Ikea Plans to Sell ‘Green’ Meatballs—the Good Kind of Green

The megachain says it wants to provide a more eco-friendly alternative to its famed Swedish snack.

(Photo: Radek Mica/AFP/Getty Images)

May 8, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

From the wood used in its comically unpronounceable bookcases to its push to sell more energy-efficient light bulbs, international megaretailer Ikea has tried hard to become more eco-friendly. But what about all those meatballs?

If you’ve ever spent an afternoon wandering the labyrinthine layout of an Ikea, dead-ending with an increasing level of frustration and famishment at yet another oversize bin of throw pillows or a wall of snaky lamps, only to emerge on a glossy sign promising cheap food, you know the draw. At Ikea, immediate sustenance can be beyond necessary, and those little protein nuggets deliver.

Ikea sold almost 100 million of its famed meatballs last year just in the U.S., according to USA Today. Whether their cultlike reputation derives from their actually tasting good or from just about anything tasting good after you’ve been stuck debating with your spouse for two hours over whether to buy a Söderhamn or a Kivik sofa is open to debate.

But what’s exceedingly clear is that they aren’t sustainable. The balls are typically made with beef and pork, two meats that have among the highest carbon footprints, according to a 2011 report by the Environmental Working Group. Eating four ounces of pork equates to driving about three miles in your (presumably gas-guzzling) car, while eating the same amount of beef is the equivalent of cruising nearly seven miles. (Surprisingly, lamb ranks as the biggest carbon hog of all.)

So Ikea, perhaps the biggest seller of Swedish meatballs in the world (I’m just guessing), is coming up with alternatives, including vegetarian and chicken options.

Chicken ranks as the EWG’s “best meat pick” vis-à-vis its carbon footprint, while, as you might expect, beans, lentils, and tofu (ingredients that may end up in the vegetarian “meatball”) are the most carbon-wholesome. Eating four ounces of lentils is practically like not driving your car at all.

“We didn’t want to have 5 percent of our range ‘green’ and ignore the rest,” Ikea’s chief sustainability officer, Steve Howard, told Fast Company. “If we think of the challenge—society is using one and a half planets’ worth of resources every year, and on track for more. Business as usual isn’t an option. Sustainability has to be in every product in every customer’s home. It shouldn’t be a luxury for the few.”

Of course, Howard is talking about more than just meatballs. It’s hard to think of your average Ikea, a box store that can make Walmart look like a mom-and-pop shop, as eco-friendly at all. But if you’re going to sell to the masses on an enormous scale, then Ikea seems to be doing what it can to make that a little better for the planet.

The company touts that in the next two years the only light bulbs it will sell will be LEDs, which use 85 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs and last 20 times longer. Ikea increased its use of cotton “from more sustainable sources” by nearly 40 percent in the last year, and almost a third of the wood in its products comes from lumber that is either certified by the Forest Stewardship Council or is recycled. To make the “everything and the kitchen sink” argument, it even sells faucets that use 60 percent less water.

Oh, and Ikea is on track to produce all the energy it uses from renewable sources by 2020, an undertaking that includes last month’s corporate investment in a 98-megawatt wind farm in Illinois, Fast Company reported.

However, critics argue that no matter how many solar panels Ikea installs on its stores or how efficient it makes its dishwashers, there’s something fundamentally unsustainable about the chain’s business model. After all, it’s no accident that a common rite of passage for many of us when we finally landed in our first apartment was a trip to Ikea, where we gleefully stocked up on cartload after cartload of too-cheap-to-be-true, vaguely cool-mod-European furniture and bric-a-brac—only to find, a few years later, we’d replaced most of it.

As The Atlantic points out, those often far-flung stores require a long car ride—50 miles round trip for the average customer—which means you’d apparently need to eat about seven orders of vegetarian meatballs to offset the carbon footprint of that shopping spree.