Being a Swede and an ardent Wastehater, I often am asked, “Why are the Swedes so conscious about waste”? My best answer hits at the heart of what it is to be a Swede: the so-called Law of Jante. This law is embodied in the essence of Volvo and Ikea, two well-known Swedish brands.
Welcome To The Land Of “Lagom”
It all starts with the American dream — striving for prosperity, success and climbing the social ladder. Americans are not ashamed to show their socio-economic status through materialism — keeping up with the Joneses, buying new, bigger, better — and more.
Growing up in Sweden, I didn’t know the Joneses. Instead, I got introduced to the Law of Jante. Created by a Danish author in the 1930s, the Law of Jante consists of ten rules that portray and criticize individual success and achievement as unworthy and inappropriate.
Nowadays, Swedes rather laugh at Jante and his rather depressing rules. We, too, want to think that we are special and good. However, Jante’s spirit still exists and forms us as citizens. It is no coincidence that the word “lagom”, meaning “just the right amount”, only exists in the Swedish vocabulary.
Sweden: Home to Volvo and Ikea
So it is no coincidence that brands like Volvo and Ikea were born in Sweden. They bring us the safe, the robust, the functional and the timeless — rather than bold, shiny, edgy and over-the-top.
What makes Ikea and Volvo so appreciated by the more simple living Swedes (as well as some Americans), is their honesty and straightforwardness. In Volvo’s and Ikea’s world, everyone is treated equally with safety and care in mind. It’s all about value for money and engineered craftsmanship.
Keeping Up With The Joneses Is Destructive For The Planet
I think Sweden and America can learn a lot from each other’s cultures. Swedes need to be more American — believing more in themselves, daring to stand out and embrace success. But the planet would probably be in better shape if Americans learned to live simply the Swedish way, and well, followed the Law of Jante
Reducing Waste is Not Just About Recycling and Reusing.
It is not just about repairing instead of buying new, either. It is also about “not”. As I’ve been hearing people say: not buying things you don’t need, with money you don’t have to impress people you may not even like.
Reduced waste will be achieved in a less materialistic world where status equals consciousness, functionality and moderation, rather than showing-off.
As many Americans appreciate driving a Volvo and furnishing their homes with Ikea furniture, I hope a cultural change happens. I hope more Americans will espouse the Law of Jante, and learn to appreciate the timeless design, the sheer functionality and minimalism of Volvo and Ikea — two brands that may be more Swedish than the simple living Swedes themselves.
My family is a third Swedish, a third German and a third Lithuanian, but to me it always seemed like the German side was the most frugal and most determined to give things away. Well, my grandparents were frugal until I came to visit, and then the wallets opened for candy and toys. I’ve wondered if this mentality grew in a war-torn Germany as my grandparents arrived in the US with my very young mother a short while after WWII or if this is just something that is just apart of the culture as it seems to be in Sweden. Either way it seems that the US may have something to learn from Europe.
Wow, way to go Sweden! I wish Americans had a better sense of “lagom”. I just moved into a new apartment and I must say, Ikea has been there for me.
However, I do have some qualms/concerns. First, after unpacking all the new furniture, I was left with a giant pile of cardboard boxes. Seems like a lot of waste to me, but I guess that’s not necessarily Ikea specific.
Another benefit of Ikea is that it’s affordable, even for a recent college grad such as myself, which leads to my second concern. Because of the reasonable prices, many may not see purchases as a big investment and may treat the furniture more casually, or even leave it behind when it’s time to make the next move. Aren’t we going for durability? I know I’ll cherish my red Ikea side table, but what about everyone else??
I agree with you- Ikea definitely has areas of opportunity where they can reduce packaging. I think one of the great things about them is that if you break one component of your furniture (like the frame of a bed), you don’t need to buy a whole new one and just have to replace the frame. Like you, I treasure all of my possessions and regardless of how inexpensive they may be because I’d rather not have to replace them.
The giant pile of cardboard boxes isn’t waste, it goes to paper recycling, or that’s at least what we do here in Norway/Sweden 🙂
directly in front of my computer are the words “live simply so others may live” – my mantra if you will 🙂
thank-you for your post!
This is a great post Christina.
It was a huge culture shock for me when I visited South Korea last summer and discovered how incredibly concerned people were about keeping up with the latest and greatest trends. Being from the US, I always thought Americans were fairly aggressive when it came to upgrading to the lastest model of the iPhone or buying 3D tv’s to replace recent HD tv’s, but Korea is on a whole other level. I found that many Koreans have a traditional mindset where each should be just like the other- if your friend is wearing a certain brand of clothing, you MUST own it. If there is a commercial on tv advertising how everyone loves a brand of floor cleaner, you MUST have it, so you can be just like everyone else and stay in the game. And it’s not just the 20-somethings. Adults, and even older generations, are fighting to keep up with the latest trends in fashion, home decor, and especially technology. No one wants to go without. And I agree- this is an exceptionally wasteful mindset, but the pressure of pushing out new and updated smart phones, computers, and cars to feed the needs of modern society inspires the creation of even better, faster, and more efficient goods.
So the question is, how can innovation and society progress without being wasteful? Like you said in the post, Swedes could use more ambition and Americans need to cut down on wasteful consumption. How could each reach those goals without jeopardizing their initial qualities?
I personally love Ikea, and think it’s a nice model for a solution. It’s the go-to place to pick up basic furniture and storage items when all I need is a bed frame and night stand- no bells and whistles, just something to keep my mattress off the ground and a surface to set down a glass of water. However, I also think that their lack of flourish and design elements could be interpreted as stylish and modern, which could further be considered trendy. So in a way, I think they are keeping up with the Joneses, just in a more efficient and timeless sense. They also have incredible Swedish meatballs.
I believe it also exists in Japanese “tekido” 適度 but I believe that current Japanese society is very much as S.Korean.
Actually, I would say that Koreans want to be like Japanese but actually, managed to surpass them! Much more technogically advanced, forward looking and modern. Even women seem more integrated in the job market (even though after wedding job quitting seems rather common, unfortunately).
I come from Spain. And what I really miss in Sweden is “social warmth”. Sorry to say, but it’s not easy *at all* to make friends. I’ve been blessed with meeting the rare “open minded” that accepted me… But unfortunately, in the overall environment e.g. at work, isn’t that easy.
My bottom line is, things won’t change and there is no perfect balance. You just gotta pick the option that suits you best (and learn to live with its downsides).
I love the concept of lagom, appreciate Swedish design, and must admit that nearly all of the furniture in my apartment was purchased at Ikea.
That said, I have some doubts about Ikea as a champion of sustainability. In addition to the packaging concerns Sarah mentioned above, I am particularly bothered by the following two issues with my Ikea furniture:
1. A lot of the “wood” products — like my kitchen table, coffee table and book cases — are mostly particle board (composite wood). Particle board is composed of bits of wood bound together with resin that often has a base of formaldehyde, which is classified as a carcinogen by the WHO. I wish I had known this before making my purchases!
2. Additionally, particle board breaks or falls apart quicker than solid wood. Once the piece breaks, isn’t easy to reuse or fix. Even if the item doesn’t break, donation centers like Goodwill and the Salvation Army (at least in New York City) won’t take furniture made of particle board. Of course in NYC, you can always leave furniture by the curb, but if particle board gets rained on it becomes more or less useless.
After having my Ikea furniture for nearly two years, I can see it all lasting for a few more years but the solid unfinished wood products (like my kitchen chairs — also from Ikea) are holding up much better than the particle board items and I don’t worry about them containing formaldehyde.
Companies like Ikea, which produce vast quantities of goods at low prices, often make decisions which involve tradeoffs. I definitely don’t want Ikea to switch from particle board to solid wood if that involves unsustainable harvesting, but I wish Ikea would find a less toxic, longer lasting material material than particle board.
Over the last 30 odd years thanks to the US being able to spread its cultural capitalism across countries, we all have fallen into the trap of: ” buying things you don’t need, with money you don’t have to impress people you may not even like”.
Time we stopped.
And Christina, am told white consumes max power on computer screens 🙂
I have always been interested in Sweden and the rest of Scandanavia. Thank you so much for this post and for increasing my knowledge of Swedish culture. I find it so interesting that you associate minimalist design and clean lines with waste hating, I never thought of this before. It might explain my love of Swedish design. Ikea has provided solutions to several challenges in my home and all my crystal is from Sweden. My plates/bowls, etc.are from Denmark. Do the Danes and other Scandanavians have the same attitude toward waste and simplicity?
There are a lot of concerns being mentioned here about the quality of the products being issued by Ikea. I also question if the products could be made with better materials and at the same low cost. Or does this mean that we potentially have to choose between our health and cheap products that may cut down on waste?
Thank you all for the response.
I agree with the comments about IKEA, the concerns about packaging and also that it easily replaceable due to the low price. One good thing with the packaging is the pull-it-together-yourself solution, which reduces packaging size and hence transportation. Regarding old IKEA furniture, they sell well at Blocket (the equivalent to Craigslist in Sweden), and I have bought old IKEA pieces myself at Craigslist. But, Paloma and Alexis, I agree that a huge company like IKEA with a of impact could do more!
The references are more metaphoric, trying to boil down to essence of my roots. However, the younger generation are keen on keeping up with the latest phones, flat TVs etc. and may not be so avert on showing status with things, so things have been changing to the more capitalistic over there as well. But I think we get the waste consciousness and moderation with us from growing up. More about the Swedish mentality here:
In Denmark there is a word “Janteloven” that means “aversion to putting on airs.” I wonder if that has any relation to Jante?
This post has to do primarily with an important American ideal that I think is worth mentioning.
This stress on simplicity and reducing waste is arguably more prominent in American culture than Sweden, a simplicity that stems from Fordism. Remember, while America certainly is subject to rampant consumerism, there has always been the opposing force: the Jeffersonian ideal. Think the virtuous yeoman farmer vs. the vice of the businessman. Ford’s Model T was built for the masses. It was simple, utilitarian, and famously only came in one color: black. Furthermore, it was a base to which owners could customize the car (one owner converted the car into a mobile church/cathedral). This utilitarian design aesthetic hugely influenced European architects such as Le Corbusier who applied such simplicity to his skyscrapers. And not only Le Corbusier, many European architects wholly subscribed to the utilitarian aesthetic. It’s also a similar standardized aesthetic to that of Levitown’s ‘Cape Cod’ houses and even Army quonset huts. For the most part, objects in the 1920s were built for use, not ostentation. Reference: David Garterman’s “From Autos to Architecture.”
So yes, America is extremely and notoriously profligate in its ways, but I think it’s essential to remember the fact that we were at one point a very simple nation of peoples who subscribed to the Jeffersonian ideal.
So to make this relevant… I think the question is whether or not the American culture is irreparable in respect to its current consumerism, and how, can there be a cultural shift to restore America back to its roots epitomized by the Model T.
Ross, could this also be because in Sweden this notion of using less/minimalism just be understood or an inherent part of the culture while in the US it’s focused on because it is something that we struggle with in a society in which greed and the demand for more is so great? Perhaps Ford was trying to show an idea that the US needed but didn’t have.
Christina, I totally agree with your post!
Growing up here, New York City, you see the rich and luxurious lifestyles. I have a friend whose family is from Bangladesh, and he recently went back to visit this summer. I told him it might be better if you leave your expensive belongings at home because when you go to developing countries and “show off,” you become a target. The last thing you want to do is attract unwanted attention. His mother told him to bring his watches and nice clothes. It shows how hard you worked for these things and how good he is doing in the United States. As I thought back in the mind, what other way would you show your relatives from another country that you are truly doing well? Is materialism that answer? In America, yes.
The narrative of the American Dream is a set of ideals that includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward social mobility achieved through hard work. Social mobility represents abundance, democracy of goods, freedom of choice, and novelty. Abundance represents our hard work and in turn, results in purchasing material goods; make them proud to be apart of a rich society. Democracy of goods means that everyone has access to the same products regardless of race or class, not only the rich or well-connected. Freedom of choice allows people to fashion their own lifestyles. Finally, novelty is served as ever-changing fashions and unexpected new products that broaden the consumer experience in terms of purchasing skills and awareness of the market, and challenges the conservatism of traditional society and culture.
Through these ideals, we Americans love to waste. We have to keep up with the Joneses to show our success. We buy things we do not need to show how lavishly we are living — and esp how successful we are. It’s tragic that our culture is engraved in these ways. I agree that our success should allow us to purchase whatever we want, but I do believe that our culture would benefit from a bit more conservatism. Material good should not show our happiness and success, because it generally it does not. We should take a couple of notes from the Law of Jante as it would make us better citizens to our communities and earth.
This is such an interesting post, Christina! I lived outside of Copenhagen for 4 months and noticed the impacts of Jante’s law on everyday life. Denmark as a whole is so much smaller and more homogenous than America and for this reason much of the country shares more similar ideals and goals. Danes also pay much higher taxes, up to 70% of their income, to support social and government programs for their fellow countrymen. The willingness to pay higher taxes allows for more environmental regulations and programs, which encourage environmentally responsible behavior. Waste reduction and environmentally responsible behavior is thus practiced on an individual level and is also more systematically integrated into government practices. I think the next step for American companies is incentivizing less waste. I wonder if there are current incentives or programs to cut down on waste in any other countries.
This is very interesting to me because it seems so simple but is so hard for many people to do. I basically have only Ikea furniture in my apartment. It just was ideal for me because I needed my apartment to be functional yet comfortable. I can definitely get into the part about “not” having things. People buy so many useless items that they convince themselves they need.
It reminds me of a woman I spoke to at an enrichment class I was teaching. She asked me how I could live without an air conditioner. It was such a hard question to answer because I never thought about how to survive without an air conditioner. I simply made up my mind not to buy one and to get a fan instead. She could not wrap her mind around using only a fan. I smiled and told her that you get used to it. People would be surprised how much they can do without if they just tried. When I taught my students about the 3 R’s I stressed the importance of reducing in the first place. I would ask them but do your really need that item or do you want it because you think it is normal or expected to have it.
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Having spent four months in Scandinavia studying sustainable development and socioeconomic implications, this post resonated with me immediately! I love the Scandinavian perspective on waste and agree with some earlier comments that it is not limited to Sweden. I think the Swedes have done an amazing job of pioneering such thought and creating a culture of limiting waste and only using with is necessary. My four months in Scandinavia left me curious to how Americans can adopt similar mindsets. Is it possible to apply such cultural values on such a large scale? The concern when I was over there was that a country such as Sweden is merely the size of Massachusetts, how can we translate their culture onto a mass scale?
Just some food for thought — thanks for the great post!
As a member of generation Y, I can say that the desire to have the latest and greatest gizmo or product is especially influential amongst my fellow millennials. I am embarrassed by many of my friends’ desires to replace their perfectly working iphones whenever apple releases its newest version. The concept of buying what you need vs what you want is largely lost on members of generation Y. I wonder if this is a product of growing up in the US during its most lucrative era of existence. My parents, especially my father, grew up having very little in the area of wealth and has stressed the concept of buying what you need vs what you want. Millennials for the most part have been sheltered from many of the financial struggles of previous generations, contributing to the desire to constantly consume and a general sense of entitlement.
I applaud Volvo and Ikea for their efforts to develop the safe and functional rather than the shiny and the over the top, but I cannot say that all of my experiences with Ikea products have mirrored this effort. In fact, most of the products that I’ve purchased from Ikea seem to have very short life spans. For instance, the computer desk I used in college barely made it through one year’s worth of use before the keyboard tray broke. Their products that are made of particle board have similar lifespans and result in wasteful consuming. The age of durability is by and large a thing of the past.
Love this post Christina! I wish “lagom” was the norm in American culture instead of consumerism and wastefulness.
Well said Dakota! Also a generation Y member, I never understood why my peers would buy something new if their old something was still in perfectly usable condition. Keeping up with the Joneses was something that was never important or appealing to me, and I can only hope that consumerist societies will eventually move away from the idea of ‘things’ representing status. This summer I spent 5 weeks studying in Costa Rica, and the people there shared the same “lagom” mentality as those in Sweden. There were no mansions, air conditioning, or abundant household electronics. Houses were one-story and were no bigger than necessary, and having one tv and one computer in a house was the norm. The young children in schools played soccer and games with each other instead of playing on an iPhone or a Gameboy. It was so beautiful and refreshing to see a culture that was far less driven by compulsive wants and so happy having exactly what they needed. Even as a pretty conscious consumer, I could not help but to be inspired to re-evaluate my wants and needs upon returning home.
I experienced the ideas of Lagom, and the Law of Jante while living in Copenhagen, Denmark–and I must say I was very impressed with the Scandinavian culture’s dedication to sustainability and limited waste. Studying sustainable business there, I was able to see first hand where nations like Denmark and Sweden excel, and nations like the US fall a bit short–their dedication to resource conservation and environmental awareness. These cities are built for sustainable lifestyles- with great public transportation, incredible bike and walking infrastructure, and with major businesses focusing on ways to curtail costs by researching the next sustainable innovation-whether dealing with packaging, energy consumption or carbon emissions. Studying in Denmark truly inspired me to bring back some of those design and technological innovations to the US, as these changes are necessary to remain prosperous and efficient.
This is so true Christina! Being a Swede indeed means that we grow up with the ‘Jante law’ and the strive for ‘lagom’ in the back of our minds. A downside is that it limits us to excel individually because we don’t dare to step up and stand out from the rest. Instead we focus on collective achievements and tend to make up modest excuses for individual success instead of admitting to great performance. An upside of looking at ourselves this way is that we are eager to create value for the whole group – since this way we can also move forward and succeed ourselves. These values are further emphasized by the social system in Sweden, where the sharing culture and care for others are present throughout our lives. This makes us focused on long lasting values and benefits such as quality, functionality and safety and companies like IKEA and Volvo are indeed amazing examples of how these values can be used to excel in business.
The care for others and collective approach also makes us question whether we really need something, rather than that buying ‘because we can’ or because it would give us status. Not creating a need to recycle or reuse by avoiding buying it in the first place I’d say is at the very heart of the Swedish culture as well as of sustainability.
I also believe that nature has an impact on our values, since the climate with different seasons require us to adapt to weather and wind to survive. This brings a certain respect for the environment and I think motivates many to waste less and be aware of the resources that we consume from nature.
I think a future challenge for Sweden is to stay at the forefront of sustainable innovation by encouraging individual success – without losing the values of caring, sharing and simplicity that have been the very key to our success in this field.
What a wonderful post! Now this is something a few of my friends need to see!
While globalization has done many great things, the idea of “keeping up with the Joneses” has unfortunately snuck its way into societies all over the word (even here in Hong Kong). I was talking with a friend the other day about the new Apple Watch and he enthusiastically declared that he was going to wait in line the day it comes out. When I asked why, all he said was “why not?”. As more people have entered the middle class and as goods have become cheaper and more accessible, I think we have begun to lose track of the difference between “want” and “need”. It makes me wonder if we’ll ever reach a point where enough is enough.
Great post Christina!
I am an international student from India, while pursuing my undergraduate degree in America I decided to study abroad in Copenhagen. I was just getting used to the American culture, when I decided to study abroad. Within a day I observed the simplicity and sustainable mindsets of the individuals. What inspired me the most was the how effortlessly they portrayed their desire to be more sustainable; I believe that they understand the difference between the value of life and the value of commodities. Buying the latest iPhone is not going to magically bring happiness to your life, but by leading a healthy and sustainable life you are guaranteed to inherit happiness. And that is what sets these two countries apart.
America needs to follow the same route diverting from this present uneconomic growth and continuous consumption, which is slowly scraping away our natural resources. We drastically need to revaluate and redefine our meaning of happiness, and that according to me, can be powerful enough to change our way of life.
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