The pioneering global corporate: Interface

  • The US-based international carpet tile manufacturer – whose European HQ is in Birmingham, UK – has been a world-leader in sustainable business practice since 1994 and is now aiming to reverse global warming.
  • In 1994, its pioneering late president, Ray Anderson, set the company the ‘Mission Zero’ challenge of taking nothing and doing no harm by 2020, which it achieved a year early.
  • Starting with cuts to the petroleum used in its carpet tiles, Interface went on to become carbon neutral across its operations, reclaiming and recycling old tiles, and reducing waste and water consumption by 90%.
  • In 2017, Interface developed the world’s first carbon negative carpet tile that absorbs greenhouse gas. It’s part of a broader experiment with ‘biomimicry’ to create a ‘Factory as Forest’ in Atlanta that provides the same natural services as a healthy woodland ecosystem.
  • Now its ‘Climate Take Back’ initiative aims to give back more than the company takes from the Earth, restoring and making a positive impact on the planet to help reverse global warming.

Interface’s founder, the late Ray Anderson, was a pioneer of so-called ‘modular carpets’ when he started the business in 1973 and quickly became the world’s largest manufacturer of them.

It was 20 years later, after reading Paul Hawken’s book The Ecology of Commerce and having what he described as a “spear in the chest” moment, that Anderson decided to become a pioneer of sustainability too. He immediately committed his company to ‘Mission Zero’, which aimed to eliminate any negative environmental impact by 2020.

“When Ray stood up in '94 and said, ‘We're going to be a sustainable company,’ sustainability wasn't fashionable,” Interface’s then president, Nigel Stansfield, told GreenBiz in 2016. “It was outrageous to think that an organisation could get to a zero footprint, and we were ridiculed for it. People stood on the sideline and watched us, waiting for us to fail.”

Doing well by doing good

But Anderson’s lofty ambition spurred a remarkable effort to transform Interface’s billion-dollar operations, driving down greenhouse gas emissions from their factories by 96% over two decades and halving the energy used to make its products. By 2019, the firm had also slashed water consumption and landfill waste by 90%, achieved 89% renewable energy-use across all its sites and took 60% of its raw materials from recycled or bio-based sources.

What makes Interface’s sustainability story even more remarkable is their financial performance over the same period of transition. From sales of $625m in 1993, Interface’s revenues had doubled to $1.2bn in 2018 with an extraordinary gross profit margin of 40%. Far from harming the business’ growth or market competitiveness, Interface’s drive for sustainability created a virtuous circle that dovetailed and spiralled with their profits.

Ray Anderson, enthusiastically called it “doing well by doing good” and proved there needn’t always be a trade-off between sustainability and profit – even for a publicly-listed, behemoth multinational looking to reform decades of ingrained operations at a time when such measures were far from mainstream.

“I always make the business case for sustainability, it's so compelling,” Ray told the New York Times in 2007. “Our costs are down, not up. Our products are the best they have ever been. Our people are motivated by a shared higher purpose – esprit de corps to die for. And the goodwill in the marketplace – it's just been astonishing.”

The challenges of taking responsibility

In 1995, Interface launched an ‘Evergreen’ lease model for their tiles, allowing them to take full responsibility for their products after sale. The paradigm-shift opened up all kinds of opportunities throughout their value chain, instantly increasing the available reclaimable material to make recycled tiles and cutting the cost of sourcing these materials externally. It also allowed the firm to manage their carbon footprint more effectively and legitimised off-setting the carbon absorbed by their latest ‘carbon-negative’ carpet tiles.

But at first, the scheme to lease carpet tiles struggled because customers were reluctant to move a capital cost to their operating budget. The company also faced regular accusations of ‘greenwashing’ their less sustainable parts of the business or failing in their duty to generate maximum returns for their shareholders.

But Ray Anderson encouraged experimentation and tolerance of failure in pursuit of the company’s purpose and anticipated a growing zeitgeist for sustainability. Indeed, he credited Interface’s sustainability initiative and their customers’ support for it with helping the company weather the recession after the 2007-8 global financial crisis that shrunk its market by 38%.

Reversing climate change through biomimicry

The death of Interface’s totemic founder in 2011 could well have derailed the company’s sustainability efforts. But they pressed on with Anderson’s ‘Mission Zero’ and in 2019 announced its moonshoot successor, ‘Climate Take Back’, which aims to give back more than the company extracts from the Earth and help reverse global warming.

It sounds like pure fantasy, but Interface have already developed a ‘carbon negative’ carpet tile in 2017 that absorbs carbon dioxide and is fully recyclable. It’s part of a broader strategy of biomimicry that’s central to ‘Climate Take Back’, using nature’s designs and regenerative processes to unlock more sustainable technology and help restore nature.

The concept is being pushed to its limit at Interface’s LaGrange plant in Georgia, USA, where they’re attempting to create a ‘Factory as a Forest’ that provides an array of ecosystem services, like recycling nutrients, carbon sequestration and water storage. So they’ve devised a range of ecological performance standards based on a healthy, local forest ecosystem which they’ll use to measure the factory’s contribution to the soil, atmosphere, biodiversity, water and carbon levels.

The metrics have helped drive innovations, like returning more fresh water to the water table than used in manufacturing and reducing levels of water runoff from the site. It has also encouraged the factory to reach out to nearby businesses and act as a ‘pollinator’ of best environmental practice locally as well as in Interface’s own factories worldwide, transforming the business ecosystem further afield.

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