Launched in 1979, the budget-friendly IKEA’s Billy Bookcase is one of the most popular pieces of furniture in the world. Having sold over 160 million units over the past 43 years, I’ve seen them everywhere from college dorms to expensive homes.
Now, as part of its plan to become a carousel company by 2030, IKEA has announced a major redesign of the iconic bookshelf — to make it a more salvageable product with a smaller physical footprint. It uses fewer plastic parts for sustainability – but it also uses less real wood.
The new Billy will launch in Asia in July but in 2024 everywhere else, it will do away with annoying screws that attach to the rear panel, replacing them with pop-up fixtures. Anyone who has built an economical piece of furniture will appreciate the upgrade, because driving nails into thin sheets of wood is almost always poor. The upgrade will also come in handy while on the move, as the lack of screws allows the Billy to be disassembled and reassembled for the crossover. IKEA also notes that it will make repairing the Bailey easier, because if one piece is damaged, it is easy to replace.
Other major changes to Billy occur via its wooden interface. IKEA replaced its wood veneer (which was very thin wood grain glued on top of engineered MDF panels) with tin foil. Foil paper is an increasingly popular product for furniture and home décor, as it is essentially wallpaper that you can roll over a product with a bit of adhesive. IKEA says its new foil will allow for more modern colours, such as walnut. It’s also a no-waste process for laying down paper, while IKEA promises that the paper will be more durable to cut and scratch than existing wood veneer. But it is worth noting that to get all this durability, tin foil is generally coated with polyurethane, which is a plastic material. So, even with the new Billy removing some of the plastic — by wrapping its own foil around the fronts of the shelves, and replacing the plastic guards that now protect their edges — IKEA still wraps its entire wood product in plastic to do its job.
Now, plastic is not inherently evil when used in long-term goods versus disposable shopping bags, and polyurethane is relatively harmless in relation to plastic. It leaves no appreciable impact on our hormone levels, and degrades in two decades versus the hundreds of years it takes for some plastics to disappear. So, I’m not arguing that the new Bailey is still an improvement in overall material sustainability—honestly, only IKEA has all the material sources and manufacturing data to say.
To further complicate the equation, I would also note that most wood veneer must be dried in high-temperature kilns, while producing or attaching tin does not require a great deal of heat. IKEA can save energy with every new Billy product, indirectly reducing carbon emissions. (IKEA did not respond to our requests for clarification.) On top of that, being able to move and repair the Bailey more easily will allow this distinctive piece of furniture to last longer before people get rid of it. And if that tin is more durable than veneer, as IKEA claims, the extra use of plastic will only enhance the billy’s life cycle!
This means that sustainability is always more complex than it appears at first glance, because replacing any component of a product comes at a new cost. And on the scale that IKEA operates – a company that uses 1% of the world’s wood supply – the lowest costs really add up. I just hope they add enough.