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How Sustainable Business Practices Drive Innovation

Round Editorial

IKEA’s Senior Advisor and former Chief Sustainability Officer tells us how companies can lead positively by reconciling sustainability and business goals.

Reconciling sustainability and business goals isn’t easy, but it’s essential to shape the future we want to live in. IKEA’s Senior Advisor and former Chief Sustainability Officer Pia Heidenmark Cook discusses how companies can lead with positive action and values.

Sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) are key to driving innovation and the future of tech and business. For the first RoundAbout conversation of 2022, Round Co-Founder and CEO Ryan Fuller spoke with Pia Heidenmark Cook, Senior Advisor and former Chief Sustainability Officer at IKEA.

Heidenmark Cook is an expert on sustainability, having reduced the emissions of the world’s largest home furnishing company – and largest Swedish food exporter – while helping grow its business. In the discussion, she shared how businesses can behave more ethically and meaningfully rise to the occasion to reduce their environmental impact.

Here are five key takeaways from the conversation:

1. Understanding where your environmental footprint is – not just that you have one – is key to mitigating impact

Each company has a footprint, whether they are a consumer products business, or a high-growth software company. To make significant strides in reducing this footprint, you need to look beyond top-level issues and understand the details of your operations.

In the case of IKEA, Heidenmark Cook highlighted the opportunity to reduce the impact from production of physical goods, by looking specifically at materials – wood, plastics, metal, cotton – and understanding the impact within each specific category. Through knowing the granular details,“we start to do a lot of innovation work,” she adds. She doesn’t call this problem solving a “sustainability project” – rather, it’s the way that the company is evolving, which ultimately has far-reaching effects on mitigating their impact.

You should understand that the devil is in the details when creating plans for sustainability; breaking down each component of your business will not only help curb impact but lead your organization toward the innovation both you and the planet need.

2. Reconciling business decisions and sustainability goals should be a constant conversation

Conversations around sustainability goals shouldn’t operate as a means to an end, but rather should be constant and evolving across your company. You need to be visiting – and revisiting – targets, metrics, and how you measure your success to diminish your impact.

“We’re having conversations every day … In every category council and every country management team, you’re constantly discussing and reflecting. Can we go this far? How far can we go?” Heidenmark Cook shared.

Of course, these conversations can’t happen in a vacuum, since financial targets will always be a factor. Heidenmark Cook adds that IKEA is a profitable company – “we’re running a business, not a charity” – but the conversations are constant and ultimately affect business decisions.

3. Sustainability is both a top-down and bottom-up priority

Organizational change and value-setting often comes as a directive from the top; business leaders lay a foundation for how to make decisions that align with their values. This leadership from management is important, especially when you’re making big transformations. Bottom-up movements have a huge impact, too – and increasingly so amid the evolution of technology, business, and labor due to the pandemic.

In the past year, conversations around sustainability values and positive corporate impact moved front and center, for management and workers alike. “Sustainability has been a bottom up [movement], in the sense of it really is among the top three reasons why people choose to work for the company,” Heidenmark Cook says. “There’s a lot of pressure from coworkers wanting it.”

4. There are two dimensions to environmental responsibility: problem solving and leading with values

Businesses shouldn’t look at sustainability solely as a problem to solve. Of course, organizations need to audit their impact and set goals for improvement as well as solve tangible issues. However, beyond coming up with solutions for these problems, they need to continually practice what they preach.

“There’s the energy of entrepreneurship of problem-solving in companies… and also leading with values,” Heidenmark Cook says. “Companies have a huge role to play and a big responsibility [to consider both].”

This will look different for every company – but companies should push the envelope. For instance, saying you’ve cut down on flying because you’re depending on Zoom more is no longer enough – businesses need to be forward-looking, work with scientific targets, and ultimately incorporate their values with what they put on the market.

“There will always be laggards and there will always be pioneers, and we can’t really afford to have laggards for much longer,” she adds.

5. Daring to have tough conversations around values and then speaking up is a huge part of positive change

For businesses, conversations around equality, human rights, sustainability, and politics are thorny, so establishing corporate values and shaping impact work around them is not easy. For large companies, “daring to have those conversations is key,” and organizations need to speak up more than they have in the past.

When businesses have conversations about values, it’s also important to think broadly about who is affected by decisions – workers and customers, and even suppliers. As you make changes, do impact work, and recalibrate what’s important to your organization, be respectful that everyone is in a different situation, Heidenmark Cook adds – especially across countries – but “still dare to be who you are.”

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