When IKEA opens the doors to its Centennial store July 27, most customers will focus on the furniture, shopping path and creative displays that have made the international retailer famous.
What they won’t see are the 500-foot-deep holes under their feet that feed the store’s geothermal cooling and heating system, rooftop solar panels generating the store’s electricity, sand filters for treating storm water, or the bales of recyclable material into which most of the store’s trash is converted.
Though lesser known among consumers, these, too, are features associated with the IKEA brand. Its green technology and practices have earned the company local, national and international awards, including recognition of environmental excellence from the Environmental Protection Agency.
But nowhere are its green practices in greater concentration than Centennial, the first U.S. IKEA store with a geothermal system. The list of environmentally friendly features included in the 415,000-square-foot store is long and runs the gamut from small to large: Waterless urinals, hand dryers, food composting, LED site lighting, and a building-wide system to monitor the efficiency of heating, air conditioning and lighting.
Absent from the list are incandescent light bulbs and plastic bags. IKEA phased out sales of incandescent bulbs late last year, and stopped offering customers plastic bags in 2008.
Being green is in the company’s roots, says IKEA spokesman Joseph Roth. Founder Ingvar Kamprad was raised on a farm in southern Sweden, “a very industrious and poor region,” Roth said.
“Everything there is about maximizing your resources, being as frugal as possible,” he said. “It’s just a natural extension to apply that to all aspects of your business, even with regard to natural resources. As long as there’s been IKEA, we’ve been focused on that.”
Green technology experts say the company’s use of such practices has multiple benefits.
“They are being very responsible,” said Terry Proffer, a geologist with Denver-based Major Geothermal, the company assigned to inspect IKEA’s geothermal system. “It’s not just going to lower their operating costs and maintenance, but for those people who think there’s a greenhouse gas emissions problem, it reduces that.”
When IKEA opened its first store in 1958, the phrase “greenhouse gas emissions” and words like “sustainability” — the term now commonly used to describe environmentally and socially responsible practices — were decades away from becoming part of the vernacular.
Now, earth-friendly technology is evolving so rapidly that even IKEA can’t keep pace. While Centennial, as its newest store, features the latest and greatest, even that will quickly be surpassed. The challenge, Roth said, is that large stores like IKEA’s require years of planning. The Colorado store was created on paper in 2008. But sustainable building technology hasn’t stopped evolving in the three years since.
“We strive to incorporate as many new technologies as possible,” he said. “As more advanced technology comes on the scene, sometimes we’re able to incorporate it and sometimes we say, ‘Next store’.”
Other times, the company works with what it already has. For example, while IKEA is retrofitting many of its stores with solar power, in California that means first rebuilding the roofs of two 10-year-old stores so they can support the panels.
Being green is pricey, to be sure. Just how pricey IKEA won’t say. As a privately held company, it holds financial information close to its chest. But because of the vast size of both the company and its stores, the eco-investments are worthwhile, Roth said.
“IKEA is a company that isn’t in for the short payback,” he said. “We can afford to make an investment that might cost a lot up front, but long-term makes a more efficient operation. Not all companies are in that position.”
Some of the sustainable elements that are now standard practice in IKEA stores first had to gain approval from consumers. In 2007, it started charging 5 cents for each plastic bag; the bags typically were used for its IKEA-brand foods and accessories.
“It truly was an attempt to shift customer behavior,” Roth said.
In 2008, it stopped offering plastic bags altogether, instead offering large, multi-use, IKEA-blue bags for 59 cents each.
While IKEA led the retail movement to charge for or eliminate plastic bags, Roth says IKEA’s focus is not on its impact on other retailers. Still, he acknowledges that IKEA’s presence – massive blue building aside — doesn’t go unnoticed.
“So much about our shopping experience is so unique,” he said. “So if someone is adapting because IKEA’s in the market, it’s not going to be just in regard to the bags. It’s going to be with regard to other elements as well.”
Proffer hopes IKEA’s evident belief in geothermal sparks a similar movement among area builders and homeowners. Geothermal hasn’t yet caught on in Colorado, he said. IKEA, he believes, might help change that.
“We have high hopes this will generate a lot of word of mouth,” Proffer said. “We’re hoping that more of the commercial market will look at it, and people that are just in there shopping will look at that and get curious about this technology.”