100 percent is easier than 90

AP

(MoneyWatch) After a lifetime serving environmental causes, Steve Howard was persuaded to join and green up IKEA. The furniture and home furnishings retailer does not have a stellar environmental track record, and there's a fundamental problem in selling furniture at so low a cost that many people expect to throw it away. Howard's mission is to change all that, and speaking at TEDGlobal, his argument was simple: If you want to go green, forget half-measures. Go all the way.

One example: Instead of selling a vast array of different lighting technologies, focus on one and commit to it. IKEA wants to stop selling and using halogens and CFLs and commit to one kind of lighting: LED. That's the only way, Howard argued, that everyone can afford them.

IKEA wants to use 100 percent renewable energy. Targets of 90 percent create politics: Everyone wants to sneak into the 10 percent category. And they'll fight to get there. A 100 percent target means there is nowhere to hide. Another aspect of IKEA's green strategy is to produce more energy than it consumes by 2020.

Central to Howard's initiative are zero waste; high-quality, 100 percent cotton; and consistent use of certifiably sustainable materials. What's important is that everyone -- employees, suppliers and the NGOs that audit the firm -- understand that the goals are fixed and do not bend. That way, no one loses time in futile negotiation. Instead, they figure out how to get the work done.

Ray Anderson, the legendary founder of Interface, made pretty much the same argument: Don't argue the small stuff. And if you want to make big changes, keep it simple.

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.