Wouldn't life be easier if you could look at a product and get an easy-to-understand explanation of how sustainable it was? A score that took into account whether the product can be recycled, amount of toxic chemicals used in production, carbon footprint of the shipping process? Sadly, that will never really be possible; sustainability is simply too complex an issue to be boiled down into one number. But that isn't stopping IKEA from trying with its Sustainability Product Score Card, a tool introduced this year to help the company stock the greenest shelves, couches, chairs, and tables possible. The scorecard doesn't rate suppliers; instead, it rates individual products (which, of course, are more or less sustainable depending on their supply chain).
The Score Card (found on page 19 of IKEA's 2010 sustainability report) has a laundry list of criteria for products, including energy efficient production, renewable energy used in production, recycled material, and some ambiguous requirements like using "more from less" as well as "environmentally better material." Customers won't get to check out the score card (as with Walmart's internal sustainability index). Instead, IKEA plans to use it to measure its own progress by making sure that each of its products is always getting a better score. By 2015, the company wants 90% of its sales of home furnishing products to be classified as "more sustainable" than its predecessor or competing products according to the Score Card.
IKEA can't escape the fact that its products aren't meant to last a long time. Even if the company creates an impeccable green supply chain, a bookcase that lasts for decades will inevitably be more sustainable than a poorly constructed IKEA version that gets tossed out after five years. But the company is still trying to make its relatively disposable products as good as possible.
Still, it all comes down to subjective decisions on the part of the company. If one product uses more from less (i.e. using hollow legs on furniture) and is made in a solar-powered factory, is it greener than one that is made without toxic chemicals and comes from a supplier that recycles its wastewater? To assign a score means making value judgments about which parts of not being bad for the environment matter most. And to not let customers see the scores means that you're left to IKEA's sustainability experts to make that decision for you. IKEA will be getting better, surely, but on IKEA's own terms.