Ideas: Fixing the World July/August 2009

Buy to Last

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everyone loves a bargain, as long as we believe it’s in good taste. And nobody does low-price, high-style better than IKEA, the world’s largest furniture retailer. IKEA passes as the anti-Wal-Mart: a company where value and good values coexist. It uses design as a proxy for quality, and its brand—embodied by all those smiling, white-teethed Scandinavians standing next to smooth, shiny modular furniture with unpronounceable names—as a passport to a guilt-free world of low prices.

But put down your 59-cent Färgrik coffee mug and ask yourself: 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.) IKEA furniture made of particleboard and pine is not meant to last a lifetime; indeed, some professional movers decline to guarantee its safe transport. But to be fair, creating heirlooms is not IKEA’s goal. Nor, despite a lot of self-serving hoopla, is energy conservation: 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, who are then handed the additional burden of assembling their purchases. Designed but not crafted, 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.

Ellen Ruppel Shell is an Atlantic contributing editor and the author of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.
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Ellen Ruppel Shell is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Journalism at Boston University. She is the author of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.

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