“The Time Horizon of Sustainability” – An Interview with Pia Heidenmark Cook

Pia Heidenmark Cook 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.

Prior to Teneo, Pia was the Chief Sustainability Officer for IKEA, where she led the development and implementation of the IKEA People and Planet Positive strategy. Her cross-functional team worked closely with the business on developing circular business models (including take back offers, leasing and second hand), launching new sustainable offers (such as selling solar panels across 14 markets) and helping customers to live more sustainable and healthier lives. During this time, IKEA ranked in the top three most sustainable brands and managed to decouple carbon dioxide emissions from its commercial growth across the value chain.

Pia has worked with sustainability in the corporate sector for over 25 years and, since leaving IKEA, combines senior advisory with board non-executive roles including Bupa, MAX Burgers and Origin Materials.

As the former Chief Sustainability Officer for IKEA, you set the standards for the company’s sustainability strategy. What were some of the greatest challenges your 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, we must start by setting the long-term goals, and then break them down into short term goals that can easily fit into the annual business planning cycle. This 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 – be clear on the end goal (North star) but know 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 circular design principles – guidelines for the product development teams on how to design products using circular design principles. 

IWAY is the IKEA way for responsibly procuring products, services, materials and components. 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.

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, the 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. 

Thanks so much.

INTERVIEW by Christian Sarkar