The Time Horizon of Sustainability
Interview with Pia Heidenmark Cook, a Senior Advisor at Teneo, formerly Chief Sustainability Officer at IKEA
Pia Heidenmark Cook has been the Chief Sustainability Officer at IKEA for over a decade, and is a Senior Advisor with Teneo, working with the ESG and Sustainability team to advise clients on how to develop and operationalise sustainability strategies and the implications for reputation strategies.
As the former Chief Sustainability Officer for IKEA, you've been involved in setting the standards for the companies sustainability strategy. What were some of the greatest challenges you faced?

To set, and implement, ambitious sustainability strategies you face many challenges on many different levels. One of the trickiest ones is about time horizon - many sustainability topics and goals are medium-to long term, while the business (especially retail like IKEA) operate on a short term basis. So to start by setting the long-term goals to then break them down into short term goals that can easily fit into the annual business planning cycle is critical. Another challenge is that sustainability touches all parts of the business and is everyone's responsibility (a bit like customer relations, every part of the business and all processes need to align to secure that customers are happy, not just the customer help desk), but still everyone looks to the CSO to fix everything. So to clearly be able to define specific tasks for specific teams and departments - so to secure accountability - is critical for success.

What are some example of things you might have done differently?

Difficult to say when having worked with it over 13 years in IKEA, every period was its own phase. Things that we were able to get approved and implemented in 2021, would not have been possible to even put at the table in 2008 when I started. Working with sustainability you need to constantly balance the need for a high pace of change (the urgency of the sustainability challenges require it!) with the organisation's ability to change and implement the necessary activities. So to be clear on the end goal (north star) but knowing that you cannot implement all things at the same time. We spent a lot of time on educating and informing staff and leaders, but in hindsight, would have spent even more time working with people for them to understand and embrace the change and their role in the change.

What do you say to critics of "fast furniture"? Is it possible to build IKEA products that last longer and are not so easily discarded?

Absolutely possible, but it is always a fine balance with the vision of IKEA "creating a better everyday life for the MANY PEOPLE". If making too high quality and durable products, price increases, and then those with thin wallets cannot afford it. But creating products that are fit for purpose and that are possible to dismantle, repair and recycle and reuse is possible. That is what IKEA is doing when it works with its 9 circular design principles- guidelines for the product development teams on how to design products using circular design principles. See more:

What is IKEA's IWAY auditing process, and what can be done to go further?

IWAY has developed a lot since it was first launched in 2000. It has gone from a checklist approach with people going out to the suppliers' factory floors to a business development tool that is part of how the supply organisation works with its partners. Since some years back, suppliers are also divided into groups based on their level of performance. Some suppliers are at such a strong level that they are partners and co-develop sustainability approaches as they are fully aligned with the vision of IWAY. IWAY also goes back into the supply chain, it started with tier 1 suppliers but today there is an IWAY approach also for suppliers further back in the supply chain. I think IWAY is a very comprehensive tool for how to manage sustainability in the supply chain. See more: IWAY requirements are based on a 4-step staircase model: Must, Basic, Advanced and Excellent. IWAY Must and IWAY Basic are the minimum requirements that need to be in place for all suppliers and service providers who do business with IKEA. Together with our business partners, our ambition is to continually improve and develop beyond the minimum, to reach IWAY Advanced and IWAY Excellent levels.

So you feel a sense of urgency with the climate crisis looming? What are your working on now?

Since leaving IKEA I work with several companies as either senior advisor through my assignment at Teneo or as non-executive board member in companies in food, materials, retail and healthcare sectors. I spend a lot of time coaching CSOs in different companies, it is a challenging and lonely job, so it is important to support and help them find motivation and energy and tools on how to be resilient. My time is spent advising and coaching rather than implementing. I am still surprised at the low level of awareness and mindset around sustainability outside the Nordic region, there is still a lot to do to enable business leaders to understand and embrace that sustainability is about strategy, business models and future success rather than reporting and compliance.

INTERVIEW by Christian Sarkar