Joanna Blythman: Ikea: is it time to bring back the chintz?

If you stop to think about it, Ikea is the Walmart of the furniture world, and yet it hasn't featured in the rogues' gallery of brands that anti-globalisation activists love to hate. This is surprising. With its brash, cloned, super-sized blue box developments on every continent but Africa, it offers an obvious target. At the very least, it is implicated in the death of traditional town centres caused by out-of-town retail parks and the decimation of smaller furniture manufacturers.

But Ikea has been hugely successful in getting us to buy into its Scandi-chic image and the promise of good design and functionality at rock-bottom prices. However much we moan about being funneled like lab rats through its maze-like stores, lots of people have a soft spot for Ikea. Albeit with a Swedish accent, it speaks the seductive, universal language of retail democracy devised by the Walmart founder, Sam Walton, subsequently perfected by Tesco. Every little Ikea tealight holder helps to make our homes that bit more stylish, or so we think.

But if "Ikea: Bringing great design to the masses" was reading book one, reading book two shows the chain in a more critical light. Last year, the International Labour Rights Forum highlighted allegedly unsafe practices in a Turkish factory supplying Ikea with bed linen. Ikea said its own investigations and that of an independent audit concluded that there were no major labour problems there.

Now, following an investigation by Sweden's SVT TV channel, Ikea stands accused of siphoning millions into a Lichtenstein tax haven. It is alleged that its founder, the famously parsimonious and somewhat eccentric Ingvar Kamprad, has been secretly running his empire via a foundation based there, which it is alleged helps Ikea to avoid paying millions in tax.

This may sound like the opening plot line from Stieg Larsson's thriller The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo but any parallel with Mikael Blomkvist's fictional investigation into the tax affairs of Swedish tycoons stops there. If SVT's allegations are founded, it has uncovered nothing illegal, just the normal business practice of "tax-efficiency". Mr Kamprad flatly denies allegations that the foundation's aim was to avoid tax and insists that Ikea pays all its dues. "An optimised tax structure gives us the possibility of flexibility in using our assets that have already been taxed in one market," he explains.

But now that a spotlight has been shone on the tax-minimising activities of corporations, thanks to initiatives such as Christian Aid's Trace The Tax campaign, Ikea may find itself in company with other global brands such as Vodafone and Unilever that have been targeted by campaigners for more transparency in their tax dealings. Vodafone stores have been closed down by angry street protests. Were it not for the fact that the sheer vastness of their façades makes them hard to picket, Ikea could be the next in line.

It was only a matter of time before the shine wore off Ikea, tax apart. Disillusionment goes beyond the fiendishly difficult assembly of its flat packs or the short burning time of its candles. Singlehandedly, Ikea has created a culture of disposable furniture.

Like Primark's too-cheap-to-refuse clothing offer, the chain has abolished the concept of durability, as evidenced by the mountains of its non-recyclable, throwaway furniture clogging up our landfill sites. Ironically, one of Mr Kamprad's oft-quoted homilies is "waste of resources is a mortal sin at Ikea"– a sentiment that clearly does not extend to its products once sold.

As those who run antique and charity shops will tell you, our old furniture was once worth keeping. Now the nation is awash with Ikea cast-offs fit only for the bin. Well-made, enduring mass-market furniture of yesteryear, such as Ercol, is in vogue, featuring prominently in vintage home makeovers. It's unlikely that Ikea will ever replace it. The brand already looks as collapse-prone as one of its flat-pack clothes racks.

Comments