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Ikea Gives U.S. Workers Bikes For Christmas, But Is It A Good Investment?

If you've been to IKEA lately, you know that the company has ditched plastic shopping bags as a part of the company's overall green initiative.

In keeping with the greening of its company-wide operations, this week IKEA presented the company's 12,000+ U.S. employees with bicycles for Christmas. According to this story:

All 12,400 workers at IKEA stores nationwide were presented with their bicycles simultaneously at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, just before opening the stores at 10 a.m.

Shivering in the cold, 72 workers at the Bolingbrook store huddled near the back of a large white trailer at the far end of the parking lot just before 9:30 a.m.

“Thank you for coming out in the freezing cold for your holiday gift,” said Christopher Garcia, 28, regional public relations and marketing manager.

“We worked really hard this year and our gift reflects the values that we hold dear as a company,” he said before raising the door on the trailer to reveal the bikes.

In Scandinavia, bicycles are a popular means of transportation year round. The Danes are wild about bicycles, and so are the Swedes. My Finnish cousins prefer cross-country skis, because Finns are masochists who like to hurt at the end of the day so they have a good excuse to sit in the sauna (pronounced "SOW-na") for three hours.

But back to IKEA's Christmas gift idea. It is a fabulous gesture with healthy intentions for both employees and the environment, but frankly I wonder if IKEA is spinning its wheels here. I'm not convinced the company will see much of an increase in its U.S. employment base pedaling to work anytime soon.

Some reports point to an increase in cycling to work in major U.S. cities over the last few decades, but in reality the bike-to-work contingent remains fairly small here in the United States. Many U.S. cities aren't set up for commuting to work by bike. Even in bicycle-friendly towns like Portland, Oregon there's a battle brewing over new bike trails leading to and from the suburbs. Let's just say that it doesn't bode well for a national surge in cycling to work if outdoorsy, health-conscious Portlanders are wondering if new bike trails are worth the money.

Commuting by bike can also be dangerous: A recent study from Oregon Health Sciences University found 20% of bicycle commuters have suffered a "traumatic event" over the last twelve months, while 5% have had to seek medical attention. That's a lot of Band-Aids.

The sad truth is, most Americans will say to themselves that it's too cold/too hot/too windy/too icy/too rainy/too foggy/too dangerous/too much effort/too time consuming to bike to work. Walking into the office with sweaty helmet hair isn't a very appealing prospect, either. The United States is a driving culture and it's likely to remain so for years to come.

I can see IKEA's good intentions but Chicago, Illinois isn't Stockholm, Sweden. Some of IKEA's U.S. employees could experience Stockholm Syndrome, however, by feeling captive and inexplicably loyal to the two-wheeled inanimate object gathering dust in the garage. They might not ride the bicycle very much, but they might not be able to part with it, either.

I feel a little bit guilty for writing this post because I admire IKEA's forward-thinking green efforts, as well as its willingness to give employees very nice Christmas presents. But companies with international operations -- and there are a lot of them, thanks to offshoring and a global economy -- need to be careful to balance a country's culture against the company's initiatives because gifts that work well in the home country might not work as well elsewhere.

At the end of the day, the United States isn't a cycling culture like Scandinavia, and IKEA could end up getting less bang for its environmental buck by giving bicycles to its American employees.

Maybe IKEA's employees will prove me wrong, and you know what? I hope they do.

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