“I thought it was a small thing to start measuring our waste. I’ve understood it’s not – because it moves a lot of mindsets. It’s maybe also a small thing to do a veggie ball – but when you sell more than one billion meatballs every year – even if 10% switch to the veggie balls it makes a difference.” Michael La Cour, Managing Director of IKEA Foods explains how his furniture company is reinventing the future of food with two smart solutions.    

By Ralitsa Vassileva & Alexa Zerkow (research)

Ralitsa Vassileva spoke to Managing Director of IKEA Food Services about his vision to fight food waste and make fast food sustainable.

Listen to the entire interview

When you think of IKEA, you think flat pack furniture, not innovative food. The Swedish company has revolutionized the way we live offering inexpensive, simple products for the home. Now the General Manager of IKEA Food Services Michael La Cour wants to revolutionize the way we eat – he wants you to come to IKEA for sustainable food. Why would people go to a furniture store for innovative eats we ask? Because food has been part of the shopping experience since its humble beginnings in the Swedish town of Ålmhult 75 years ago, La Cour insists.

“Ingvar (Kamprad), our founder very early on recognized that it’s very difficult to do business with customers on an empty stomach, so he installed restaurants. At that point that was very visionary to do,” La Cour points out.

Over the years the furniture retailer’s food sales soared, rising to $1.6 billion in 2016. That might pale in comparison with its $36.5 billion in overall sales, but 20% of its customers go there just for the food. Last year 660 million people in 48 countries dined at IKEA.

The home goods giant is now using its global reach to advance sustainability in food. The push is part of IKEA’s “People & Planet Positive” sustainable strategy committing the company to  inspire positive change in society by setting a good example. IKEA points to the staggering statistics about global hunger that persist while food gets thrown away. One billion tons of it ends up in the garbage every year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Yet one in nine people do not have enough to eat. Just a quarter of the wasted food is enough to feed the world’s 870 million hungry people. Those numbers have turned IKEA into a warrior against food waste.  

Horse meat scandal shake-up

IKEA Foods’ focus on sustainability was sparked by a scandal which rocked some of Europe’s major brands in 2013. Traces of horsemeat was found in IKEA’s iconic Swedish meatballs. The mislabeled product revealed a vulnerability where profiteers could substitute horse meat for beef to lower costs. La Cour says he did not know about the problem because he relied on suppliers to inform him in a very fragmented supply chain. He says IKEA foods has since increased its focus on transparency in their network: “We are building up a supply chain that mirrors what we do on the furniture side. What that means is that we will have a transparent supply chain that is sustainable that is flexible and that is where we can secure everything worldwide of what we do,” La Cour says.  

We experienced that as a wake-up call. We suddenly found out that we have a major business. It’s about 2 billion euro on a global scale in sales and we have 660 million visitors to our restaurants, so a massive amount of people.

The search for a solution to the horsemeat scandal opened La Cour’s eyes to the harmful effects of food waste. The food thrown away wastes precious resources involved in growth, processing and transportation. Disposing of food also wastes one quarter of water used in agriculture and releases 8% of annual greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). The damaging impact made La Cour rethink his entire food production strategy to reduce IKEA’s waste of food.

“We experienced that as a wake-up call. We suddenly found out that we have a major business. It’s about 2 billion euro on a global scale in sales and we have 660 million visitors to our restaurants, so a massive amount of people. That is a great opportunity but it’s also a great responsibility.”

In December 2016 IKEA launched its “Food is Precious” initiative, committing the company to cut food waste by 50% in its restaurants, bistros and markets by August 2020. That target is 10 years ahead of the 2030 Global Goal set by the UN.

One important step in reaching this goal is a smart scale that enables IKEA employees to measure the food chefs throw away. The technology also allows staff to enter on a touchscreen the type of food which ends up in the garbage. It also calculates the environmental and monetary cost of waste.

La Cour was most impressed by how the technology changed workers’ relationship with food. 50% of them said that measuring food at work changed their behavior at home. By the end of October 2017, IKEA’s smart scales saved almost 600,000 meals and prevented more than one million kilos of carbon emissions. IKEA also cut 20% of its costs and received a positive return on its investment in 20 weeks. Given the economic and social benefits, La Cour thinks aloud why it took him so long to act.

Michael la Cour and Ralitsa Vassileva

“And that is 20% costs that you take care of. So the business case is very, very simple. And then you ask – “Well why wasn’t it done before?” Often it takes this sort of focus on something specific to get people’s minds around it… I do think that we’ve helped…because then people start understanding what food waste does from a sustainability perspective.”

Insect Meatballs and Veggie Burgers

IKEA is not only into waste, but is is also trying to make its menu more sustainable and change people’s mindsets towards food choices. IKEA is currently collaborating with food-tech startup Space10 in Copenhagen to create five new versions of IKEA favorites made with sustainable ingredients like algae and beetroot, spirulina, and even insects.

What we’ve learned is that you can do healthy and sustainable products but they have to be just delicious.

Bugs gross out a lot of people, but IKEA wants to change minds about a sustainable staple enjoyed by many Asian countries which is making its way to supermarkets around the world. Insects are touted as a tasty, protein-rich alternative to meat with a low environmental impact. Producing a kilo of crickets takes less than a fifth of the feed cattle need, requires significantly less water and emits a fraction of greenhouse gases compared to cattle. La Cour says insect alternatives still need a couple of years to pass testing and regulation hurdles, so no bugs yet on IKEA’s new menu. But the company has introduced veggie meat substitutes priced lower for their lesser environmental impact. This year IKEA launched veggie hot dogs in all it’s stores in Europe and North-America, where they were well received.

“So far we’ve done consumer tests in Sweden and one in the US. It’s been overwhelming in terms of positivity. What we’ve learned is that you can do healthy and sustainable products but they have to be just delicious.“

Selling veggie hotdogs and cutting food waste in IKEA’s kitchens made La Cour realize that every step counts. The changed mindsets of his own employees shows that even a furniture company can be a changemaker in food. La Cour now wants to be the first to develop smart solutions to cut waste in people’s kitchens.  

“Imagine that we could even develop smart kitchens, smart solutions in the kitchens. The technology is out there, but could we be the first ones to involve that? So with my colleagues, we’re working on that over the next couple of years.”

Michael La Cour’s Four Sustainability Tips

  1. “Tackle global challenges head on. We come from a position where we thought what difference can we make, but with the normal reach we have with customers, we can – even with small things – make a difference.”  
  2. “Make friends in tech and with your network around you, chefs. We can’t move this agenda alone. We have to unite towards this agenda.  And that takes an effort, you know. But it has to be done and we’re trying consistently to do that in a good way.”
  3. Be bold in the goals you set up. Don’t play it safe. I don’t think necessarily we have the time to play it safe, and what we’ve learned is that it engages people when we are ambitious and try to do something and move something.”
  4. Engage what’s around you – the co-workers, all our colleagues in IKEA. I think most of us get inspired by doing something meaningful. The questions that come around sustainability and health are personal to all of us and mean something. And that motivates people.”