So it’s come to this: BILLY is joining the gig economy, and he’ll hold your books and whatever else you see fit until you upgrade to KALLAX or HEMNES, or you finally bring yourself to KonMari all your worldly possessions away.
IKEA recently announced that it is looking to launch a subscription model, in which customers effectively “lease” furniture and trade it back via credit system; depending on the condition, the Swedish behemoth will either refurbish or recycle the used items. Initially limited to the office market, the scheme conjures dainty visions of a low-rent WeWork, all LINNMON tabletops and ADILS legs, and maybe some TRÅDFRI smart lightbulbs for good measure. If all goes well in Switzerland, where IKEA is reportedly piloting the service starting this month, you’ll soon be able to rent your kitchen — in Northern Europe, cabinets and appliances are regarded as movable furniture, which the occupant buys and takes with them — and maybe even your next NORDLI.
At first blush, it sounds like another case of the subscription model taking finer slices — or in IKEA's case, an EKTORP-sized chunk — of modern life, from the latest Drake album and The Great British Baking Show to weekly/monthly essentials like groceries or razor blades to seasonal frills like couture. As subscribables go, most articles of furniture fall somewhere between a pragmatic nice-to-have (but not to own) like a car, and an unglamorous necessity like underwear. The initiative not only gives new meaning to the phrase “part of the furniture” — as in piecemeal ownership — but it also just makes sense to shed the deadweight, transubstantiating anchor into ballast. On one hand we covet hygge; on the other hand, we live, work, and play in the cloud. The new model promises the best of both worlds: no longer the angst of “either/or” but the joy of “both/and.”
Moreover, given the rise of adjacent life-slicers like Airbnb and upstarts like Wayfair, at least a couple other startups offer the very same. In fact, IKEA’s foray into virtual ownership might also be likened to WeWork for another reason: The idea has existed for decades. Outlets like Rent-A-Center have long offered a rent-to-own financing model for “brand name” furniture, not to mention vendors for office furniture rentals.
Of course, there’s little basis for these comparisons (not least because details remain scant). None of those other companies comes close to processing 1% of the world’s lumber and cotton every year; nor do they have a catalog circulation that rivals the Bible, Koran, and Harry Potter. Yet even at thousands or millions of times the scale of any putative competitors, IKEA sees the same twofold upshot. First, as the consumer-facing proposition described above, tapping into a segment of the population who prefer to lease (or “share”) and not own, whether due to evolving taste, eco-consciousness, or simply because so many of us young people are so transient these days. Secondly — and more importantly — as a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR, in business lingo) campaign, in keeping with the broader “People & Planet Positive” sustainability strategy it launched in 2012. As executive Torbjorn Loof told the Financial Times, IKEA is looking to “reduce its climate footprint by 15 per cent in absolute terms, which translated into a 70 per cent reduction per product by 2030 due to growth.” Victor Papanek would be proud.
In theory, it is precisely the nasty, brutish, and short lifecycle of IKEA products that makes them prime candidates for the circular economy...
Which is all to the good, until you start to ponder the as-yet-TBD logistics of the whole enterprise. Does it include or entail delivery and/or installation, or was that in the PowerPoint slide about upselling white-glove concierge service as an additional revenue stream (here it’s worth noting that IKEA acquired Taskrabbit in 2017)? Will customers still be forced to subject themselves to chaotic parking lots and aggravating queues to rotate their POÄNGS, or will the distribution hubs be dedicated sites in up-and-coming industrial parks? Just how many pulverized, reconstituted FROSTAs does it actually take to make a brand new PAX? If pick-up and delivery are included, will subscriptions inspire a second-order “IKEA Effect,” a self-esteem-boosting pseudo-DIY microdose via monthly MALM? And how much would it cost per annum to subscribe to just the tiny wooden dowels and those vanishing pegs for mounting the shelves of said PAX — parts of the furniture, as it were? (To this last rhetorical question, the answer is that IKEA is also reportedly considering launching a replacement-parts service.)
But those are just the easy questions, the superficial ones; even if the Swiss live more austere lifestyles than Americans, those issues can ultimately be A/B-tested and focus-grouped away. The bigger picture has less to do with how we regard the domestic sphere — cloud-hygge — than with IKEA as a prism for how we consume stuff today.
The crucial difference between IKEA and the companies listed above (with the exception of Gillette, and maybe Netflix) is that it actually produces the things it will be leasing. The sui generis giant is a veritable case study on economies of scale and the positive feedback afforded by supply-chain savvy, from the trees to hex-wrench-wielding customers like you and me (or, if you prefer, a Taskrabbit).
As much as this globalized apparatus enables it to deliver on its promise of affordable quality — the original dream of modern design — the sordid reality is that the products are often regarded as temporary, if not outright disposable. Keeping step with the relentless march of obsolescence, it’s a reputation that IKEA won’t shed any time soon, oft-derided as it is for statistically significant rates of user error and materials that are flimsier than jokes about them. (In fairness, I’ve found many IKEA products, from kitchen cabinets to my personal fave, the BEKVAM stepstool, to be sufficiently sturdy.)
In theory, it is precisely the nasty, brutish, and short lifecycle of such products that makes them prime candidates for the circular economy: One could argue, vis-à-vis Papanek, that the 21st-Century amendment to quaint visions of high-quality, mass-produced goods for everyone would be a circular, guilt-free approach to consumption — again, the best of both worlds. In practice, it seems absurd to amortize the cost of, say, a $13 side table over the duration of its average lifespan (“yours for less than a dollar a month!”) precisely because it’s so cheap and cheerful — less than the cost of a decent cocktail in Manhattan, or your Uber ride home from the bar. All else equal, it’s just plain simpler to toss that LACK when you’re done with it than to assume the opportunity cost of reselling (much less refurbishing) the damn thing; it’s part of the furniture that won’t be missed.
This is the double-edged sword of a dominant multinational consumer-goods brand-cum-retailer operating at post-industrial, mass-market, high-volume/low-cost (and hyphenated-descriptor) scale: IKEA’s superlatively value-engineered products are widely and cheaply acquirable, generally serviceable, and guiltlessly disposed of. To the extent that BILLY is a minimum viable product designed for maximum marketable profit, IKEA is a krona-making machine; its margins not razor-thin but sufficiently plush, cleverly vacuum-packed yet offering plenty of cushion for the bottom line. But insofar as the shapeless externalities of environmental impact can’t be flat-packed like the rest of the parts — accounting for them will certainly cost more than the change you’ll find in the sofa cushions when you swap it for another one — it remains to be seen as to whether the company will eat its profit margins or try to squeeze the difference out of its customers. (Duly noted that IKEA also pads its margins with questionable labor practices, complacency in consumer safety, and sketchy non-profit governance, but those are topics for another time.)
Circling around to the far side of the product lifecycle, it’s worth relating an ongoing crisis in the waste management industry (drowned out by various more strident headlines of late). As of last year, China — by far the world’s largest processor of post-consumer recycling — is no longer importing Western waste, effectively strangling the outflow of scrap paper and plastic from Stateside operators. It’s too complexly wicked an economic problem to summarize here (thankfully the likes of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have done so), but the short version is that your local blue/green-bin hauler used to turn a profit by selling your Amazon boxes (properly broken down, please) and discarded clamshells to China, and now they’re probably paying for the privilege — or, more likely, quietly dumping it in landfills (at least until the robots come).
What does that have to do with IKEA taking back your MELLTORP, replacing a bolt, and shunting it to the as-is section? Nothing, and everything: Besides a friendly reminder that the first R is “reduce,” it seems that even the greenest of intentions are beholden to the unforgiving logic of free-market economics.
Hence, a paradox: On one hand, only a company with IKEA’s heft, insulated as it is from the vagaries of market volatility, can meaningfully combat climate change, i.e. by bringing its prodigious efficiencies to bear on the problem. On the other hand, the calculus of a circular economy simply may never equal the unquantifiable — and frankly inconceivable — scale of what’s at stake. In its very thorough analysis of China’s “National Sword” policy (as the scrap stoppage is known), the Financial Times compares the annual gross tonnage of recycling worldwide to “the weight of 740 Empire State Buildings,” but I couldn’t tell you what that means in terms of impact per person, much less what I as an individual can do to help. (The easy answer would have been to properly clean and sort our recycling, but we literally missed the boat on that one.)
IKEA, for its part, publishes annual reports with sales and environmental impact figures; per the latest statistics [PDF], raw materials were by far the biggest contributor to its total greenhouse gas emissions at 38%, followed by a vague category called “Customer product use” at a notable 23% (also notable: the methodology isn’t provided). Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that “Customer transportation to stores” comes in next at 14%, slightly higher than “Production” (12%), and shockingly more than three other categories — “Goods transport,” “IKEA stores” and “Product’s end-of-life” — combined (4% each). The subscription model might chip away the beginning and end of the lifecycle, but it turns out that we, the end users, are responsible for nearly as much of the footprint.
Indeed, it’s business as usual on the Western front, climate science be damned. Sure, we shudder and quake at the latest special reports and assessments; we applaud the international accords and agreements (and more recently the Green New Deal); some of us armchair environmentalists even strive to be more conscientious about our consumption habits. The tragic irony is that the natural world — the backdrop of life before furniture was invented — is not only literally “part of the furniture” in the form of raw materials, but also that its destruction has equally become part of the environment, in chair and air alike, the devastation all the more invisible for its planetary scale (at least until the next superstorm/megafire/polar vortex cometh).
To that point, IKEA has covered itself with a veneer of sustainability for several years now — best case, baby steps; worst case, greenwashing — and a recent sequel to its best-known TV spot duly captures the change of heart in a kind of #16yearchallenge. Where the original 2002 ad ended with a punchline equating new with better, the follow-up flips the script: “Many of you feel happy for this lamp. That's not crazy — reusing things is much better.” It’s certainly clever for the brand to acknowledge the second, third, and nth lives of its products; heirlooms they ain’t, but, having bought and sold many IKEA products over the years, I can attest to the demand for a secondhand SÖDERHAMN as well as the dubiousness of a cheap KLIPPAN on Craigslist (either way, they tend to depreciate faster than you can unpack them).
Conversely, if advertising presents one face of the company, it’s also worth looking beyond the CSR, PR, FSC, etc., to ROI: where it’s placing the big bets. As of last year, that would be India, where it opened its first store in August (just a month before “Lamp 2” aired in Canada), reinforcing IKEA’s status as a bellwether for a solid middle class (right up there with Big Macs and Starbucks as indicators of purchasing power parity, per Bloomberg’s Billy Bookcase Index). Thus, if China’s chokehold on recycling is a disturbing symptom of the opaqueness of globalized capitalism, the rising quality-of-life in the subcontinent — BILLYs for the next billion buyers — symbolizes the upside of the very same socioeconomic and geopolitical forces.
More concretely speaking, IKEA’s calculated gamble on India affirms that profit remains its number-one priority, with sustainability coming in second, third, or nth place — it’ll have to wait in line behind all of those giddy first-time customers, carts piled high with new, “much better” stuff.
Here in New York, a visit to the big yellow-and-blue box entails navigating a similar housewares maze but slightly different huddled masses, from college kids to three-generation families to young couples of every race, color and creed bickering about the decor of their first place together. If nothing else, IKEA assembles a truly diverse — perhaps even representative — constituency of shoppers: students, parents, hipsters, yuppies, immigrants, residents, liberals, conservatives, tired, poor, rich young old white black Hispanic Asian gay straight both neither all-of-the-above, all groping the upholstery and sucking down soft serve, all struggling with unwieldy flatbed carts with one wayward wheel, all spending more than they thought they would because what’s another 5-10-15 bucks, all losing themselves in the endless aisles and bins (or dare I say sunken place) of consumerism.
The real question, then, is this: How do you convince them — us — not only to recycle their things when they’re done with them, but also to reduce, reuse, and treat things better in general — in a word, to care? Or more specifically, how do you incentivize them to pay a premium, i.e. a subscription fee, to cover the hidden costs of BILLY’s pension plan and life insurance, when they have their own to worry about? After all, the vast majority of IKEA customers are looking for functional forms at the lowest possible pricepoint; nothing more, nothing less. Is it even possible for the budget-friendly Scandinavian titan to upsell sustainability as “part of the furniture” (to recycle the metaphor one last time — see what I did there)?
A cynic might respond that a more appropriate idiom would be “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic” — to hell with Spaceship Earth, those TÄRNÖs are a bargain at $15 a pop. As Papanek, a notorious doomsayer himself, put it (writing about a packaging concept in Design for the Real World): “Much more than these Swedish experiments will have to be done to save us from product pollution” (no disrespect to Greta).
All told, the significance of the gesture — and that’s all it is for now — has little to do with aesthetics (Scandi-lite), quality (passable), or optics (what do you get when you mix blue and yellow?). Rather, it’s the fact that IKEA, itself a product of the machinery of late capitalism, is drawing a line in the sand in order to turn back the tide of globalized consumption — not unlike the Paris climate agreement. A Herculean task if not a Sisyphean one, this undertaking will require far greater investment than virtue signaling: There’s no instruction manual for building a circular economy, and it may well demand a wholesale transformation of IKEA’s entire business model, bending the linear logic of growth back upon itself.
To bring it full circle back to BILLY, he was “dreamed up in 1978” — seven years after the publication of Design for the Real World — “by an IKEA designer called Gillis Lundgren who sketched it on the back of a napkin, worried that he would forget it.” The 2017 account in BBC continues: “Now there are 60-odd million in the world, nearly one for every 100 people — not bad for a humble bookcase.”
From the end user’s point of view, that’s either a lot of storage space or a lot of expendable junk; from IKEA’s perspective, that’s an impressive sales figure or a bumper crop of recyclable material. But to the extent that the latter dichotomy is not mutually exclusive — not “either/or” but “both/and” — it’s not just a matter of seeing the forest for the trees (or the environment for the bookshelf), but of seeing both the whole and its (ahem) parts. There’s no such thing as both worlds — we all share the responsibility for the one we have.
If BILLY can do his part, you can too.
Feb 21: This essay has been edited for clarity and consistency.
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