Hands holding a handwoven towel.

Never losing sight of uniqueness

Ann-Sofie Gunnarsson works with artisans from some of the most remote parts of the planet. Together they give IKEA customers the chance to purchase unique homeware. At one end, someone gets to enjoy something beautifully handmade, at the other end – lives are changed.

Ann-Sofie meets us in the lobby of IKEA of Sweden in Älmhult, she has a determined stride to her step, we try to keep up.

“Social change and integration is fundamental,” she tells us. The way she speaks about equality and opportunities for women is energising. Ann-Sofie’s positive, but also strong-willed personality is evident.

IKEA creates partnerships with social enterprises within the area of home furnishing. Ann-Sofie and her team work directly with social enterprises in the countries they operate in, which means “you can see what is working and what is not working straight away,” she says. Her contact with artisans from all over the world is part of her strength at IKEA.

Passion for small-scale entrepreneurs

A project close to her heart is Local to Local; a collaboration with small-scale local producers in Europe and USA. It’s an opportunity for local communities, through social enterprises which focus on social change, to distribute hand-crafted collections using textile scraps from the stores, which would normally be considered waste. These products are then sold in local IKEA stores.

“Communication Manager” has not been Ann-Sofie’s only title at IKEA. In 2004, she started at IKEA Communications, (the marketing branch of IKEA that for example, develops the IKEA catalogue) working with web communication, and building up online projects.

After a while, she felt she needed a change. Sustainability was calling her. As project leader, she built up the concept and platform for Sustainable Life at Home. A global project that enables IKEA customers to live more sustainably in their own homes.

Three years ago she took the opportunity to work with Social Entrepreneurs. “I feel fortunate to work with these wonderful initiatives and creating a better life for people living outside modern society standards.”

Handwoven textiles with a label showcasing the people behind the products.
The artisans of Jordan River Foundation are experts in handicraft, a skill that is highly demanded.

Stepping into Jordan  

The latest collaboration is an initiative in Jordan. It has gained recognition as it will integrate refugees into the local business market. The aim is to contribute to the livelihood of refugees and local Jordanian women through a partnership with the social enterprise Jordan River Foundation.

Ann-Sofie tells us a story. It is about a Jordanian woman who is divorced, receives no money from her ex-husband and has several children she needs to provide for. “She is so energetic, strong and proud of her skills – the hand embroidery she does for Jordan River Foundation. She is determined to give a good life to her family.” The family was living in a cold and dark apartment but now, she has renovated the apartment (mostly by herself) and she is able to earn a reasonable income. Not only is she now self sufficient, but the flexibility of the Foundation is crucial. For women in this situation, it’s not possible to go to a factory and work between eight and five. Combining household work and a job is a need, not a want.

“This is a unique and great way to show what IKEA is good at – contributing to social change and inclusion via business.”

The artisans of Jordan River Foundation are very skilled in hand weaving rugs and in hand embroidery – using techniques that has been in practice by women for generations.

When asking her where the creativity comes from in these collaborations she answers swiftly: “I believe that it lies a lot in the social enterprises – using traditional handicraft, picking up traditional patterns and making them more modern and commercial.” Ann-Sofie describes it as co-creation between the artisans and IKEA designers. Merging cultures and backgrounds is a recipe for challenging situations, but almost always, we end up with creative and interesting outcomes.

Women smiling over a length of textile in an artisanal workshop.

Ann-Sofie with a few artisans from the Uttar Pradesh region in India.

Hands holding a handwoven towel.

Handwoven textiles from the Mizapur/Varanasi region in India.

Ann-Sofie has worked closely with product developer Stina Engler and designer Sarah Fager. Together, they worked on the INNEHÅLLSRIK collection produced by social entrepreneurs in India. She shows us some incredible hand-woven pieces, and blue and white towels in cotton with all their imperfections and irregularities. “That is the beauty with handicraft, every piece is unique,” she says. “It’s important to tell the story behind the products – the handicraft techniques and how important it is for rural women to get an income and fair working conditions. This gives the product an added value.”

Traditions and customs are strong in Indian culture, gender roles are very ingrained. Men are in general in charge of the weaving, while women are designated embroiderers. However, the social enterprise IKEA works with, Rangsutra and Industree PT, works mainly with women.

“That is the beauty with handicraft, every piece is unique.”

Ann-Sofie is a true advocate of the artisans she works with. She emphasises that IKEA is not there to help, they are there to collaborate, to be a business partner. “Some have been doing this craftsmanship for years and there is some real quality to be discovered.” Through this partnership, IKEA distributes the products, and through IKEA the social enterprises can access a marketing platform. It’s a win-win situation for both parties.

Ann-Sofie gets her inspiration from the stories that she witnesses.” When I’m really most inspired is when I’m out on the field and meeting the artisans.” She adds, “the majority of people we are working with are women. Even in different regions, there are similar challenges.”

If she would have her way, she would bring every employee and customer of IKEA with her. To show what it’s like when meeting these immensely talented artisans from all over the world. To hear the difficult stories, the heartbreaking stories, but also to hear the wonderful stories.

A black-and-white portrait of a woman in a parka, looking down.

Fast facts about Ann-Sofie Gunnarsson
Born in: Gothenburg, Sweden
Education: MBA in Marketing
Worked at IKEA since: November 2004
Favorite IKEA product: VERKAN – A handcrafted ceramic plate from social entrepreneurs in Thailand.
One thing you can’t live without? My mobile camera
What was the last picture you took with your phone? Of a sunny mountain in Austria
What makes you happy? My daughters
What makes you sad? Inequality
What defines you as a person? I never give up!