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IKEA and LGBT – falling between the flatpacks?

What does a multinational company do when a country where it operates has laws that run counter to international human rights norms? Kathryn Dovey suggests how IKEA could honour its rights commitments while protecting its Russian profits.

In June this year, Russia’s parliament passed a law prohibiting the 'promotion of non-traditional sexual relationships' among children and young people. Which ‘non-traditional sexual relationships’ are covered is unclear, but they clearly include lesbian, gay and bisexual relationships (earlier drafts of the law and other regional variants refered explicitly to ‘homosexual propaganda’).

In June this year, Russia’s parliament passed a law prohibiting the 'promotion of non-traditional sexual relationships' among children and young people. Which ‘non-traditional sexual relationships’ are covered is unclear, but they clearly include lesbian, gay and bisexual relationships (earlier drafts of the law and other regional variants refered explicitly to ‘homosexual propaganda’). Supporters of the law argue this is about protecting children, but the reality is that it has provoked a backlash against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community and forced people to keep quiet about their identities.

The law is also so wide in its reach that it touches everything – rainbow flags (the global symbol of LGBT rights), for example, are now effectively banned. The penalty for individuals who break the law is a fine of up to 5,000 roubles (£100) and organisations can be fined 500,000 roubles (£10,000).

The dilemma for business

Businesses, including multinationals, are also affected by the new law, and one company that is discovering the complications of operating in Russia is the Swedish giant IKEA, which is currently experiencing public criticism from LGBT rights groups in Sweden and elsewhere, including a recent kiss-in protest at one of their stores in New York. The reason - its decision to delete a story featuring a British family with lesbian parents from the Russian edition of its IKEA Family Live magazine, which is produced by a UK-based communications agency and distributed to members of the IKEA loyalty scheme IKEA Family.


With 14 stores in 11 different cities, Russia represents a very important market for IKEA. Photo CC Tim@sw2008

In an IKEA Group statement, the company set out its position: ‘This article is published in 25 countries. Russia has a law that prevents this kind of promotion. It is a law that has been widely criticised but one that we have to comply with. We have therefore, after consulting Russian lawyers, made the decision not to publish this article in the Russian edition. In the long term, we believe that we can have a positive influence on societies in the countries where we operate by constantly working based on our values.’

IKEA has provoked international criticism for its decision to delete a story featuring a British family with lesbian parents from the Russian edition of its IKEA Family Live magazine.

Matters of local law conflicting with international human rights norms are not easy areas for companies to navigate. The United Nations recognised in 2011 that all businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights wherever they operate and in situations where local laws are in conflict with international standards, businesses are expected to ‘respect the principles of internationally recognised human rights to the greatest extent possible in the circumstances, and to be able to demonstrate their efforts in this regard.’

The tough question is - are there times when some laws are so bad that they need to be challenged? And are there ways in which companies can stand up against practices that discriminate and undermine respect for human rights? 

The local context in Russia is relevant here. Russia is a party to the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees, among others, rights to non-discrimination, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. In 2010 Russia was censured by the European Court of Human Rights for failing to respect the Convention in its refusal to allow LGBT pride events in Moscow in 2006, 2007 and 2008. The Court ruled that ‘it would be incompatible with the underlying values of the Convention if the exercise of Convention rights by a minority group were made conditional on its being accepted by the majority.’ This judgment has not, however, altered officials’ conduct in the capital; in June 2012 courts in Moscow upheld a decision by City Hall to ban LGBT Pride parades in the city for the next 100 years. 

The pernicious anti-LGBT laws in Russia and the social hatred they have fuelled are extremely worrying. Russia legalised homosexuality in 1993 but there is no legal protection in the country against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity. In recent months several examples of disturbing video content have been circulating, showing young men being forced to come out on camera following beatings. More recently, a state TV channel broadcast recordings of a private meeting of Russian and international LGBT activists in a bid to publicly shame them.

How IKEA could have behaved differently

So how else might IKEA have chosen to tackle this situation? One option would have been to print the article and run the risk of a fine – challenging a bad law outright. This is of course highly problematic for companies operating in such a context, particularly as Russia is a very important market for the company. Yet, of course, it would have provided a very interesting test case against this vague and wide-ranging law.

Another option would be to work in cooperation with other companies operating within Russia. The ten main corporate sponsors of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, which include Coca-Cola, McDonalds and Visa, are certainly feeling the heat, and have become understandable targets of campaigning NGOs. Challenging unjust laws collectively and calling for public debate on LGBT rights could be hugely effective in the long run.

Corporate sponsors of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics are feeling the heat as NGOs call on them to speak out against discrimination in Russia.

Alternatively, the company could have looked for a way to avoid falling foul of the law but still send out the message that as a business it respects the rights of LGBT people globally. For instance, in the lead up to the Sochi Winter Olympics, campaigners have launched the Principle 6 campaign. This refers to Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter which states that ‘any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.’ By using the P6 symbol, supporters of LGBT rights will not be breaking the law in Russia but they will send out a united message in support of Russia’s LGBT community. To have some pages in the Russian version of IKEA’s Family Life magazine carrying the P6 symbol would have been a brave but technically legal step by IKEA.


A Russian protesting the 'gay propoganda' law is attacked by a member of the public. The law is widely seen as the legitimisation of homophobic behaviour by the state. Photo CC Roma Yandolin. 

It’s not too late to challenge the law 

The challenge of respecting LGBT rights in Russia is not the responsibility of IKEA alone. Many multinational and local companies operate in the country and many promote equality in their hiring practices and benefits packages, but this often goes unseen. What is striking about the IKEA case, however, is that back in 1994 the company ran an advertisement in the USA that featured a gay couple. It was inundated with complaints in response but didn't bow to pressure until things turned violent, with a bomb threat against a US store. What IKEA did then was incredibly progressive, considering how strong homophobic views were in the US at the time. Today, several US states permit gay marriages and the Supreme Court has outlawed the Defense of Marriage Act, the law barring the federal government from recognising same-sex marriages legalised by individual states; but the advertisement would still be considered progressive today when only 3.3% of the scripted characters on US primetime TV programmes are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender and inclusion in adverts is still rare. Back then, IKEA was on the right side of history in the US.

Last year the company was found to have airbrushed all women out of its catalogue for distribution in Saudi Arabia. 

This is also not the first time IKEA has been singled out for its editing of content to conform with local practices that discriminate. Around this time last year, the company was found to have airbrushed all women out of its catalogue for distribution in Saudi Arabia. The company later apologised for its decision, admitting the exclusion was in conflict with the IKEA Group values. 

Of course, the reality is that many companies adapt their advertising and marketing strategies to appease local markets. The question is whether the decision as to what is considered ‘appropriate’ for local markets should be seen through a global human rights lens. Would this situation be different if tomorrow Russia passed laws making the promotion of interracial marriage illegal, for instance? It seems that issues of race would provoke a greater backlash and more solidarity between companies trying to respect rights globally but also maintain relations with host governments.   

It is not too late for IKEA to be brave and publish the lesbian couple feature in its next Russian edition of IKEA Family Life. It's not too late for IKEA to work with other responsible companies to provide a creative response to the absence of the story. IKEA has a good history in driven change and understanding in other countries; indeed, were it not for the Russian episode, we would be praising IKEA for publishing the feature in 25 European countries. Are we to hope that IKEA will once again decide to stand on the right side of history? If they do, they will deserve our praise once again. 

About the author

Kathryn Dovey is Gender Research Fellow at the Institute for Human Rights and Business and Director of the Global Business Initiative on Human Rights.


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