Ikea has had a chemical strategy in place since 2016. More than 1,000 direct suppliers are covered by the systematic work, which aims to identify and phase out substances harmful to the environment and people from the approximately ten thousand products sold by the furniture giant.
The strategy comprises five overarching objectives: Increased transparency in the supply chain and with customers; all materials shall be evaluated; hazardous materials shall be phased out; all suppliers shall share the company’s values; and there shall be increased awareness of the company’s chemical work both internally and externally.
“We want to avoid the harmful effects of chemicals on health and the environment throughout the products’ lifecycles,” says Therese Lilliebladh, Requirement Manager Ikea, who participated in the Befria Möblerna (Eng: Free the Furniture) seminar arranged by the Swedish Centre for Chemical Substitution.
“This applies to the raw materials we use, the final product, transport, the use of the product, and when the product is reused, recycled and ultimately becomes waste.”
Different legal requirements constitute the minimum level for Ikea’s chemical requirements, but usually they set their own, stricter requirements. If no legislation exists as a basis, Ikea creates its own restrictions, and places restrictions on groups of substances, instead of individual substances, as far as this is possible.
"For example, we treat all bisphenols the same, instead of just Bisphenol A, or all PFASs instead of just PFOAS,” explains Lilliebladh. “This is to avoid what are termed ‘regrettable substitutions’, where a chemical is replaced with an equivalent one, which later turns out to be just as harmful.”
In total, Ikea has produced around 50 chemical specifications. This equates to several hundred pages of restrictions that suppliers need to keep track of, as these constitute legally binding contracts.
“A chemical in an end product has usually been added intentionally or unintentionally far back in the supply chain. It may be added intentionally to achieve a function or may be a contaminant from the manufacturing process. We urge suppliers to also check the requirements in their respective supply chains.”
Once an unwanted substance has been identified, it is investigated whether the substance is really needed for the function, quality or design of the product. After this, a safer alternative is searched for which may be able to replace the unwanted substance. If no substitute can be found, it must be asked whether the product is worth keeping.
"Sometimes we can’t find a better alternative, and then decide to remove the products from the range. For example, we did this with certain textiles that were treated with dirt-repellent PFASs. They were lucrative for Ikea, but we wanted to phase these substances out of our textiles completely.”
Ikea has an ambitious plan regarding circularity, which presents new challenges for chemical work. The company has equally strict requirements for recycled materials as new materials.
“Even if the chemicals do not leak out during the actual use of the product, we do not want to contaminate the material with these substances when the material is recycled.”
“Working with recycled materials is challenging. A certain degree of caution has proved wise. For example, we have initially opted to not work with recycled food packaging or toys, with the exception of food-grade PET as a padding material.”
Ikea tries to inspire its customers to use products in different ways by renovating them or passing them on in a circular way. Using a method they call ‘circularity assessments’, all products are evaluated and rated according to their circular properties. The chemical aspect is also included in this evaluation work before new products are put on the market, which provides an additional incentive for product development teams to choose better materials. Together with H&M, they have investigated a number of recycled materials, as described in the report What Goes Around (Chemsec).
“More collaboration is needed on this difficult issue, where tests are performed and test data is shared. This would enable us to test what needs to be tested,” concludes Therese Lilliebladh.