How can businesses enhance and enrich social innovation? SIX speaks with Lisen Wirén from Ikea

Can you tell me a bit more about what you do at Ikea related to social innovation and what you think have motivated these initiatives, mentalities and policies?

After six years working with sustainability at IKEA I have recently moved over to a new position where I am responsible for people and communities globally at Inter IKEA Systems. That involves all philanthropic activities throughout our business including how we work with community involvement, co-worker volunteering, migrant workers, gender equality, female empowerment, and children rights. One of the areas I am currently devoting my time to is social innovation through the power of social entrepreneurship.

IKEA was founded with the mission to create a better everyday life for the many people. Since its creation, IKEA has helped people live better through affordable home furniture. Companies like IKEA are providing employment, a primary layer of social impact, with a responsibility of developing its people. Impact from the private sector can be much broader though, when you look at the services and products offered and more over, how these are produced. 

The first place we look at to increase impact is through value-chain optimisation. Our starting point to create long-lasting change with our suppliers, investing in them and the workers. The average length of relationships we hold with our suppliers is 11 years. By ensuring good, healthy, fair and safe working conditions, training and development, the employee turnover goes down, whilst job satisfaction and quality goes up. We make sure they are part of the same virtuous circle and thanks to that, we set standards for other industries.

Then you have an additional impact layer which is made out of other social initiatives that can piggy-back on existing business models. At IKEA these are integrated in day-to-day activities. Having business goals aligned with social impact goals has been the driving force behind the last 10 years of our integrated sustainability strategy. Sustainability and social impact should be at the core of the business and integrated into the daily activities as a natural part of everyone’s job.

Can you tell us about a defining moment when you saw a real change in impact stemming from innovation? What are you especially proud of when looking at the innovation practice at Ikea? 

In our very early expansion phase, we worked with UNICEF Save The Children to manage problems of child labour in India and through their support, we developed a code of conduct and a monitoring system which ensured that our suppliers would operate accordingly thereafter. This impacted our code of conduct as a whole, consolidating it as a document which has evolved over time, ensuring we have the right conditions for employees in general, from work hours to health and safety measures. Over the past few years, through our sustainability strategy, we have lifted sustainability to higher levels. That said, we continue and strive to work with 100% sustainability as a future target.

There is also the IKEA foundation; a separate entity focused 100% on philanthropy, with whom we work. Today, they invest on key themes such as female empowerment, health, education, and refugee emergency relief. 

What is your hope with regard to social innovation in the future? How do you see the role of the business in this process?

Our goal as a global corporation is to have a positive impact on people and the planet. For example, when it comes to having a positive footprint on the environment, in 2020, we will produce as much energy as we consume. Similarly, 100% of our textiles come from sustainable cotton already. 

This also comes back to social impact through the overall satisfaction and empowerment of our employees and the workers involved in our supply chain. Businesses need to lead the way with sustainable social and environmental strategies to push the social innovation agenda forward, from theory to action.

Businesses should be supported and in different ways incentivised to reinvest profits into community initiatives. They should look at internal value-chain led impact as well as outside of the value chain, to address other local or global challenges. For example, IKEA is working to support female empowerment by creating job opportunities for Syrian refugees in Jordan.

How do you think other corporates can best engage with social innovation? What’s worked well for Ikea? What hasn’t worked well? 

I believe the most powerful and effective change can happen when it is driven through the core of the business, rather than through a separate CSR activity. When companies can use their core strengths, competences and resources to create positive social impact, big things will happen. For IKEA a good example is when we partnered with UNHCR and Better Shelter to co-design shelter for the millions of people worldwide who have fled armed conflicts or natural disasters. Three organisations coming together contributing with their core strengths, IKEA with design and flat-pack, and the others with knowledge about the specific needs, network, infrastructure.
|working together, social innovation is possible. I truly believe in cross sector partnerships, where governments, NGOs and the private sector find synergy effects based on each other’s unique contribution. To get further guidance on what issues to address the UN Sustainable development goals can of course be very helpful.

Therefore, for corporations to engage with social innovation, they will need partners. Depending on their size, maturity and location this can become a difficult part of the agenda. A partnership due-diligence will be necessary, but cross-sectorial collaboration is really key to scale the impact of these initiatives.

We are committed to having a positive influence on people’s lives across our value chain; supporting positive economic, social and environmental development, promoting equality and placing respect for human rights at the center of what we do. We are working both globally and locally with large partners as well as with smaller once depending on the social issue we are aiming at addressing. UNICEF and Save the Children have been strategic partners for years in which we have supported children & education throughout the world, through the work of our Ikea Foundation. We are also in different markets working with smaller NGOs, childrens hospitals, to address specific needs linked to our overall objectives. On a personal level, other companies that inspire me regularly through their work and their circular economy lighting model are Patagonia, H&M and Phillips. 

Thanks for taking the time to speak to us Lisen.

Click here to read The Ikea Sustainability Report 2016. The report is an outline and overview of the work of the Ikea group and their Sustainable Development Goals. It examines the organisation’s capacity for impact and innovation in governance, communities, resource building and environmental impact.