A year ago this week, Ray Anderson, founder and chairman of InterfaceFLOR and one of the leading sustainable business pioneers of this generation, passed away. The self-described “radical industrialist” saw environmental stewardship as a business and moral imperative, and Anderson not only had an impact on InterfaceFLOR’s competitors, but industrial giants such as GE.
Anderson’s influence naturally trickled through his company’s supply chain. To that end, Triple Pundit interviewed Giulio Bonazzi, Chairman and CEO of Italy-based Aquafil Group. Aquafil is a supplier to many companies including InterfaceFLOR and has made its own mark on green building and design with its ECONYL process, and chemical and mechanical process that allows the recovery and recycling of polyamide 6, an important component in carpet.
Can you tell us about your relationship with InterfaceFLOR and Ray Anderson?
We met about about fifteen years ago. At that time, Aquafil was still a small family run business, especially when compared to “giants” such as Dupont. Our first ever meeting with Ray Anderson took place in 1998 and that was the beginning of an important relationship, both from a personal and business point of view.
Is there a particular anecdote or story about Ray you’d like to share with us?
Well, of course I have several memories about my relationship with Ray Anderson. I remember the day that for InterfaceFLOR’s 25th anniversary the company organized a big event with 800 guests from around the world. It was a special occasion because for the first time Ray Anderson introduced InterfaceFLOR’s key project: “Mission Zero 2020.”
I remember that everyone was stunned and disoriented by what he was describing! Some of the guests posed questions in a skeptical tone such as if and how it would have been possible to produce carpets without using oil and how this new path could have been profitable for InterfaceFLOR and the entire carpet industry. As often happened, Ray Anderson had a forward-looking answer: he said that not only was “Mission Zero 2020” possible, but that was the only path to follow for InterfaceFLOR. He said that it was the only way to continue to be profitable and build the company’s future and that of the entire carpet industry. He definitely was a visionary in terms of sustainable businesses.
Critics would say that overall carpet recycling is still not rigorous enough. What would suppliers like you want to see?
I agree that is not rigorous, the entire industry needs to do more and put more effort towards recycling and sustainability.
However, generally speaking, I notice that there is not enough awareness about the value of recycling, nor an adequate mentality in terms of sustainability.
Clear standards which can guide the consumers in understanding what to do with old disused carpets or fishing nets (one of Aquafil’s most important feedstocks) would for sure be very useful in helping everyone to be more aware about sustainability and the key role of recycling.
The carpet industry needs to fully understand that the entire design, building and architecture industries are striving towards innovation through moving towards “zero waste” and “closed loop” systems. We have to be part of the sustainable building industry.
What are the hurdles Aquafil and the main carpet producers worldwide confront in having consumers, and builders, think about using more “sustainable” and recycled materials?
I think that the biggest hurdle so far is mentality: unfortunately, both consumers and architects still tend to believe that a “recycled” product means it is a lower quality compared to a conventional option, and consequently everyone expects a lower price with the end result that the carpet is “cheaper and good enough.”
In our case, to produce a 100 percent regenerated product for carpet producers such as InterfaceFLOR is the guarantee of top quality, with very no difference compared to the virgin material, the same performances and, last but not least, a reasonable price.
Another issue is that consumers think that sustainability automatically means high costs, low tangible results and low or no profits. But our company demonstrates that sustainability can also be cost-effective.
What are some of the challenges you faced as a supplier to the carpet industry, and how have you responded?
Aquafil has already accepted the challenge a few years ago, identifying regeneration as the only possible way to pursue. We have invested a lot of time, and both human and financial resources that enabled the construction of our first ECONYL plant.
The establishment of a fully dedicated supply chain, however, would make more efficient and easy the process of detecting all the used materials that can be regenerated. Furthermore, it is important to underline that all the production activities must be supported by other proactive “sustainable” actions such as the use of renewable and low impact energy for power supplies, the reductions of water consumption and the establishment of closed-cycle production.
One year after the launch of the first ECONYL production plant, how do you think Ray Anderson would feel about the work and progress your company has made during the past year?
I think he would be extremely happy with our work. Our ECONYL regeneration system provides a concrete contribution for a more sustainable world that is consistent with Ray Anderson’s vision.
We share a common mission with InterfaceFLOR and we are proud of the results we are achieving, aiming everyday to always better environmental performances.
The recovery of raw materials and their reuse in production processes will constitute the core pillar of our industrial and strategic development in the coming years, in addition to representing an extraordinary opportunity to consolidate our company’s commitment to environmental sustainability.
A longer version of the interview is available here.
Leon Kaye, based in California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business and covers sustainable architecture and design for Inhabitat. You can follow him on Twitter.