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IKEA Executive On Why The West Has Hit 'Peak Stuff'
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IKEA Executive On Why The West Has Hit 'Peak Stuff'

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IKEA Executive On Why The West Has Hit 'Peak Stuff'

IKEA Executive On Why The West Has Hit 'Peak Stuff'
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IKEA's Chief Sustainability Officer Steve Howard tells NPR's Ari Shapiro how his company plans to keep expanding even while he says many in the Western world have lost their appetite for more stuff.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

You might have heard the phrase peak oil - the idea that, in any oil drilling operation, production eventually peaks and declines. We recently heard another phrase - peak stuff. The idea is that people in the West just don't need to buy more candle holders or coffee tables. And the man who suggests we have hit peak stuff is an executive at IKEA, the company that fills our homes with stuff. IKEA's chief sustainability officer Steve Howard joins us on the line now. Welcome.

STEVE HOWARD: Hi.

SHAPIRO: What did you mean when you said the West has hit peak stuff?

HOWARD: If you look at things like oil - well, actually, oil sales have peaked in the U.S. and Western Europe. Beef sales have pretty much peaked. Sugar sales have pretty much peaked. You can see trends in things like cars where young people, they're getting their driving licenses either later or not getting them at all. This trend's very broad across society. I didn't actually say peak candle holder, but I was talking about the broader trends. And, you know, we're a business, and we sell home furniture, and we're not immune from the trade. Obviously, you know, there are still people who don't have - who have very limited means who would like significantly more stuff. But broadly, you saw a tremendous expansion in consumption and people's livelihoods through the 20th century. And the use of stuff is plateauing out.

SHAPIRO: Does the idea of peak stuff in the West suggest that IKEA will be pulling back from the U.S. and some Western European countries as you expand in developing countries?

HOWARD: No, no. We still want to meet more customers and to make ourselves much more accessible, so we'll actually expand in the U.S. and still in most markets in Europe.

SHAPIRO: But then help me understand how you expand in countries like the U.S. when you think that people are going to be buying less and less stuff.

HOWARD: I don't think we're there yet. You know, my comment about peak stuff was, if you take the total material impact of society in the West, it's probably just about peaked. But then if you say, well, we exist in that world, too, but what we'll make sure of that we do is, you know, we will always say - we like to act in the best interest of our customers.

SHAPIRO: Part of IKEA's brand seems to be affordability, which some people think of as disposability. It's hard to imagine that somebody is going to spend $30 on a chair and pass that chair along to their children.

HOWARD: We found that to be largely not true. In Sweden, we did a trial with a take-back of plastic garden furniture. It was all going to be recycled. And people only brought broken plastic furniture. People brought back stuff that they were really done with. It was not just IKEA furniture; it was very broad. People worry about - they want to actually find a secondary market for their IKEA products, actually, so people find channels themselves. And you find that the products get handed - do get handed on.

SHAPIRO: Are you suggesting that rather than people sell their used IKEA furniture on Craigslist or eBay, you would like them to come back to IKEA and, I don't know, trade it in in for a new model or something like that?

HOWARD: We started a service in about 20 countries around the world where we'll help facilitate mattress recycling because one of the big things is - you know, if you think about a mattress, how long do you want a mattress to last? So we've frequently got mattress guarantees of 20, 25 years, and that's probably long enough. But people find it difficult. You know, you're worried about, how do you dispose of a mattress? So we've really focused on making sure we can have mattresses where we can secure the recycling so it can be turned into another mattress or into other sort of products. And in France and in Belgium, we've got something called Second Life. And there, actually, customers can send in photographs of products. They'll get an offer for a gift voucher - $30 for your BILL bookshelf or whatever. You bring the product to the store, you get your gift voucher. It's then sold at that price as is. So a customer that comes in and actually is happy with that product can take it away.

SHAPIRO: That's Steve Howard, chief sustainability officer at IKEA. Thanks for joining us.

HOWARD: Thanks a lot.

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