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Sustainability 3 March 2023

‘My ambition is to ensure the world is a better place because we exist.’

In this series, we meet the leaders of Ingka Group to share their insights on what makes good leadership and the vision, values and learnings that have shaped them and their leadership approach. This time we spoke to Ingka Group Chief Sustainability Officer, Karen Pflug. Karen joined as CSO in August 2021 bringing over 25 years’ experience of leading innovation, design and quality, for various global brands.

Her role is to lead the transformation of Ingka Group to achieve its goals in making a positive impact on people and planet across the strategic areas of healthy & sustainable living; climate and circular; and fair & equal. Her team include Ingka Group’s centres of expertise for our most material social and environmental issues, setting the strategic direction for how Ingka Group will achieve its ambitious sustainability commitments, as well as creating clear action plans and a comprehensive measurement approach for assessing progress and performance.

Over the past few years we have operated with unprecedented disruption due to the ongoing challenges the world is facing. The cost-of-living crisis, social inequality, climate change and nature loss are what Karen and her team focus on daily, along with what Ingka – which has a vision of helping to create a better everyday life for the many people – is doing to address these increasingly intertwined challenges. Amongst all this complexity the need for sustainability is more urgent than ever. Sustainable initiatives improve financial performance, can optimise innovation and enable cost savings in the long run. Put simply- it makes good business sense to be sustainable. It offers us solutions to some of the biggest challenges we face today, whilst also being key to ensuring a future where we are resilient and can continue to grow.

What has shaped your leadership style throughout your 25 years of experience?  

Some of my leadership style and approach has been shaped by my upbringing, with parents from Yorkshire, a northern part of the UK, where humbleness, hard work and making the most of resources are an important part of culture. As an adult I have also spent my formative years living in New Zealand, where an entrepreneurial mindset and pioneering spirit are driving forces. Outside my professional life I love being outside in nature and have raced as an elite athlete in adventure racing, cycling and kayaking. This experience of pushing my body and mind to the limit helps me to constantly challenge myself and continuously seek to improve; especially in high pressure situations. I am very driven and results oriented, striving to always be the best I can be. These are traits and experiences that have shaped my leadership style, which I bring into my daily work, especially when faced with complex and challenging situations.

My ambition is to be a high impact leader, who leads with courage, inspiration, and authenticity. I try to utilise this approach in different ways as CSO, working to strengthen trust and increase transparency towards our 170 000+ co-workers, as well as external stakeholder and customers. My goal at Ingka is to ensure that the world is a better place because we exist and to be a force for good. To make this happen, our team continuously works with all parts of Ingka and IKEA to anchor and embed sustainability into the day-to-day operations.

I am really proud to work with colleagues that are passionate, with unwavering dedication to positively contributing to the world around us, customer by customer and home by home.

What kind of leadership is required to enable businesses to transform to become more sustainable in their operations and how they engage with customers?

As a large multi-national retailer, Ingka Group has a crucial role to play in creating a sustainable future and we do this in three main ways: what we do in our own operations, how we enable our customers to make more sustainable choices and advocacy work; all of these are essential if we are to continue to lead and have a positive impact.

Over the next decade business leaders will face many interconnected and critical challenges, which require true collaboration amongst employees, customers, stakeholders and wider society. In addition, customers will increasingly expect companies to be transparent and honest regarding their impact on climate, biodiversity loss and people. As such, sustainability is a key factor in driving brand trust. We will also – and in many cases already are – come under increased scrutiny from a legislation and reporting perspective. We welcome this in order to create a more level playing field and greater clarity for customers about what we stand for. Amongst this complexity, I aim to bring my creative thinking, value chain experience and a performance mind-set to the transformation of and future-proofing of Ingka Group, I also focus on securing that sustainability is embedded across the business as a natural part of day-to-day decisions.

No matter whether you meet customers every day or work in finance, sourcing, product development, marketing or communications – we need leaders to lean in and contribute to our sustainability agenda, bringing your expertise and interdependent leadership. This often requires transformation change and we know that change is never easy. Often leaders and co-workers face dilemmas and tough decisions. We need courageous and collaborative leadership to ensure we are able to prioritise our commercial business agenda hand in hand with sustainability. In the future, companies that lead with sustainability at their heart will be the most successful. To make this happen, three important elements are needed:

 Togetherness: When you lead complex topics across a large multi-national organisation, building a strong team, with trust, openness and togetherness is the only way to succeed. I am totally humble about what I am continually learning in this role and what rich knowledge and expertise there is across Ingka, IKEA and our wide network of external partners.

 Fostering diversity: To deliver the best impact for the business, we must utilise the different backgrounds, expertise, talents and experience of our people. Active listening to these different viewpoints is key. No individual has all the answers, but our collective knowledge can be game-changing.

 Setting a clear north star that we can all aim for, along with expectations, action plans and follow up. Communicating this vision is key-  mixing passion and inspiration with science and facts. Sustainability needs to be measured and treated the same as any other performance criteria. Clear goals, accurate data insights empower everyone to contribute and help us to stay on track.

What would be your best advice to young, aspiring leaders today?

The explorer and sustainability advocate Robert Swan said, “The greatest threat to the planet is the belief that someone else will save it.” And I truly believe this is the case; we all have it in our hands to make decisions today that determine the future we want. We will not fix the climate and biodiversity crises nor the increasing level of inequality in the world if we just settle for the status quo. You must be prepared to have tough conversations, stay true to what you believe in but also be open and listen to new ideas. Be a challenger; rethink your approach to current business models, especially if they are deeply ingrained.

I think it’s important to reiterate that you don’t have to work directly in the sustainability team to contribute. All jobs should be approached with sustainability at their core. Wherever you work you CAN make a difference. Find ways to challenge and help to solve social and environmental issues within your sphere of influence. We need to accelerate our shared ownership; this requires people who are motivated and passionate about being a driving force for positive change in every corner of the business world.

Going forward, being sustainable will be the only way to be a successful business and ensure we play our part in creating a prosperous, resilient and equitable future. What an amazing and unique opportunity we have- let’s make the most of it!

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Karen Pflug Chief Sustainability Officer Ingka Group

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