Interface makes rapid progress toward net zero goals

Interface makes rapid progress toward net zero goals

Fall 2019 | By Alexandra Pecci

Interface called it Mission Zero. And the company wasn’t sure how to reach it. “I think people tend to set goals that they know they can achieve,” says Paul Hawken, author and founder of Project Drawdown, a nonprofit dedicated to researching how to reverse global warming.

But limiting oneself to achievable goals doesn’t truly achieve anything new.

“Nothing comes out of that in terms of imagination, creativity, innovation, breakthrough, because none is needed, so why would it come out?” Hawken says. “The lesson is really simple, which is to set impossible goals.”

Hawken’s book, The Ecology of Commerce, inspired Interface’s visionary late founder Ray Anderson to embark on an “impossible” Mission Zero and set equally impossible goals to achieve, such as 100 percent renewable energy and zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, among others. By aiming at a shoot-for-the-moon target, Interface has, since 1996, reached 99 percent renewably sourced energy in its manufacturing sites in the United States and Europe; reduced GHG emissions intensity at its manufacturing sites by 96 percent; reduced its waste to landfill across its global business by 92 percent; and decreased the water used at its manufacturing sites by 89 percent, among many other achievements.

“When you set this moonshot goal, it influences the investments and strategies the business has to implement,” says Erin Meezan, Interface’s vice president and chief sustainability officer. “If you shoot too low, you’re actually not going to capture all the great things [you] learned.”

The company did so while maintaining its product quality, beauty, and performance. As Rick Fedrizzi, chairman and CEO of the International Well Building Institute and co-founder of USGBC, notes, “People do not want inferior products that are green.”

Interface also completely transformed its business in every way possible.

Now, Interface is working on its next mission, Climate Take Back, which calls for businesses to reverse global warming and led the company to set an “impossible” goal of becoming fully carbon-negative by 2040. It’s also sharing its Mission Zero learnings in a new report, “Lessons for the Future,” which aims to help other businesses achieve their sustainability goals.

Ray Anderson is the founder and chairman of Interface. He wanted to bring his company beyond the world of flooring and to the world of nature, to be inspired by a new set of possibilities and a new way of design thinking. He asked, How would nature make flooring?

Since 2002, Interface, Inc., a global commercial flooring company with an integrated collection of carpet tiles and resilient flooring, has offset more than 4.3 million tons of carbon dioxide. Interface has also reduced the greenhouse gas emissions of its manufacturing by 96 percent and reduced its carbon footprint by more than 60 percent. Photos courtesy of Interface

One crucial lesson? Set transformational goals, rather than incremental ones. It’s the difference between aiming for zero waste versus only reducing waste by 10 percent. Transformational goals are motivating, exciting, attention-grabbing, and “shockingly ambitious,” Meezan says.

“The absolute truth is, you are either in this or you are not,” agrees Fedrizzi. “And incremental goals, where you have the ability to go three steps forward, two steps back, do nothing for the confidence of a market that is looking to be led in the right direction.”

Rather, transformational goals require built-in business strategies and complete engagement.

“You have to change everything, and that’s not true of an incremental target,” Meezan says. “Change doesn’t happen by a small group of people in the business. It happens throughout.”

Interface’s transformational goals have infiltrated every aspect of the company, driving its innovation investments, refocusing its science, shaping its sales and marketing messaging, and producing programs like QUEST, which challenges employee teams to reduce factory waste.

“It’s in the DNA now,” Hawken says.

By changing everything about its own business, Interface set a powerful example for what is possible. Their example and work with other businesses in sharing lessons helped change other businesses, too.

For instance, by working with one of its yarn suppliers to develop a recycled nylon supply, Interface not only revolutionized its own products—by 2010 it was making carpet with 100 percent recycled nylon—but it also “enabled a lot of competitors in the industry who use the same supply base as we do to have access to more sustainable raw materials,” Meezan says, proving that even a relatively small company can start a big, industry-shifting ripple effect.

“They’ve basically shrunk somebody else’s footprint, too, by bringing about that innovation,” says Gregory Norris, director of SHINE (the Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise) at MIT.

Interface’s strong vision and plan didn’t prevent missteps, like an early recycling program that actually ended up being expensive and environmentally damaging. Rather than being derailed by mistakes, though, Interface learned from them. Its Net-Works program provides a striking example.

Net-Works is a successful partnership launched by Interface, its nylon supplier Aquafil, and the Zoological Society of London. It engages people from coastal villages in recovering ghost fishing nets—which have been left or lost in the ocean and continue to kill marine life—to make recycled nylon for Interface’s products.

Net-Works evolved from another venture, called Fair-Works, a range of eco-friendly grass and bamboo woven floor tiles, sourced from artisanal weavers in India. Fair-Works had all the makings of a hit: beautiful, eco-focused products with a social benefit. Unfortunately, it was a market flop.

“We launched it, and nobody bought it,” laughs Meezan. Fair-Works was great in theory, but in reality, Interface’s customers shied away from the new, untested material. Instead of scrapping the entire social-benefit concept, Interface applied the idea to its existing products and materials, and Net-Works was born.

“That’s how we get a more sustainable product that our customers are much more comfortable with, but [that] has this social connection to communities,” Meezan says. Net-Works started in the Philippines, and has been scaled to Cameroon and Indonesia. It’s collected more than 224 metric tons of waste and provided financial access to 2,200 families.

Success also requires honesty. Interface has been committed to transparency since the early days of Mission Zero, when it published a report outlining the negative impacts of its business.

“It was us basically saying, ‘This is how bad we are,’” Meezan says. Interface was one of the first to use Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) labels and helped drive their widespread adoption. Now, Interface remains committed to sharing third-party verified, whole-company metrics—rather than just highlighting successes—to show their progress, promote transparency, and build trust.

“There are always numbers that are going to make you uncomfortable because you wish they were better,” Meezan says. “It’s super important to show people where we are and to live in that uncomfortable space.”

While it would be easy to declare victory and simply continue its zero-waste commitment, Interface is challenging itself again with Climate Take Back. It’s already on its way to creating carbon-negative products, including a 2018 launch of the first commercially available carbon-negative backing in Europe. The company is also researching ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere, with the ultimate goal of reversing global warming.

“I’m not surprised that they’re taking on an aggressive mission like this. It would be very easy for them to just skim the surface and go after the low-hanging fruit,” says Fedrizzi. “But once again…they are going to set the bar.”

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