Image: Simon Henzell-Thomas, Global Head of Public Affairs of IKEA Group, speaking at the EACD Corporate Citizenship Working Group Meeting at AkzoNobel Amsterdam on 30 April.

Over the weekend, I visited the IKEA store next to Brussels Airport to refurbish my new home. As a consumer, I associate IKEA with value for money, minimalist furniture with stores that sometimes test relationships and furniture that requires good coordination skills! For Swedish expats, it is home away from home. Fresh after my recent visit, I was sitting in front of the IKEA Head of Public Affairs Simon Henzell-Thomas who spoke to a group of (mostly corporate) communication professionals. Simon explained how IKEA is trying to reshape its image and build a stronger public recognition of IKEA as a corporate citizen, with duties towards its environment and people.

In this blog, I reflect on IKEA’s practice to gather a few lessons to improve communication by businesses on their social responsibility. (Social purpose, social value, social responsibility, corporate citizenship - there are many terms used interchangeably by different sectors. For the sake of simplicity, I will stick to the terms ‘social responsibility’ or corporate citizen.)

Cheap, but good.

The idea of democratising furniture and housing has been at the heart of IKEA. The world’s largest furniture retailer has always kept prices low to make sure furniture remains accessible to all. But it has also recognised that cheap furniture also means more wastage and encourages its consumers onto a dangerous path of consumption, much to the detriment of the environment.

IKEA, however, appears to be embracing its social responsibility, ranging from product changes to how the business sees itself. For instance, IKEA no longer sells incandescent bulbs; it launched sustainable living projects with water and energy-efficient products; and, it has recently entered the solar energy market - Ikea offers to fit houses with solar panels. This service is currently limited to few markets, but with the hope to expand this service, especially as it prepares its big launch in India very soon. From retailer to service provider, the business is adapting itself.

No doubt, some of these business decisions are indeed pushed through because of government regulations; others are a choice on its part to keep itself ahead of the game. Is IKEA embracing sustainability projects because of its inherent belief in protecting the environment, or is it also a strategic choice? Considering IKEA’s biggest market is in Germany (where the environment receives strong public support), is it simply convenient to espouse pro-environment ideas? Well, the way IKEA communicates will determine its intentions.

Why should companies communicate about their social responsibility?

Consumers are adapting and as a result, so is our communications. When a business like IKEA recognises its social value, it cannot but adapt. And it has to take its consumers, employees and shareholders on this journey. Simon pointed out how global companies are not trusted to operate in the best interest of society. Moreover, consumers expect companies to be part of the solution going forward.

And so, communicating about your socially responsible actions has to be connected to the business. False promises will only deepen the current mistrust. Words must be followed by actions. Herein lies the critical challenge for the corporate communicator - to find the right balance between making promises and waiting to communicate until the CSR report is ready.

For any business to maintain trust, it needs to communicate its social responsibility with credibility and authority. Simon’s role as Head of Public Affairs, sitting within Corporate Communications points to the necessity of placing communications at the heart of the agenda you pursue.

How will it change the narrative, tone or brand of the business?

Make no mistake, espousing social causes doesn’t make one boring or sound like the stereotype idealist. Neither should being responsible be limited to sharing your CSR report at the end of the year.

Take a look at the boldness of Patagonia, as it sets itself against the current US administration. The culture of a company greatly influences its ability to be a corporate activist. IKEA is a Swedish brand, with which it brings a culture of Swedish humbleness. As Simon pointed out, IKEA will not be (and potentially doesn’t aim to be) Patagonia. And maybe there is no need. Just as you build your brand identity, your identity as a corporate citizen must be guided by your actions and values.

Can all companies become social activists?

We all need to become corporate activists, according to Simon. He shared the example of the corporate responses to Trump’s announcement of a proposal for a ban on Muslims and the number of CEOs that spoke out following Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate change agreement. IKEA was one of the first to respond with a statement denouncing the US decision to retreat from the Paris agreement. This was a departure not only for IKEA, but for many corporates.

Read more about CEO activism in Trump era on Harvard Business Review

But are these statements enough? Or worse, is it not opportunism? And finally, when do you speak out – when you know your customers are with you? Or are you ready to push the boundaries and take the risk of taking a political stand?

That is the question for the corporate communicator to answer for their own business. Corporate activism must be a reflection of your business values. And corporate communications ought to be the guardian of those values, while constantly pushing the boundaries.

Activism is about bringing change and pushing the agenda forward. As long as the business is driven to improving its impact on society and environment and can push itself to be honest in its communications, it will be recognised as a serious corporate citizen.
Eager to hear your thoughts!

Prerna Humpal is a communications professional working in Brussels for over 8 years in the area of advocacy communications for organisations strengthening the social agenda, be it in public policies or in business leadership. She has worked for Amnesty International, Academy of Business in Society and is currently Head of Communications for Eurochild, a children's rights advocacy network. Prerna holds an MPhil International Peace Studies from Trinity College Dublin and studied English literature at St. Stephen's College, Delhi. She started her career as a journalist and moved to advocacy communications to devote her skills to human rights and sustainability issues.