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 theand the . 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.
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.
Nowadays, much of the philanthropic engagement is also collected in the, 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 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 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,, 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.
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.”
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 andas 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.
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.
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.