A factory worker in a yellow jacket stirring with a wooden stick in a metal container.

How a new bio-based glue can help IKEA reduce the climate footprint

IKEA uses wood more than any other material, and most of the wood used is composite that is kept together by glue which like all materials have an impact on climate change. IKEA is now introducing a new bio-based glue that can help reduce the climate footprint. We talked to Venla Hemmilä and Andreas Rangel Ahrens about innovation and sustainability ambitions.

The island sky bathed in a golden glow as the sun rose and the rooms filled with light. The leaves rustled from a soft breeze as a new day began on Salonsaari island in south Finland.

This is the island where Venla Hemmilä, Material & Technology Engineer for Adhesives at IKEA, was born and where her curiosity about nature and sustainability was first ignited. 

"It was a small island, but it had a bridge to the mainland", Venla says. "I've always been close to nature, and I've always been interested in it. I think my love for nature drives me to want to work with sustainability".

As the world faced increasing environmental challenges, Venla got an internship at IKEA in 2011, where she spent a summer visiting various production facilities.

"I was fascinated by what I saw at IKEA and wanted to continue researching in this area. So, I asked if I could do an industrial PhD and connect my background in polymer chemistry with the work I saw at IKEA".

A blonde woman with glasses standing in a office environment.
Venla Hemmilä, Material & Technology Engineer for Adhesives at IKEA.

The most significant impact on IKEA climate footprint comes from materials used in production. Amongst these, wood-based materials have the most impact compared to other materials. One key impact area is the use of fossil-based glue in manufacturing boards produced by bonding wood particles that contributes to 5% of total IKEA greenhouse gas emissions.

Today, almost 90 percent of glue used at IKEA goes into making particle boards and fibre boards, which are then used to create iconic products like PAX, METOD, BILLY, KALLAX, HEMNES, and POÄNG. About 5% of the total IKEA climate footprint comes from fossil-based glue, making glue a significant impact material. To limit the impact IKEA has on climate change, we are exploring scalable bio-based alternatives with a lower climate footprint.

"The glue used globally is a synthetic glue produced from fossil raw materials. Almost all boards have been produced with that glue", says Venla.

An industrial worker in a yellow jacket stirring a metal container with glue.

However, the journey towards finding a more sustainable glue solution was not without its challenges. Venla and the team faced a number of hurdles, not the least of which was the need to adhere to the five dimensions of Democratic Design: function, form, quality, sustainability and low price.

"It's not unheard of to produce boards with bio-based glues, but they are expensive. The challenge was finding alternatives at a reasonable price and with the required quality. Then we needed to prove that they actually work and convince an industry that's been using traditional glue that this is something we can produce with", says Venla.

It was a long journey that lasted for about ten years. The same curiosity about the world and nature drives Andreas Rangel Ahrens, Head of Climate at Inter IKEA Group, to pursue a career with IKEA in 2014.

“I have always had a huge interest in how the world and society work. During my studies, I realised that I not only wanted to understand it, I wanted to do what I could to make it better”, says Andreas, who started at IKEA in 2010 by doing his Master's thesis on sustainability and how to measure it in supply chains.

A smiling portrait of Andreas Ahrens, Head of climate at IKEA, dressed in a jeans shirt and with black glasses.
Andreas Rangel Ahrens, Head of Climate at Inter IKEA Group.

We need to tell people what the climate footprint in the product is and how to reduce it.

"When people think about climate change, they think about solar panels, renewable electricity, and plant-based diets. I believe it's equally important to help them understand the impact of our products. You can see solar panels and vegetables, but you cannot understand what it took to make the desk in front of you. It's almost like a hidden mystery in each product we have. And we need to tell people what the climate footprint in the product is and how to reduce it", Andreas says.

A belt transporting particle boards in a factory.

Venla and the team spent countless hours searching the available products, following up the experiments with different plant-based materials, and testing the quality of each alternative on the boards until they finally selected a glue that was found to be a perfect alternative for conventional adhesives.

Particle boards lying on a rack in an industrial environment.
Pallets with particle boards on a factory floor.