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Selling sustainability

“Do you want some tips for your readers?” asks IKEA sustainable development manager for UK and Ireland Charlie Browne.

“My first would be to take pictures to illustrate what you mean.  For example, follow a waste container to the sorting station and take pictures and present them to store management, it lets them know that they can’t hide their sins! And my second would be the 90/5/5 rule. This is the concept that within any organisation, 5% of the people will be passionate, the activists who help motivate others; 5% will be obstructive and resistant; and the remaining 90% will be general people who you will be able to motivate in a certain direction. The idea is that the 5% who are activists motivate the main 90% towards a certain behaviour, so that the 5% who are obstructive either adapt or leave. Companies need to find that 5% within their organisations who have that passion.”

Browne himself must be one of the motivating 5%. It was his passion for sustainability and the environment that helped him create his current environmental role, having gone into IKEA as a risk manager 15 years ago.

“I saw all the environmental aspirations the company had and I went into a store and saw how much money was being wasted in waste management costs. So I locked the bins and put a waste management system in place. It saved £50,000 in the first year. Then I did it for the other six stores.”

I ask how he has gone about achieving buy in. “I’m not really an academic. I’m more of a practical person. So I bring store managers to the recycling bays to show them how much money they are throwing away, and I take pictures at landfill sites to show the management group that it’s IKEA products being landfilled, to wake them up,” Browne says.

For IKEA the cost savings involved in good waste management and recycling systems fit perfectly with the company’s low cost approach, and vision of helping create a better life for people without a hefty price tag. Browne says sustainability is part of IKEA’s DNA, and recalls a recent encounter with Ingvar Kamprad, the 85-year old founder of Ikea who set up the retailer in 1943. “He saw something on the wall about Earth Hour [the global climate change campaign where supporters switch their lights off for an hour] which we were taking part in, and he said ‘We were doing sustainability before it was called sustainability’,” Browne recounts.

“I locked the bins and put a waste management system in place. It saved £50,000 in the first year”

He thinks that now, sustainability needs to be a core part of any business. “15 years ago we spent £39,000 on waste disposal at in my first store. It is, 15 years later, projected to spend less than £20,000 and aiming to be cost neutral on disposal, and we have some stores now even making a net profit because of the sale of recyclables,” Browne says. Achieving high recycling rates has taken years and years of work, and isn’t something that happens overnight, Browne warns. But the work has paid off:  in 2009, when the company had 19 stores, it spent less on waste disposal than in 2005 when it had 11.

Its environmental outlook stems mainly from its Swedish roots and the country’s high environmental standards. Browne is clued up on what real sustainability is and is aware of the “smoke and mirrors” that surround some environmental claims and passing on responsibility. “A lot of people are talking about zero waste to landfill but is it really zero waste to landfill, or sending your waste to a recycling centre and then to landfill?” he says.

He argues for more transparency around company’s environmental claims and clarity for consumers on what is really sustainable. He also feels retailers should work more closely together on sustainability and remarks that most hold their environmental cards close to their chests in order to gain maximum PR benefit, but this can lead to confusing consumers with lots of different types of messages on the same topic.

So does he think retailers have a responsibility to educate their customers on environmental matters? “I do think we need to give clarity, so that when people come to shop they are given the best choices and straightforward advice. It makes us feel confident in who we are, and helps build trust. There is currently a big debate around sustainability and the questions from adults today will only grow with the adults of tomorrow.”

To address this, IKEA is trying to communicate what it does around environmental issues more clearly. As part of this, Browne has his own blog on the IKEA website, where he writes about environmental issues and includes practical, money saving tips that the average IKEA customer can put into practice. The company has also introduced ‘the never ending list’ on its website and in its stores which details all the small steps it is taking towards being more sustainable.

Part of the success of IKEA’s waste and recycling system – commercial and environmental - has been its passion to find alternative outlets for its waste materials. Browne explains that each £1-worth of potential waste it sells in the stores’ bargain corners equates to £10 of real sales the business does not have to make. By burning its wood waste in biomass boilers, it eliminates transport costs and saves on bills by generating its own hot water and gas heating. Donating its waste textiles to schools for projects, removes disposal costs and benefits its local communitiesby making its rubbish someone elses resource.

The retailer is now looking to pilot an onsite composter for the food waste its restaurants generate but is finding it challenging. “When you try and get these units in, there are hoops that you have to jump through. We will only generate about 0.5 to 0.75 tonnes of food waste a week, not massive amounts, but there’s lot of regulation which is geared towards large scale facilities,” he explains.

Beyond its own waste, it is also looking at how to help its customers with their waste problems. It recently started a new national initiative with reuse organisation, the Furniture Reuse Network, putting customers in touch with local reuse charities that could benefit from the old sofas and armchairs its customers are replacing. Each store provides information leaflets to customers on their local furniture reuse charities and the IKEA website now links through to the FRN’s national map of reuse organisations.

Closing the loop – using raw material from its products in new products - would be the next natural step on IKEA’s sustainability journey and this is where Browne hopes to see the company shift in the next 5-10 years. It is also looking into how to design products for disassembly and will continue to look at frugality, where it can cut waste and use its resources more effectively.

The company is happy to stick its neck out, try new things and help its customers adapt to changes that help the environment. After all, five years ago the retailer stopped giving away plastic bags to customers at check out, saving it a significant amount of money,  cutting a source of waste and saving at least 250 million single-use plastic carrier bags from going to landfill . While other retailers are still weaning their customers off single use carrier bags, IKEA is looking at the next way to cut waste, save costs and help be a more sustainable retailer.

IKEA in numbers

Targets:

-Current recycling target of 90%

Achievements:

+90% recycling at five UK stores

+80% recycling at nine stores

60% recycling at the remaining stores

A day in the life of Charlie Browne

Charlie is 47 years old and has worked for IKEA UK for 14 years. He was a member of the Armed Forces and has worked in Security and Risk Management sector. Within IKEA, Charlie worked in the Risk and Health and Safety area before his interest in Environmental matters brought him into Environmental management.  He has worked in the environmental field for 12 years with main focus being store operations including waste management, Energy conservation and resource efficiency.

What does your job involve?

It is changing from being very much practical, towards the communications side, as we are at the stage now where we have changed and influenced the behaviour of 19 stores and 8,500 co-workers and their families. Now, we have the task of informing and changing the behaviour of 20 million visitors.

How does IKEA’s environmental structure work?

Each of our stores are individual business units, so the store manager is the chief executive of his business and will report to the board of directors, and the full time environmental coordinators from each store will report to them. We have matrix responsibility, so I am not their boss but have responsibility for them and the environmental overview. I have a webex every month with all of the environmental guys to go through their KPIs and I also get in an external speaker to take part. We have a bit of a laugh and a joke and we share best practice, what we call our golden nuggets. As an example, a few years ago one of the store coordinators said they were cutting all the cables off damaged products and getting £750/tonne for the copper, so that was quickly shared across the other stores.

What’s the best part of your job?

Seeing people grow. I don’t get excited about seeing 0.5% increases but do from seeing people grow in their roles. There is also a real sense of pride with what the guys have done in their stores, when all costs are going up but ours are coming down.

And the worst?

Saying no to people as everyone who comes to me with a suggestion comes in with a good heart and wants to do the right thing, but it also needs to be commercially viable.

Recycle for IKEA initiative in Peterborough

Waste management company Viridor has been working with IKEA to provide an insight into the realities, benefits and challenges of recycling among its employees. The ‘recycle for IKEA’ training and awareness programme was launched in May at IKEA’s distribution centre in Peterborough with a roadshow organised by Viridor to highlight how important recycling is and the vital role each individual plays to help the company achieve its goals. It was then taken to its distribution centre in Doncaster.

IKEA social and environment developer Rob Buck said: “We have very ambitious recycling and recovery targets which can only be achieved if everyone in the company utilise effectively the facilities we have put in place, with support from our appointed contractor Viridor”.

The aim of the partnership is to improve understanding of recycling and encourage more participation in the scheme among IKEA’s 700 employees at the distribution centres.

Teresa Cole, contract manager for Viridor, said: “The response from IKEA’s employees has been fantastic so far and we look forward to continuing engaging with them to drive landfill diversion even higher”.

The ‘Recycle for IKEA’ roadshows follow a successful site visit to Viridor’s MRF in Peterborough in late in April by 22 Ikea managers and team leaders to see how the company’s materials are recycled.

 

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