Is Climate Action Dead In The Age Of Trump? Ikea's Green Boss Says No

"Federal action could slow change, but change will come."
Steve Howard, chief sustainability officer for the Ikea Group, (left) during a tour of an Ikea store. 
Steve Howard, chief sustainability officer for the Ikea Group, (left) during a tour of an Ikea store. 

For all those who believe taking action to limit climate change is bad for business, Ikea has a robust rebuttal.

The home furnishings giant says that tackling global warming is not just good for people and the planet but is also a cornerstone of the company’s continuing success.

Sales of products that help customers save energy and water, as well as curb waste, grew 37 percent last year and will soon be a $2 billion business.

Ikea will soon produce more renewable energy from its wind farms than it consumes for its own operations, turning energy from a huge cost to the business into a profit center. 

The architect of the company’s sustainability strategy has been Steve Howard, who stepped down this week as Ikea’s chief sustainability officer after six years in the post.

The Huffington Post caught up with Howard, who also helped found We Mean Business, a coalition of leading businesses and nongovernmental organizations on climate action, to ask him about the impact of Donald Trump’s election, what to say to those who deny climate science and what advice he has for companies seeking to integrate sustainability into their operations.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Since the election of Donald Trump we have seen many hundreds of companies signing declarations calling for the United States not to pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change. What impact would it have if these calls are ignored?

There were 260,000 jobs in the U.S. solar industry last year, 25 percent more than the year before.

Federal action could slow change, but change will come, and states, cities and business will not stand still. We have recently seen senior Republican leaders calling for a price on carbon, so where this goes is far from certain.

The U.S. can be a real winner in this new job-rich clean economy. And if one important player chooses not to play their part, it is a huge and powerful call to action for everyone else.

Given a continuing lack of political momentum for change, despite the Paris accord, what do you see as the role of business in advocating for change?

Paris was a game-changer. Actually, I see political momentum has increased, with the obvious risks and exceptions. And it is not just national governments but hundreds of cities and states.

But I also see business has stepped up in a whole new way. Via the We Mean Business coalition, which I co-chair, more than 500 businesses have committed to climate actions, such as 100 percent renewable energy or setting science-based emission targets.

There is a big role for policy, but increasingly business investment and innovation will develop and scale the clean economy. The opportunity is simply enormous. And where political momentum is lacking, it becomes even more important to find ways to empower citizens and inspire individual change.

What would you say to people who deny the science of climate change and claim it is a hoax?

To the misinformed I generally explain how we have raised the temperature of the world with a billion tons of heat-trapping gases a week going up into the atmosphere. We can see extreme weather ― from floods in California, to scorching heat waves in Australia.

The science is certain, and the only debate to have is about the best policies and solutions to tackle it. 

When people realize that with our best efforts this is a solvable problem and that we can still have a great quality of life, it is easier to accept the science. For the industry-sponsored climate skeptics, I simply save my breath.

Given the complexity of the world and the power of the status quo, what is the one thing you think we could do to leverage real change toward a sustainable future?

Let’s get the biggest coalition of organizations, cities, states, businesses and countries to radically decarbonize: We will accelerate change, create great jobs and build the future we want. And let’s do it right now. It is a hugely exciting agenda. If we tackle climate change, many other things will fall into place.    

What are the top 5 lessons you have learned as head of sustainability at Ikea Group that could help other companies to change for the better?

1) Go all in. Whenever possible set 100 percent targets and drive transformational change. A good example at Ikea is our commitment to using LED lights: We banned halogens and compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). With a 100 percent target, it becomes clear to everyone in the business what success looks like ― there is no ambiguity and nowhere to hide.

2) It’s about better. Early sustainable products and services were almost always compromised: ghoulish energy-saving CFLs, rough toilet paper, the list goes on. People want and expect each generation of products and services to be better than the last. We have to make sustainability easy, affordable and attractive.

3) Make sustainability pay. It is okay to pilot projects that come with a price tag, but for anything to go mainstream it has to pay its way. You simply cannot get anything to scale otherwise.

4) Success has many parents. About a year into my job I started to introduce myself internally as “co-responsible for sustainability with everyone else at Ikea.” Change is a team sport, and you rely on the leadership, expertise, passion and energy of your colleagues. I have been part of a change process with many thousands of others.

5) Remember your purpose. When it is time to take a tough decision, that is your job ― and if you don’t do it, then you give everyone else a perfect excuse. 

Can a company the size of Ikea every really be considered sustainable?

Scale is an enabler. We make products incredibly efficiently, transport them effectively (think flat pack) and drive economies of scale. Increasingly we have products made from sustainable raw materials, such as Forest Stewardship Council wood, from factories powered by renewable energy, with working conditions secured against our code of conduct, sold in wind and solar-powered stores. 

But to be truly sustainable, we need to tackle the final challenge and ensure that customers can repair, recycle or sell their Ikea products.

If the commitment to change is there, most businesses can be sustainable and be stronger for it. Scale and affordability connect to another rule: that sustainability must be affordable for many people, not a luxury for the few.

Ikea relies on continually selling more products. Given that we live in a resource-constrained world, aren’t you part of the problem rather than the solution?

Last year I mentioned that in some developed countries we were approaching “peak stuff,” where increasingly people are valuing purpose and experiences alongside what they own and buy.

In contrast, many people in Asia, Africa and South America aspire to the lifestyles that many of us enjoy today. Peak stuff is way off in these regions. And even in richer countries, there are still many who share these aspirations because they too live on limited means.

But to meet people’s needs in a resource-constrained world, it’s clear that the extract, make, use, throw-away society clearly needs to change to a much more circular model. If we source products sustainably, and they last a long time and have a circular business model, I think it will be okay for a long time to come.



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