and if they don’t, my imperfect generosity in giving it to them will stick in their craw for years – a deeply satisfying thing.
It might just be me, but I just can’t imagine anyone proudly passing along their BJURSTA dresser to their grandkids, or lovingly restoring a LEKSVIK shelf. That’s where the ambivalence comes in. There are genuine concerns about whether a person with as hyperactive a conscience as I have can conscionably shop at big box stores. In fact a recent article on IKEA in The Atlantic asks just those kinds of questions. Wig Zamore, an environmental activist working with the store on some greening initiatives, calls IKEA “the least sustainable retailer on the planet.” That might be a bit of overstatement, but partly he has a point. In order to keep costs down, IKEA locations are often far from urban centers, to take advantage of lower taxes. The average IKEA customer drives 50 miles per visit. The store is the 3rd largest consumer of wood in the world, and despite employing over a dozen “forestry monitors” there is certainly no guarantee that much of the wood is harvested sustainably.
IKEA’s products are meant to last for a while, at least, and all of them are designed quite intentionally, with an eye to both function and style. Yet one wonders if something is not lost in seeing our furniture as essentially a disposable item. When your FÖRHÖJA breaks, you buy a new FÖRHÖJA. Or you upgrade to a STENSTORP if you’re doing better than you were when you went lowball on the FÖRHÖJA. In addition to being wasteful, this default to replacement makes us less appreciative of quality workmanship, and inclines us to think that furniture built to last is way overpriced.
The mother of a friend of mine had a helpful rule of thumb when trying to make choices about buying items. She said that if you plan on having or using a product for seven years or more, you should buy the best one you can realistically afford. But if you plan to use it just for a little while, go cheap. That makes sense to me. And it might counsel us to buy our coffee cups and light bulbs from IKEA with a clear conscience, but our furniture elsewhere. There is often a very high cost to low prices, and that cost will be passed on to future generations if we continue to view big-ticket items like cabinets, dining room tables and sofas as fundamentally disposable products.
Dr. Derek Nelson is co-director of the Global Institute and Associate Professor of Religion at Thiel College in Greenville, PA.