IKEA’s Disposable Business Model Not So Hip Anymore

OK, I want to talk about sustainability for a minute… specifically, the unsustainability of many business models that have infiltrated seemingly every part of our lives these past few decades. Let’s call them “disposable business models.” Whether we’re discussing employees or products, “disposable” is the key word here.

It’s an issue that I’ve been thinking a lot on lately, and was the result of a family outing to IKEA. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate… the idea was seeded just by taking about going there.


Recently, the wife and I added another tiny addition to our modestly sized family. Amongst countless other things, additions like this require more furniture. Living in Malaysia, the fastest, cheapest, and least painless furniture shopping experience that we can hope for is IKEA, and luckily there is a relatively large one here in Kuala Lumpur. (During my years in Tokyo, we were “privileged” (if that is the right word for it) enough to have two IKEAs about an hour in each direction for us to choose from. The why of this is beyond me, especially when considering that Japanese spend most of their time sitting on tatami at home, but I’m rambling, allow me to digress.)

My wife and I discussed the apparent need, and after a quick look around our house we both agreed on IKEA. No need to reinvent the wheel I suppose, just get it done the easiest way possible (that great Western mindset). Normally I would not have second-guessed any of it, but this time was different. Looking around at the dinged, scratched, faded, and (some) nearly broken IKEA furniture that we already had in our place (not even two years old, mind you) triggered a mild pause in my tired mind and body shortly after agreeing with the missus.

It was morning, though, so any hesitation faded after my first espresso. But a few days later, when we hopped into the car and headed out to the “great blue and yellow,” there it was again.

Once parked, we took the mammoth elevator up to the ground floor where the “shopping experience” begins. Herded through the maze of different rooms and areas that IKEA’s marketing staff meticulously and creatively put together for you to be enticed by, my thoughts became clear and more fixated… how is a business model built on disposable furniture even remotely sustainable? How could it possibly help and not hurt local communities?

Before continuing, perhaps a brief clarification of my current position… I am pro business, and consider myself “green” (as in planet friendly). At the same time, I am conscious of the possibility/likelihood that many of the man-made-global-warming folks care more about certain geopolitical agendas, and their investments tied to those agendas, than actually saving the planet… so, for me, the entire climate change issue is somewhat suspect and muddied.

That said, this does not mean that I don’t care about the planet and/or environmental causes. Quite the opposite. I care enough to see the forest for the trees.

As such, I am not blinded by some quirky minimalist furniture company from progressive Sweden with a disposable business plan. I get it, though… IKEA’s concept is unique and “cool.” The idea that cheap furniture doesn’t have to be unstylish or boring has been very successful for them over the years. This is not meant to single out IKEA, either. The company has been one of the more visible companies to excel with this business model, but it has been extremely successful for many clothing companies and other retailers as well. Uniqlo comes to mind, for example.

But the reality of this business model is that it is completely unsustainable, especially now that they are expanding to some of the most populated countries in the world. I guess the plan is to have everyone give up local traditions of modest handmade furniture for the West’s vision of how the world should be sleeping, sitting, and reading.

I’m not quite sure the image of craftsmen and woodworkers in places such as India, Indonesia, and China dropping their tools and running off to be IKEA checkout cashiers or warehouse staff is an ideal one, though. I doubt this would create some “greater sense of pride” in their already struggling societies.

In addition, just imagine what their trash dumps or slum neighborhoods will soon look like after a decade or two of disposable furniture. Moreover, consider Asia–Pacific, home to 60% of the world’s population, where in some cities every square mile is densely populated and space is a genuine commodity. And while some ingenious locals in, say, Tondo, Manila, will no doubt recycle some of it and/or create some sort of “building,” I’m yet to be convinced that simulated wood and cheap metal will withstand the test of time, more or less a typhoon gale.

Point is, corporations and business models like IKEA’s and their visions of happiness for the world’s people are anything but sustainable. Can they be? Maybe… if we can figure out some type of inexpensive ecosystem for disposable furniture and products. But as it is, it just doesn’t cut it for any sort of sustainable future.

The irony of all this is that now, what is soon to be considered “ancient” craftsmanship in emerging and frontier markets is becoming popular again for younger generations in the West. The “hipsters” and their craftsman and tradesman careers are actually better for the planet… not just for what they do but for what they create—long-lasting, quality products. Yes, that’s right, the way things used to be done. Not too long ago, if you needed to buy a dresser or a table you went to your local craftsman for it. You saved your money and then bought a piece of furniture with the intention of passing it down the family line. This is how it was done, and it was conservative and sustainable, not only for the planet but also for local communities.

Moreover, it was also a balanced approach to capitalism—virtually impossible to become extraordinarily rich off of making furniture when you’re only selling several pieces here and there. In addition, any wealth that was created stayed inside the community, and was not wired off to international banks on some offshore domicile.

So the logic here seems (to my naïve eyes) to be that we have to get back to responsible trade, commerce, and consumerism. The disposable model we have become hooked on since after World War I is not working any longer… I would even go as far as to say it has turned into a monstrosity. Wasteful. Destructive. We have to decide which model is best for our communities—which model helps us locally and which one ultimately hurts us globally.

Although I can assume that IKEA is staffed with nice, well-meaning, and thoughtful individuals, the reality is that collectively the company is harming the planet and local communities. And this will continue until the company designs some sort of synergistic network to help take the burden of their products off of each individual community that they operate in. Manufacturing factories take this into consideration so why shouldn’t points of sale as well? Until then, these disposable business models will continue to be far more detrimental than beneficial to the world, especially in emerging and frontier markets.