Wednesday, April 20, 2011

IKEA's Social Sustainability Risk

IKEA is in many ways a sustainability poster-child.  They were one of the early companies to work with The Natural Step and have a good looking list of projects aimed at reducing their negative social and environmental impacts.

Photo: LA Times - Workers prepare pieces of Ikea furniture for packing at the then-new factory in Danville, Va., in 2008. (Steve Sheppard, Associated Press / April 10, 2011 
But this recent news on complaints about poor working conditions and racial discrimination in one of their US factories is a stark reminder about how the funnel walls are everywhere and closing in -- with such fierce demand for low-costs, manufacturers too often find it tempting to put the squeeze on their own employees.  From the LA Times story:

The dust-up has garnered little attention in the U.S. But it's front-page news in Sweden, where much of the labor force is unionized and Ikea is a cherished institution. Per-Olaf Sjoo, the head of the Swedish union in Swedwood factories, said he was baffled by the friction in Danville. Ikea's code of conduct, known as IWAY, guarantees workers the right to organize and stipulates that all overtime be voluntary.
"Ikea is a very strong brand and they lean on some kind of good Swedishness in their business profile. That becomes a complication when they act like they do in the United States," said Sjoo. "For us, it's a huge problem."

There are many interesting undertones in this story of course - chief among them the fact that Sweden seems to be treating the US like the US treats China, taking advantage of lower labor standards.  And the obvious cultural differences between Sweden and the US, and what that means in terms of leading a shift towards sustainability (they're way ahead of us, and I think in large part because Swedes have a more collaborative, community-focused, rule-following nature than the individualistic, cowboy Americans).

But for me the interesting thing is that it underscores just how tough it is to set that vision of truly sustainable future and continuously, diligently, repeatedly monitor and adjust activities throughout a large organization, so that the vision is clear and everyone's invested in avoiding missteps like this one.

Thanks to @NilsJK for the heads up on the story.

Stay going.

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