We can and must play a key role in advancing a sustainable food system - and it is good for our business. This is the key message from Michael la Cour, Managing Director of IKEA Food Services.

When you think of IKEA, you think at pack furniture, not innova- tive food. The Swedish company has revolutionised the way we live, offering inexpensive, simple products for the home. Now the Managing Director of IKEA Food Services Michael la Cour wants to revolutionise 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? 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 recognised that it’s very diffcult to do business with customers on an empty stomach, so he installed restaurants. At that point that was very visionary to do,” Michael 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 sustainability strategy, committing the company to inspire positive change in society by setting a good example. IKEA points to the staggering statistics about the carbon emissions challenge and the global hunger that persists while food gets thrown away. One billion tonnes of it ends up in the garbage every year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (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. Add to this that food waste 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). 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 horse meat were found in IKEA’s iconic Swedish meatballs. The mislabeled product revealed a vulnerability where pro teers could substitute horse meat for beef to lower costs. Michael 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:

“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 sustain- able, that is flexible, and that is where we can secure everything worldwide of what we do,” La Cour says.

The search for a solution to the horse meat scandal also opened La Cour’s eyes to the harmful effects of food waste. 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 two billion Euros 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 economic cost of waste.

La Cour was most impressed by how the technology changed workers’ relationship with food. Fifty percent 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 kilograms of carbon emissions. IKEA also cut 20% of its costs and received a positive return on its invest- ment in 20 weeks. According to Michael La Cour, the business case is a no-brainer.

“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 also trying to make its menu more sustain- able and change people’s mindsets towards food choices. IKEA is currently collaborating with food-tech startup Space10 in Copenhagen to create ve new versions of IKEA favourites made with sustainable ingredients like algae and beetroot, spirulina, and even insects.

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 alter- native to meat with a low environmental impact. Producing a kilogram 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 vegetarian meat substitutes, priced lower for their lesser environmental impact. In 2018, IKEA launched vegetarian 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 vegetarian hot dogs and cutting food waste in IKEA’s kitchens made La Cour realise that every step counts. The changed mindsets of his own employees shows that even a furniture company can be a change-maker 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 worst ones to involve that? So with my colleagues, we’re working on that over the next couple of years,” Michael la Cour says.

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