Social initiatives

Deeply rooted social involvement.

Involvement in philanthropic causes at IKEA can be traced back to the 1950s, when Ingvar Kamprad’s mother Berta fell ill with cancer, and Ingvar started a fund for cancer research. Later on, more funds and foundations were set up for everything from good design and children’s rights, to the climate and well-being for the elderly. What all these things have in common is a vision to create a better everyday life for the many people.

Berta Kamprad’s cancer treatment was not successful and she died in 1956 at the young age of 53. Following his mother’s death, Ingvar continued to raise money for research. When IKEA exhibited at consumer goods fairs, the entire entrance fee would be donated to the fund, and Ingvar also wrote about the fund in the IKEA catalogue. Later, more philanthropic involvement came about including the Mrs. Berta Kamprad’s Foundation and the Kamprad Family Foundation . Early on, Ingvar said that when IKEA was doing well, as much money as possible would be used to help vulnerable people. “That was the foundation of our concept. To be on the side of the many people,” he later emphasised.

Portrait of the Kamprad family, taken in nature, 1930s.
Ingvar Kamprad was close to his mother Berta Kamprad, and began raising money for cancer research after she fell ill and eventually died of the disease. Since the 1950s, commitment to cancer research has expanded and contributed to countless research projects. This photo from 1936 shows Ingvar with his mother Berta, father Feodor and younger sister Kerstin.
Visitors crammed in at a 1950s IKEA furniture show, looking at posters and stuffed armchairs.
Visitors had to pay to go to furniture shows organised by IKEA in the 1950s. The entire admission fee went to cancer research in memory of Ingvar Kamprad’s mother, Berta.

Nowadays, much of the philanthropic engagement is also collected in the IKEA Foundation , which came about when Ingvar Kamprad, who had long been looking for a form of ownership that would provide for the best possible long-term, independent survival for IKEA, decided to divide the corporate group he’d founded in Sweden in 1943 and introduce foundation ownership. In 1982 Ingvar transferred Ingka Group, which owned and managed most of the stores around the world, to the Stichting Ingka Foundation in the Netherlands. The foundation, which became the new owner of the Ingka Group, also had a charitable purpose right from the start, which was achieved by making funds available to a philanthropic foundation: the Stichting IKEA Foundation or IKEA Foundation. This is how it still works today and will continue to work in the future, all according to Dutch law. To begin with the IKEA Foundation helped to promote good design and architecture, including awarding grants and prizes to furniture and textile designers. Much later, in 2009, the foundation’s charter was changed in order to enable global initiatives for children. But already in the 1990s IKEA began taking an interest in children’s rights, following shocking revelations about child labour at rug factories in Pakistan.

From firefighting to long-term commitment

In the early days, the attention surrounding child labour was managed with emergency crisis management. Supplier contracts were terminated, agreements were rewritten, and managers apologised on TV and in the papers. But several people at IKEA pushed for a more long-term commitment.

“Eventually it was decided that IKEA would do everything it could to help bring about lasting change for children. And the only way to do that was to combat the underlying causes of child labour,” says Marianne Barner, former business area manager for rugs and later head of communications at IKEA. 2000 saw the first major initiative in collaboration with the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF , in what is known as India’s carpet belt, in the impoverished state of Uttar Pradesh. Around half a million people worked in the rug industry there, including an estimated 40,000 children. India was an important supplier country for IKEA, with 80% of its rugs coming from the country.

Crowd of children and women in colourful Indian clothing sit close together on the ground.
In India’s carpet belt in Uttar Pradesh, IKEA worked with UNICEF and the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, to combat child labour, partly by supporting women’s self-help groups, where women jointly saved money and helped each other start up in business. Once mothers had a better chance to support themselves and their families, their children could go to school instead of working. Photo: © UNDP/Niklas Hallen.
Close-up of smiling boy with, in Myanmar, traditional white markings on face, sitting in classroom, pen in hand.
Through IKEA and IKEA Social Initiative, millions of children have had the opportunity to go to school rather than work in cotton fields and rug factories, for example. Occasionally, IKEA has also intervened with emergency aid following natural disasters, like here after a cyclone in Myanmar in 2008, which swept away school buildings and people’s homes. Temporary schools were quickly built, and families were given help with the basic survival necessities. Photo: © Save the Children/Louise Dyring.

IKEA promised a long-term commitment and financial support for preventive measures aiming to improve children’s health, safety and education, as well as women’s rights. During trips to the Indian countryside, Marianne Barner and her colleagues had seen far too many empty schoolhouses, the walls adorned with flaking logos from multinational companies that had terminated their involvement after a short period.

“We were prepared to stay a long time and work holistically and on a broad front with UNICEF, and address the basic causes behind why children weren’t going to school,” she says. “It was also important to include all children in a geographical area. It wasn’t about seeking out villages with child workers and putting them in school. Our motto was to give all children a better future. And the corporate culture at IKEA was an important success factor. We and our business partners were often given free rein, the company trusted us to want and do the right thing. Having trust and letting people take personal responsibility is a hallmark throughout IKEA. UNICEF’s efforts also included establishing self-help and savings groups for women. That reduced the need to take out high-interest loans, which in turn helped keep children and families out of slave-like contracts and conditions.”

Man arranging big balls of newly yellow dyed cotton fibres on clothing lines, under a blue sky.
Among other things, IKEA now helps to fund training of cotton farmers in better water management, and is setting up water user associations in local communities, in order to save water for other purposes. Conventional cotton farming uses huge amounts of water and chemicals. This often harms the environment and leads to health risks among farmers. IKEA starts from the World Wide Fund for Wildlife, WWF, model for responsible water use, reducing environmental impact from the activities both of IKEA and its suppliers, supporting sustainable water use in river areas, and increasing people’s access to clean water.

Billions invested against child labour

While IKEA was doing this important work alongside UNICEF, the purchasing organisation at IKEA was placing ever higher demands on its suppliers, while also supporting their efforts to combat child labour and improve working conditions in their own supply chains. Former child workers in rug factories were able to attend informal schools as a bridge to normal school. In 2009, Swedish business weekly Veckans affärer asked with some surprise how spending hundreds of millions of euros to combat child labour was compatible with Ingvar Kamprad’s legendary thrifty ways (the paper called it ‘stinginess’). The head of marketing at the time, Nils Larsson, replied that on the contrary, the spending was completely in line with Ingvar Kamprad’s vision to create a better everyday life for the many people. Simply put, the collaboration with UNICEF enabled even bigger improvements. Nils Larsson explained that IKEA always tried to be true to its mission and vision, and that if customers understood that the company acted consistently in everything it does, business could only progress.

In just a couple of weeks 350,000 blankets were made and then delivered to the disaster zone by UNICEF.

In 2005 IKEA started IKEA Social Initiative under the management of Marianne Barner, with UNICEF and Save the Children as main partners. Under the new organisation, what started out in the Indian carpet belt now also included minors in Vietnam, children with disabilities in Russia, and child refugees in Sierra Leone. In addition to long-term initiatives, there was preparedness to intervene in emergency situations. When three million people became homeless after an earthquake in Pakistan in 2005, IKEA was able to contact a local supplier that quickly freed up production capacity. In just a couple of weeks 350,000 blankets were made and then delivered to the disaster zone by UNICEF. IKEA had the local business contacts, while UNICEF had the logistics and expertise to be able to reach people in need.

Close-up of toddler given drops from medicine bottle by an adult.
IKEA Social Initiative supported several programmes alongside UNICEF, Save the Children and others, in order to contribute to better health, clean water and sanitary facilities. A programme spanning several years in India was carried out in 18 states and reached an estimated 78 million children, who were vaccinated and given vitamin supplements, for example, to increase their chances of survival. Photo: © IKEA/UNICEF/Anita Khemka.
Dark classroom filled with girls who are studying with help of small yellow lamps on their desks.
Using SUNNAN solar powered lamps, children like the girls here in Rajasthan, northern India, were able to read and do their homework without access to electricity, even after sunset. Photo: © UNICEF/UNI109589/Niklas Hallen.

A quiet trendsetter

During the 2000s, interest in greater social responsibility increased in the private sector, and an increasing number of major corporations started up departments for Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR. More and more latched onto the trend, happily talking about their efforts in promotional videos and press releases. But for a long time, IKEA kept a low profile, even though it had started before many other companies. This is no surprise to Professor Robert Strand, who often uses IKEA as a teaching example at the Center for Responsible Business at Haas School of Business at UCAL-Berkeley, USA.

“Scandinavian companies have a tendency to walk the walk before they talk the talk,” he says. In an upcoming book called Sustainable Vikings, Robert Strand writes among other things about how Scandinavian companies like IKEA cooperate with trade unions and critical non-profit organisations. “So when tensions and conflicts arise, there are completely different conditions and possibilities for negotiating and finding creative solutions that benefit everyone involved. In a more competition-focused environment, like the US, it’s almost always about finding a competitive edge. That rarely leads to constructive negotiations,” he says.

Fusion leads the way

As more and more consumers requested details about corporate social responsibility, IKEA started spreading more information directly to customers, at stores and in catalogues. Widespread activities, such as the several-year soft toy campaign, where part of the earnings from each soft toy went to child education through Save the Children and UNICEF, also gained a lot of attention.

A child’s drawing of a happy robot, put on a wall.
The annual IKEA soft toy drawing competition draws tens of thousands of entries from around the world.
A soft toy robot with broad red head.
A handful of drawings are picked to be made into toys for a limited-edition collection. The full price of each toy sold is donated to projects for children’s rights.

In just under a decade in the 2000s, IKEA Social Initiative and its partner organisations made a real difference for some 100 million children and adults. Meanwhile, Ingvar Kamprad was growing increasingly displeased with the Netherlands-based IKEA Foundation and its focus on design. He didn’t feel that the foundation’s activities were in line with the vision to create a better everyday life for the many people. This changed in 2009, when the foundation’s charter was rewritten in order to benefit vulnerable children. At the same time, IKEA Social Initiative was incorporated into IKEA Foundation, and four fundamental areas were identified as being key to more robust children’s rights: a place to call home, a healthy start in life, a quality education and a sustainable family income.

Increased climate focus

In 2018, IKEA Foundation changed directions once again. The vision of creating a better everyday life for the many people remains, but the activities now focus on areas like the climate, water, and the ability for families to support themselves. The foundation aims to combat fundamental causes of inequality such as poverty, the consequences of climate change, and a lack of resources like clean air, energy and fertile land. Achieving the goals requires financial security as well as a healthy environment, so that children and their families can thrive. Ultimately, it’s about protecting our planet and helping the many people to afford a better everyday.