Achieving mission zero
In 1994, Ray Anderson, owner and founder of carpet manufacturing company Interface, pledged to eliminate any negative impact it had on the environment by 2020.
We spoke to Sustainability Director, Ramon Arratia about how Ray’s charm, charisma and skills of persuasion led the company through a redesign of processes and products; the use of new technologies; and the elimination of waste and harmful emissions, all while increasing the use of renewable materials and energy sources. This revolution was titled ‘Mission Zero’.
Anderson was determined to work with sustainability experts such as Janine Benyus, Paul Hawkens, Amory Lovins and Jonathon Porritt to generate ideas in how to change the business. One of the most successful outcomes was the, 'idea of bio mimicry, arranging the carpet tiles so that they resembled the ideals of nature. That was a hugely successful commercial product.'
Whilst working towards total sustainability, it became evident that very few companies could show that a business could be sustainable and profitable at the same time. Interface intended to remain a business and had no intention of becoming a charity.
“We are a very aggressive company — we want to make a very strong profit but also achieve our pledge to eliminate our environmental impact by 2020. So it is a combination of traditional aggressive corporate behaviour for profit, coupled with a clear goal.”
With a mission to change how the business worked, Interface also decided to be ‘the example for other companies’, they intended ‘to show other companies that having zero environmental impact was possible.’
“We work with consultants, giving our knowledge for free so that they can use that to help their clients. Every year we take some consultants to Holland for two days, they can bring their clients if they want. We call it the ‘Cultural Immersion Programme’. Basically, we are trying to give everything we have learned about sustainability so that others can profit from it.”
Interface focuses on differentiating itself from competitors with clarity and openness. They do this by helping customers make informed decisions by stating facts and not making claims.
“We won’t go out and call a product eco-lease and our competitors will. We don’t go out and say that our products are sustainable by so much. We just give the facts — for example ‘this product has 5 kilos of CO2’. That candidness, customers really appreciate. We are just giving facts. My department spends half its time developing sustainable products and then the other half thinking of how we can best communicate and bring it to the market, either through marketing materials, the sales force or opinion leaders.”
Following the success of the bio-mimicry carpet, Interface invented a new 100% recycled nylon carpet that came with its own story to tell.
“This is made from some of our old carpets but mainly from old fishing nets collected from around the world. Discarded fishing nets are a big problem so we are partnering with some non-governmental organisations, cleaning the beaches in the Philippines, India and Africa, gathering those fishing nets and turning them into carpets. We collaborate with our nylon suppliers to take these materials, fishing nets etc, recycle them and then we buy back the recycled material.”
Similarly, their most recent launch, a bio-based nylon for carpet is a real technical breakthrough with facts to back it up.
“We are using a new type of nylon where 63% comes from castor oil. Castor oil is a growing crop in India and only needs water 1 day out of 25. It also helps soil stabilisation in areas prone to erosion. It is a source of income for rural farmers and it grows in land of poor quality so it is not competing with food.”
Having only just launched the bio-carpet, ‘time will tell whether it is successful or not’. What is clear is that Interface is open to exploring innovative ideas and perhaps sometimes failing when trying to achieve ‘Mission Zero’.
“We have tried numerous things and maybe 80% of those have failed. Both the successes and the failures in terms of innovation have been a crucial part of the story. We never close the shop to the failures; it is part of the learning. For example, we failed on things such as the leasing. The customers don’t want it; the business model just doesn’t work. We wanted to do this in the early stages, about 10 years ago but we didn’t manage to succeed with that. We had hoped that it would extend the life of carpets but it didn’t work.”
Interface took this opportunity to find another solution; they started to use tiles that could replace the parts of the carpet floor that were most trodden on and degraded. Their innovation is driven by a dedication to succeed and they actively encourage employees to explore areas that they feel passionate about.
“We have overall ambitions but we don’t set targets in the company. We simply say, ‘we have to get to zero by 2020, come up with radical ways to get to zero. Bring your passion. You do something and we will reward you with glory and PR’. We don’t pay employees on achieving particular targets, the way we pay them is much more fundamental, by profile.
“So for instance, we had one guy who came up with a really innovative transport strategy, shifting from road to rail. Now, he is the guru of green transport in Holland because we put our PR agencies behind him and he is giving speeches here there and everywhere. That is how we reward people. Other employees learn that by doing something significant there is a lot to gain.
“When people wake up, they want to do something that has an impact on the world and have a feeling that we are working for a company in which we can do something big. We don’t patronise them by telling them to switch off the lights or recycle more. We ask them to work within their own sphere of influence at work. If you are the finance guy, do something related to the company cards, or if you are an engineer do something related to the factory. They come up with a project and bring it to us and then, if needed, we support them technically, financially etc.
“Rather than a top-down sustainability approach that is established in conversation with major stakeholders and then deployed as targets, we just say, ‘look at where you have the biggest opportunity in your work and do something that you can be proud of in twenty years time. Interface will get to Zero, but what are you going to do, what are you going to tell your grandchildren and your friends. You have to do something that you can be proud of.’ They come back with innovation that you wouldn’t imagine could exist.
Sometimes if you leave employees the space, they bring their enthusiasm and the profit comes later. Of course, sometimes profit does not come but that is part of the process of trial and error.” The freedom to experiment and share ideas to accomplish the mission has meant that Interface has given it self various options throughout its history to succeed.
“We are not betting on just one. We are trying a combination of technologies and then we will see which one is sustainable in the long run.
“When we started the whole sustainable journey in 1994, we started saving waste in the factory and then we started trying to see how we could reduce the waste. The cost of raw materials is a big cost for us, it is even more than labour — so early success with the waste and therefore the cost, made the whole initiative grow bigger.”
When planning for the future, the business has also given great consideration to what happens at the end of a carpet’s life cycle and realises that: “From an environmental point of view, post-consumer recycling is the best thing, as bio-based products may be shown to have very low impact. We can take old carpet and we have a machine that separates the yarn and the backing so that we can recycle each part separately.
“We don’t do a huge amount of recycling in Europe yet; it is working better in America. Not all of our customers give the carpets back yet. We need a combination of a really good piece of legislation that bans the landfill of carpet, so they have to give it back and then we need to perfect the technical processes before we can scale that up.”
The extraordinary ambition to reach ‘Mission Zero’ that Anderson inspired his business with is evident. He ‘was always there, reminding and leading by example’ and has left a clear legacy with a goal for Interface to reach in the next decade.