Is IKEA the World's Largest Charity?

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If it's possible to assemble a piece of IKEA furniture without cursing at the top of your lungs, I've never seen it happen. There's always a missing piece of hardware, an unclear spot on the instructions, or an excruciating amount of hex wrenching to be done. The next time you ball your fists mid-assembly and curse all things Swedish, though, try to calm down. After all, IKEA's just another charity trying to get by.

Wait, what? You read that correctly; IKEA's technically a charity. But before you write down the umlaut-riddled name of your most recent dresser purchase as a charitable donation on your next tax return, it's worth exploring this ownership structure, which was brought to light by a 2006 article in The Economist.

Ingvar Kamprad founded IKEA in Almhult, Sweden in 1943 when he was just 17 years old. Kamprad originally sold low-priced consumer goods from his home and by mail, but added a furniture line in 1948. As the company began opening its trademark sprawling stores, Kamprad grew fabulously wealthy, although he retained frugal tastes like driving an aging Volvo and always flying economy class. By some debated estimates, Kamprad is the world's richest man, and even Forbes' more conservative accounting pegs him as the seventh-richest person in the world with a net worth in the neighborhood of $31 billion.

Why can't anyone agree on how much Kamprad's worth? Well, for one he doesn't technically own IKEA anymore. In 1982, his ownership stake in the company was given to the newly formed Stichting Ingka Foundation, a Dutch charity. The foundation in turn administers the stores through Ingka Holdings, a wholly owned subsidiary that operates as a for-profit company.

With an estimated endowment of over $36 billion in 2006, the Stichting Ingka Foundation is arguably the world's largest charity. The charity's stated goal is "to promote and support innovation in the field of architectural and interior design," surely a noble aim, but it's unclear how generous its support is. It's been confirmed that the foundation has given 1.7 million Euros a year to Sweden's Lund Institute of Technology for some time, but even that amount seems fairly tightfisted in light of its gigantic endowment. In other words, if you're an aspiring architect waiting for some financial support from IKEA, you're probably better off getting a job as a cashier at one of their stores than hoping for a grant.

So what's going on here? It would seem that the entire charitable foundation is a clever, if dubious, way for IKEA to avoid paying taxes. In 2004, the company pulled in a 1.4 billion euro profit, but since it's owned by a tax-exempt charity, it didn't pay a dime. Moreover, the Byzantine structure of for-profit holding companies nestled within non-profit charities effectively safeguards Kamprad from any sort of outside takeover bids for his housewares behemoth. The five-member board of the foundation, which is headed by Kamprad, is the de facto management for all of the IKEA stores.

All of this sounds pretty clever, but if the stores are all owned by a charity, how can Kamprad and his family make any cash off of them? Maybe he's doing all this out of the goodness of his heart after all, right? The company's been just as clever in that regard, too. If the Stichting Ingka Foundation is really just a giant piggy bank, it's got a rather sizable hole in it. While the charitable foundation owns the IKEA stores, it doesn't own the IKEA trademark or concept. These items belong to Inter IKEA Systems, a private, for-profit Dutch company. Inter IKEA Systems collects hefty franchise fees from each IKEA store; according to The Economist, these fees amounted to 631 million euros in 2004. However, thanks to a convoluted multi-national system of ownership here, too, the company ended up paying a scant 19 million euros in taxes on this huge sum.

Who owns Inter IKEA Systems and its maze of parent companies? Nobody knows. Since they're private companies incorporated in various locations, their ownership is kept secret, and IKEA's certainly not about to spill the beans. It would seem reasonable to suggest that Kamprad probably owns it.

Should we really be surprised, though? These are the same people who can make a dresser that weighs just ten pounds, fits in a box the size of a deck of cards, and sells for four dollars. Just remember, when you scarf down a two-dollar plate of Swedish meatballs after buying furniture, you shouldn't feel ashamed for pigging out. Instead, hold your head up high and know that you've made your contribution to charity today. (Wait, you have some sauce on your chin. You'll probably want to wipe that off first.)

Has An Element Ever Been Removed From the Periodic Table?

lucadp/iStock via Getty Images
lucadp/iStock via Getty Images

Barry Gehm:

Yes, didymium, or Di. It was discovered by Carl Mosander in 1841, and he named it didymium from the Greek word didymos, meaning twin, because it was almost identical to lanthanum in its properties. In 1879, a French chemist showed that Mosander’s didymium contained samarium as well as an unknown element. In 1885, Carl von Weisbach showed that the unknown element was actually two elements, which he isolated and named praseodidymium and neodidymium (although the di syllable was soon dropped). Ironically, the twin turned out to be twins.

The term didymium filter is still used to refer to welding glasses colored with a mixture of neodymium and praseodymium oxides.

One might cite as other examples various claims to have created/discovered synthetic elements. Probably the best example of this would be masurium (element 43), which a team of German chemists claimed to have discovered in columbium (now known as niobium) ore in 1925. The claim was controversial and other workers could not replicate it, but some literature from the period does list it among the elements.

In 1936, Emilio Segrè and Carlo Perrier isolated element 43 from molybdenum foil that had been used in a cyclotron; they named it technetium. Even the longest-lived isotopes of technetium have a short half-life by geological standards (millions of years) and it has only ever been found naturally in minute traces as a product of spontaneous uranium fission. For this reason, the original claim of discovery (as masurium) is almost universally regarded as erroneous.

As far as I know, in none of these cases with synthetic elements has anyone actually produced a quantity of the element that one could see and weigh that later turned out not to be an element, in contrast to the case with didymium. (In the case of masurium, for instance, the only evidence of its existence was a faint x-ray signal at a specific wavelength.)

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Can You Ever Truly Lose Your Accent?

DGLimages, iStock via Getty Images
DGLimages, iStock via Getty Images

You may be able to pull off a Spanish accent when showing off your Antonio Banderas impression, but truly losing your native accent and replacing it with a new one is a lot harder to do. The way you speak now will likely stick with you for life.

According to Smithsonian, our accent develops as early as 6 months old—accents being the pronunciation conventions of a language shaped by factors like region, culture, and class. When a baby is learning the words for nap and dad and play, they're also learning how to pronounce the sounds in those words from the people around them. Newborn brains are wired to recognize and learn languages just from being exposed to them. By the time babies start talking, they know the "right" pronunciations to use for their native language or languages.

As you get older, your innate understanding of foreign accents and languages gets weaker. If you're an English speaker raised in Boston, you may think that the way someone from Dallas speaks English sounds "wrong" without being able to articulate what it is that makes them sound different. This is why pulling off a convincing foreign accent can be so difficult, even if you've heard it many times before.

Around age 18, your ability to learn a second language takes a steep nosedive. The same may be true with your ability to speak in a new accent. If you immerse yourself in a foreign environment for long enough, you may pick up some ticks of the local accent, but totally adopting a non-native accent without making a conscious effort to maintain it is unlikely as an adult.

There is one exception to this rule, and that's Foreign Accent Syndrome. Following a head injury or stroke, some people have reported suddenly speaking in accents they didn't grow up using. The syndrome is incredibly rare, with only 100 people around the world having been diagnosed with it, and medical experts aren't sure why brain injuries cause it. But while patients may be pronouncing their words differently, they aren't exactly using foreign accents in the way most people think of them; the culprit may be subtle changes to muscle movements in the jaw, tongue, lips, and larynx that change the way patients pronounce certain vowels.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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