For over four decades, the IKEA BILLY bookcase has been a mainstay in IKEA’s line-up, with an estimated 140 million units sold worldwide. Despite changes in the past, including size adjustments and formaldehyde emission concerns, BILLY has remained popular with customers.
IKEA first announced a sustainability-focused revamp of the BILLY bookcase in July 2022. The change then involved moving from wood veneer to paper foil and replacing plastic edge bands with wrapped paper edges. The result was a bookcase made with less wood and plastic.
Now, IKEA focuses on the thing that holds it together: glue.
Change On The Inside
Although not immediately apparent to IKEA customers, glue plays a crucial role in producing IKEA furniture. IKEA reveals 90 percent of adhesive used in their manufacturing goes into creating particleboard and fiberboard, an engineered wood product made out of wood chips held together with glue. The surfaces of the boards are embellished with wood veneer (now paper foil) and cut into flat-pack furniture panels.
Customers assemble these panels into BILLY bookcases, SEKTION kitchen cabinets, PAX wardrobes, and more.
By switching from traditional adhesives to bio-based versions, IKEA hopes to reduce its company’s carbon footprint by 40%.
How Is BILLY Becoming More Sustainable?
Andreas Rangel Ahrens, Head of Climate at Inter IKEA Group, explains that people often equate climate change to “… solar panels, renewable electricity, and plant-based diets. I believe it’s equally important to help them understand the impact of our products. You can see solar panels and vegetables, but you cannot understand what it took to make the desk in front of you. It’s almost like a hidden mystery in each product we have. And we need to tell people what the climate footprint in the product is and how to reduce it.”
According to a company press release, about 5% of the total IKEA climate footprint comes from fossil-based glue, making adhesives a significant impact material. With this change, the goal is to reduce fossil-based glue use by 40% and greenhouse gas emissions from glue by 30% by 2030.
The first step is already in place, with the IKEA Industry factory in Kazlu Ruda, Lithuania, switching from a fossil-based glue to a starch-based version made from non-food grade corn. The goal is to have most board-producing factories in the IKEA supply chain using adhesives with lower climate footprints by 2030.
Finding a sustainable glue solution has taken the company over a decade, as the furniture industry traditionally relied on synthetic adhesives made from fossil-based raw materials.
“It’s not unheard of to produce boards with bio-based glues, but they are expensive. The challenge was finding alternatives reasonably priced and with the required quality. Then we needed to prove that they actually work and convince an industry that’s been using traditional glue that this is something we can produce with,” says Venla Hemmilä, Material & Technology Engineer for Adhesives at IKEA.
Increasingly Circular Bookcase
The latest evolution rides the wave of three significant changes implemented in 2022. The first change involved shifting from the use of wood veneers to paper foil. The second was using wrapped paper edges instead of plastic edge bands, and last, using snap-fittings instead of nails to secure the backboard to the bookcase, which makes disassembly and reassembly possible.
The paper foil is already used in the white version of the BILLY. It’s expanding to feature printed wood effects in oak, walnut, and birch to replace the wood veneer. The change has divided consumers, with some vouching for the quality of the IKEA paper foil.
“There’s no bubbling, peeling, or any damage to the surface. The IKEA paper foil finish is more robust than the same material on other cheap shelves I’ve had,” writes Malin over at a fan site for IKEA hacks. At the same time, detractors cry foul, “Pretend woodgrain and no longevity. Paper edges? That gets the most wear! More cheap ‘throw-away-and-just-buy-again’ products,” comments another.
Another commenter detects greenwashing (deceptive marketing about the “green” nature of a product) saying, “I think this is a touch of greenwashing – surprising from IKEA. When it comes to wear and tear, the new finish is far less robust. The bookcase will quickly start to look shabby, and I suspect [it] will lead to faster replacement – the opposite of what we want to see happening.”
Despite concerns, sales of the BILLY bookcase show no sign of slowing down, likely due to its affordable price and suitability for DIY modifications. IKEA estimates the BILLY bookcase sells a unit every 5 seconds. The more circular version of the BILLY is available in Asia-Pacific countries, with availability worldwide by January 2024.
IKEA Sustainability Poster Boy
The BILLY bookcase is no stranger to change.
Gillis Lundgren, the late IKEA furniture designer, sketched the BILLY prototype on a paper napkin and named it after a colleague who expressed his desire for a “proper” bookcase. The original bookcase Gillis envisioned was 35 1/2″ (90cm) wide. Over time, after customers complained the shelves sagged under the weight of books. IKEA altered the BILLY’s width to 31 1/2″ (80cm). Incidentally, the change made the flat-pack fit better in the transport pallets, and the size has remained unchanged ever since.
In 1992, IKEA also courted controversy when journalists found high levels of formaldehyde in the bookcases. As a result, the company stopped selling the bookcases and offered customers the option to return their purchases.
IKEA then implemented production controls for particleboard and lacquer to minimize the risk of formaldehyde emissions from their bookcases.
IKEA’s history tells us the company will continue tweaking its product offerings. It may start with the BILLY, but it’s unlikely to stop there.
Jules Yap started IKEAHackers.net in 2006 as a personal blog to showcase the most impressive IKEA hacks from all over the world. Since then, she has learned a lot more about power tools and DIY. Her site has helped thousands modify IKEA furniture with step-by-step tutorials, craft projects and home styling.