This Issue
 
Saving marine and coastal ecosystems through economic value, environmental stewardship, and social leadership. WRITTEN BY Kiley Jacques
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Net-Works is proactive in cleaning up waters polluted with discarded fishing nets. Its first pilot project took place in the Philippines.
All photos: Interface

Since 1996, Interface—a global manufacturer of commercial carpet tiles—has employed innovation-based green strategies for the making of its products. Today, it is a business leader in environmental sustainability. Developing and manufacturing products with a small carbon footprint and high level of recycled content is part and parcel of Interface’s mission. In addition to its efforts to reduce waste, it also works to connect with and benefit people on all levels of the supply chain.

 

“We wanted our products to have a social voice as well as an environmental one,” says vice president and chief innovation officer, Nigel Stansfield. In 2007, as a first step toward that goal, they developed a social business model in India and worked with local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and villages to tap into traditional weaving skills. FairWorks was launched, but ultimately was so far removed from the company’s core product line that it failed commercially. “Rather than scrap our efforts,” notes Stansfield, “we chose to see [it] as an opportunity—a successful failure we could learn from.”

 

Meanwhile, Aquafil, one of Interface’s yarn suppliers, was looking at ways to recycle waste polyamide 6 (“nylon”) and turn it into usable material for the carpet and textile industry. One of the waste streams of nylon they identified was fishing nets; specifically, used commercial fishing nets from industrial fishing regions. “We asked ourselves if we could create an inclusive business model, in the vein of FairWorks, and incentivize net collection in developing communities [to] connect some of the poorest people in the world to a global supply chain,” says Stansfield.

 

Enter Net-Works. Born of the desire to be more proactive in social sustainability as an organization, the project mobilizes fishing communities in the central Philippines to collect discarded fishing nets from the coastlines and waters. The Philippines were chosen for the pilot program, in part, because “the opportunity and extent of waste nets was known to be enormous,” according to Stansfield. With no sustainable waste channels, innumerable unusable nets were being discarded directly into the seas and along the shore, destroying the marine and coastal ecosystems. These waste nets take hundreds of years to break down and, in the meantime, negatively impact both the local communities and the environment.

In time, Interface partnered with Zoological Society of London (ZSL) whose marine conservation work and expertise they valued—they also already had ties in the Philippines. “We discovered we could build something together, which would be far stronger and more robust than anything we could do alone.

 

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Workers are employed through community banking models.

“We challenged our partners and contacts to help maximize this new opportunity, and discovered how many discarded nets are actually out there in the world,” says Stansfield. The program requires each of the village communities to collect nets either directly from fishermen or through beach and ocean cleanup sessions that they themselves organize. Ultimately, supplementary income is distributed to the participants. Net-Works does not employ villagers directly; monetary compensation is generated and managed through community banking models—either existing micro financing or Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLAs) that Interface has set up. “The nets are sold to the community bank, which then sells them to ZSL-Philippines, who, in turn, sells [them] into our supply chain,” explains Stansfield.

 

Education and outreach are key components of the Net-Works initiative. Communities learn that these nets last up to 600 years in the environment, pollute their beaches, and kill valuable marine life. “Many community members are motivated to participate in net collection to improve their immediate environment and health, as much [as they are by] the income from the nets.” The nets’ monetary value also provides an incentive for community members to feed their old nets into the collection program rather than discarding them irresponsibly.
On-the-ground logistics depend heavily on a full-time ZSL employee—funded through the program and integral to the business model—based in the Philippines who ensures nets from the villages are aggregated into one of two collection hubs (soon to be three). At the hubs, the nets are packed for shipping and sent to Aquafil, where they are regenerated into nylon yarn, and ultimately used to make Interface’s carpet tiles. “This is a truly collaborative partnership,” notes Stansfield. “This project represents the best of all of us.”

 

Environmental monitoring is also part of the model. “ZSL actively trains communities, local government agencies, and other NGOs in environmental monitoring to help build local capacity, engage relevant stakeholders, and achieve sustainability,” explains Stansfield. ZSL’s marine conservation activities in the area are linked to Net-Works. They routinely conduct underwater surveys of marine protected areas, mangrove forests, and seagrass beds to evaluate their intervention and restoration tactics and measure their effectiveness.

So successful has Net-Works been that plans for expansion are already underway. “We plan to start collecting in Cameroon in 2015,” says Stansfield, “and we will develop a further site in another country yet to be determined.” The goal for 2016 is to come up with a shortlist of possible locations, and to have three new sites running by 2017. By 2020, they hope to include 10,000 people in the supply chain. The idea, according to Stansfield, is to “connect the right people with the right ideas to make sure that the game changers are resourced, evaluated, and implemented.”

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Steps are also being taken to turn Net-Works into a free-standing, financially viable program independent of Interface and ZSL. Toward that end, they assembled a “tool kit” to help other organizations set up similar programs based on the Net-Works model; it includes information about net collecting, material testing, community banking, and packing and shipping. “When we set the first program up we wanted to make it financially independent of corporate philanthropy or charitable donations,” says Stansfield. “We believe that this is an extremely important part of developing successful inclusive business models.”

 

As Heather Dietz, co-innovation communications manager at Interface, explains: “Net-Works was designed to be financially sustainable. The goal has always been to operate a business model that would cover the program costs while retaining as much of the value from the sale of the nets as possible within the local communities.”

 

Logistically speaking, revenue for the village is generated from the sale of the waste fishing nets collected by community members and sold to Aquafil. Because the nylon material provided by Net-Works is of such high quality, they are able to sell it at a very strong commercial rate. In turn, this revenue covers Net-Works’ operating costs, including the salaries of local community coordinators, general labor, the purchase and maintenance of equipment used for bailing the nets, and the transportation of materials from the collection sites to the international port for shipping.

 

Interface is itself responsible for investing in the core Net-Works team—a small, but effective group whose job it is to manage on-the-ground logistics in collaboration with local community member partners. Additionally, the company sources funds to cover the costs of further expansion to other sites, such as the most recent efforts made possible by investments from the UK Darwin Initiative—a United Kingdom government grant that helps to protect biodiversity and the natural environment through locally based projects worldwide—and USAID—the lead United States government agency that works to end extreme global poverty and enable resilient, democratic societies to realize their potential.

 

Stansfield also believes collaboration between corporations and NGOs will define the 21st century. “Net-Works is an example of what can be achieved when the right organizations and individuals partner together and create truly inclusive businesses,” he says. “The holy trinity of sustainability can coexist—economic value, environmental stewardship, and social leadership.”

Empowering Communities with Impressive Results


10 KG of rice can be bought from the cash earned by selling 25 kilograms of waste net.   84,000 MEALS could be provided for families every year if they meet their 2015 target.   18,870 MILES of discarded fishing nets were collected in the first 18 months. That’s three times longer than the Great Wall of China.