From Fishing Nets to Carpet Tiles: A Sustainable Supply Chain For the Future

fishing nets recycled for carpetsThe leading carpet tile producer Interface has an update on its engagement with the Net-Works fishing net recycling program, and the partnership offers a window into the future of global manufacturing. Today’s manufacturers can pick and choose from any number of renewable and recycled materials, and Interface chose to go with recycled fishing nets, reclaimed from ocean waste. That provides the company with a sustainable supply chain that directly engages the company in the pressing global issue of marine waste, while offering a new source of income to distressed communities, all on top of producing a high-quality product.

A sustainable supply chain solution for ghost nets

Interface has crossed the TriplePundit radar a few times over the past six years. Back in 2013, we took note when the company expressed an interest in sourcing carpet fiber made from castor oil. That effort resulted in the first bio-based nylon used by Interface, dubbed Fotosfera.

Bio-based products are renewable, but they do open up some potential problems down the road, as illustrated by Coca-Cola’s bio-based beverage packaging, the PlantBottle. Coca-Cola is dedicated to increasing its use of plant-based plastic, but the company also foresees that it must keep planning ahead to meet new land and water resource challenges posed by the growing demand for bio-materials, biofuels, bio-pharmaceuticals and other products.

Recycling programs like Net-Works can skirt around those issues, and the Net-Works program is carefully planned to build multi-level corporate responsibility directly into the sustainable supply chain.

Interface sources carpet fiber based on recycled nylon fishing nets from Net-Works for its “Net Effect” collection, and last fall the company pledged to step up its efforts. The partnership includes the Italian fiber manufacturer Aquafil and its Econyl brand of nylon fiber made from reclaimed fishing nets. The partnership also includes the Zoological Society of London, which has adopted a strategy to provide local communities with economic tools that can help them conserve their natural resources.

Other partners include two organizations based in the Philippines: Southern Partners and Fair Trade Corp. and Negros Women for Tomorrow Foundation. To complete the circle, a funding partner in Net-Works is the British government’s global Darwin Initiative, which aims to protect habitats and enhance biodiversity.

It all comes together around the issue of “ghost nets” — improperly discarded, abandoned or lost fishing nets. A 2009 United Nations report on ghost nets found that “large amounts of fishing gear lost at sea or abandoned by fishers are hurting the marine environment, impacting fish stocks through ‘ghost fishing’ and posing a hazard to ships.” The report estimated that approximately 10 percent of all ocean waste consists of ghost nets.

In the past, ghost nets did not pose a cumulative threat, because fishing nets were made of natural materials and would eventually degrade in water. However, most modern nets are made of nylon and other materials that can last for centuries.

Stepping up the ghost net supply chain

The new update from Interface describes its Net-Works partnership as “the first inclusive business model of its kind.” In addition to fostering Interface’s Mission Zero sustainability goal of 100 percent recycled nylon, the partnership provides distressed communities with an entry into the global carpet supply chain, as well as access to micro-finance initiatives and community banking.

As of last year, Net-Works established 14 collection sites in the Philippines, including the Bantayan Islands and Danajon Bank, which has one of only six double-barrier reefs in the world. Approximately 892 households totaling 4,460 people have participated.

The numbers in terms of nets collected are already impressive. The total reached 85,000 pounds as of fall 2014. To put that into perspective: If stretched end to end, the nets would almost encircle the globe.

As a pilot-scale operation, the initiative proved to be a success. Future plans include an additional collection hub in the Philippines. The program is also expanding internationally, by establishing a new hub in Cameroon’s Lake Ossa region. That initiative also extends Net-Works’s mission to include recovering fishing nets from freshwater bodies as well as in oceans.

Interface committed to the expanded program as part of its fall 2014 Clinton Global Initiative actions. At the time, the company’s chief innovations officer, Nigel Stansfield, described the company’s ambitions:

“We are challenging the status quo to re-imagine our supply chain in a way that improves our ability to source recycled content, while simultaneously cleaning up oceans and lakes and lifting people from poverty.”

In addition to expanding its own operations, the Net-Works partnership is also building a toolkit that will draw in more partners and enable them to set up additional fishing net collection hubs.

The sustainable supply chain never sleeps…

The Net-Works model goes far beyond conventional supply chain initiatives, which puts it in the same league as the “radical” approach to corporate responsibility advocated by leadership at Levi-Strauss.

However, the reliance on local labor in remote communities does pose issues, and the Net-Works partnership itself has also taken note of a potential red flag.

In its Clinton Global Initiative announcement last fall (here’s that link again), the partnership was careful to describe the Net-Works model as one that co-ordinates the collection of abandoned fishing nets, rather than directly employing community members — let alone employing children. The partnership does note that children may participate with their families in “beach cleanups” to collect nets and “learn about conservation.”

That’s a situation which bears watching, and it indicates that even a “radical” corporate social responsibility (CSR) approach is always a work in progress.

Image credit (screenshot): via econyl.com.

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Tina is a career public information specialist and former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She writes frequently on sustainable tech issues for Triple Pundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, and she is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey.