IKEA and the Disposable Society

By Kenneth M. Kambara, The Society Pages, Jul 16, 2009

Ikea "Fashion" Campaign, DDB Oslo
Ikea “Fashion” ad campaign, 2007. Agency::DDB Oslo

I was reading a review on Salon of Ellen Shell’s Cheap.  The premise is an intriguing one.  The world wants cheap, mass-produced items that are relatively disposable, but we are often unaware of the global implications of our desires, in terms of labour and the environment.  I’m currently revising a manuscript on innovation, technology, and China, so these concepts are top-of-mind.  One of the arguments that Shell makes is that downward wage pressures in low-wage nations are used to keep wages in the U.S. down through threats of downsizing and outsourcing.  The linchpin of the argument is one of costs, i.e., keeping them low, which revises quality expectations and feeds the corporate oligarchy.  Shell goes on to use IKEA as an example of a company selling disposability at the expense of true craftsmanship.  Sure, there is design that goes into the pieces, but the materials used and the mass-produced nature are indicative of a society that values disposable furnishings with cutesy names.  Palahniuk used what he called the “Ikea nesting instinct” as a social critique on consumption providing meaning, which Fincher captures in his adaptation of Fight Club {1999}::

I think that IKEA is doing what all mass-cult brands do.  They sell a meaning system, but this meaning system is increasingly tied to a fashion system {Roland BarthesGrant McCracken}.  So, it’s not that we just want new things, but we want new things that have the right meanings.  After all, that’s the key to happiness.  While this may seem cynical, I think that this reflects a trend towards impermanence in our lives, in terms of jobs, where we live, and relationships.

Where’s the loyalty, where’s the love?

It’s in places like Red HookEmeryvilleEast Palo AltoCoquitlamEtobicokeBoucherville

Is IKEA that bad?  They could stand to do a better job of living up to their positioning, but I think Shell is right to make us think about our own culpable actions.  I think we need to be more conscious of what we value.


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