Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Humanity vs. IKEA?

I don't know all that much about IKEA, the cheap furniture store. My exposure to it has been limited to looking at the catalog as a kid and this entry on Stuff Hill People Like. Two recent articles from Salon and the Atlantic Monthly, however, raise troubling questions about the company, and will be important for me to remember when I begin setting up a young professional's lifestyle in another year or so. The articles' key take-away is one Americans tend to forget: the dollar sticker on the store shelf is not the only price you pay for your consumer goods. The one thing I learned from my environmental science class last year is that our society does not internalize the externatlities and so we fail to realize what we're actually paying. According to Shell and Zacharek, in the case of IKEA, consumers are not only paying a few bucks but also a piece of their planet while simultaneously helping to perpetuate a culture of waste, materialism, and ingratitude.

From the Atlantic's annual summer ideas issue comes "Buy to Last" by Ellen Ruppel Shell:

Can we afford to keep shopping at places where an item’s price reflects only a fraction of its societal costs?

IKEA designs to price, challenging its talented European team to create ever-cheaper objects, and its suppliers—most of them in low-wage countries in Asia and eastern Europe—to squeeze out the lowest possible price. By some measures the world’s third-largest wood consumer, IKEA proudly employs 15 “forestry monitors.” Eight of them work in China and Russia, but illegal logging is widespread in those vast countries, making it impossible to guarantee that all wood is legally harvested. (The company declines to pay a premium to ensure that all timber is legally harvested, citing costs that would be passed along to the consumer.)... Nor, despite a lot of self-serving hoopla, is energy conservation [the company's goal]: the company boasts of illuminating its stores with low-wattage lightbulbs but positions outlets far from city centers, where taxes are low and commuting costs high—the average IKEA customer drives 50 miles round-trip. Cleverly, IKEA transfers transport and energy costs onto consumers... IKEA bookcases and chairs, like most cheap objects, resist involvement: when they break or malfunction, we tend not to fix them. Rather, we buy new ones. Wig Zamore, a Massachusetts environmental activist who was recently recognized for his work by the Environmental Protection Agency, is working with IKEA and supports some of the company’s regional green initiatives. But as he put it, “IKEA is the least sustainable retailer on the planet.” And in real costs—the kind that will burden our grandchildren—that also makes it among the most expensive.

And with a review of Shell's new book is Stephanie Zacharek's in Sunday's Salon with "IKEA is as Bad as Wal-Mart":

In her lively and terrifying book "Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture," Ellen Ruppel Shell pulls back the shimmery, seductive curtain of low-priced goods to reveal their insidious hidden costs. Those all-you-can-eat Red Lobster shrimps may very well have come from massive shrimp-farming spreads in Thailand, where they've been plumped up with antibiotics and possibly tended by maltreated migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam. The made-in-China toy train you bought your kid a few Christmases ago may have been sprayed with lead paint -- and the spraying itself may have been done by a child laborer, without the benefit of a protective mask.

"Cheap" is hardly a finger-waggling book. This isn't a screed designed to make us feel guilty for unknowingly benefiting from the hardships of workers in other parts of the world. And Shell -- who writes regularly for the Atlantic -- isn't talking about the shallowness of consumerism here; she makes it clear that she, like most of us, enjoys the hunt for a good deal. "Cheap" really is about us, meaning not just Americans, but citizens of the world, and about what we stand to lose in a global economic environment that threatens the very nature of meaningful work, work we can take pride in and build a career on -- or even at which we can just make a living...

Shell's chapter on IKEA is the most gently damning in the book. Shell is quick to admit that IKEA products -- from bookshelves to tables to lamps -- are very nicely designed. And the ingenuity of designing furniture so that it can be shipped efficiently, compactly and cheaply, with an eye toward environmental concerns, is admirable. But Shell also points out the hypocrisy inherent in IKEA's philosophy. As a clever IKEA commercial, directed by Spike Jonze, points out, an old lamp (or bookcase or table) doesn't have feelings; any piece of furniture can and should be replaced at any time. The ad, and the whole IKEA approach, suggests that objects have no lasting meaning or value. They're disposable; when we tire of them, we should just throw them out.


Anonymous said...

You seem to single out Ikea as the root of all evil. I doubt their products differ from any others... The differnce is that they relay the true cost to the consumer, rather then mark it up. Walmart pays cents for a shirt that they sell for $15. In my opinion, Ikea simply relays the savings. In my opinion, Walmart is far worse from an economic standpoint. Ikea furniture can be recycled, and reused. Plus, is it not the consumers responciblity to research items they plan to purchase ? If you wish to be eco-consious, then imo, its your responciblity, not Ikea's.

Nathan Empsall said...

Individual responsibility matters, but so too does corporate responsibility. What Ikea does, and what Ikea enables, affects me, and what I do affects you. We all share the same planet and the same economy; we don't get our own mini-gulf-streams or air-currents that stop at our backyard fence.