"We have a ton of parking lots. Why?" Erin Meezan, Chief Sustainability Officer at Interface, Inc. asked rhetorically in a recent interview, describing the iterative systems-based approach her company takes to sustainability at their Atlanta, GA headquarters, "We can park on grass." Grass is, of course, permeable and allows rainwater to soak in, creating a living ecosystem and carbon sink as opposed to storm drains which funnel water, and the trash and debris it picks up along the way, directly out to sea. But I digress. This is just one of dozens of examples Meezan shared with me as she described her company's efforts to treat the "factory like a forest."
Interface Inc. -- a public company with a $1B market cap -- was one of the first companies to take a bold, public stand on climate change. But that doesn't mean they put sustainability ahead of product. Instead, they use sustainability as a differentiator to push innovation. "There are hard-nosed business people on our board who understand the business value of sustainability," Meezan explains.
Its founder, Ray Anderson, had a personal epiphany that let him to use his carpet company company as a tool to make the world better. The company is sustainable through and through, and prior to Ray’s death in 2011, he was the perfect spokesperson for the movement. He sold plenty of carpet along the way.
Interface has carried on his mission and continued to innovate with research into new products. Their goal is to prove that business can be a climate positive actor. Meezan explains,"We make stuff. How can the stuff we make serve as a carbon sink?"
When the company took this design approach, they realized that they didn't just have one or two potential materials to choose from, they had 45 options like calcium carbonate to make "carbon a building block in our products." This way, the more carpet they produce, the more carbon is sunk -- business profitability and climate positivity go hand in hand.
The most recent example is their Proof Positive carpet tile, a carpet tile that stores more carbon than is emitted during the production process.
The prototype tile has a negative carbon footprint, which the company achieved without purchasing carbon offsets. The materials that make up the tile are derived from plants and designed to store carbon for at least a generation. Since 1996, Interface has reduced the carbon footprint of its carpet tiles from 20 kilograms of carbon per square meter to just over 7 kilograms per square meter in 2016. The Proof Positive tile clocks in at an impressive -2 kilograms of carbon per square meter. At the end of its useful life, the carpet tile can be recycled into new carpet, making this a truly closed technical loop.
The company sees this product as a natural step in moving the design and architecture industries forward. These groups know that the built environment has a huge carbon impact and they have the power to have a positive impact through the choices they make. Designers make crucial product decisions before a product is even presented to a client, so influencing these decision makers is key to Interface's impact -- it hopes to pull the rest of the industry along by innovating better, more sustainable products.
23 years ago, Interface started the sustainability journey with the question, "What would a business look like in nature?" Using abundant atmospheric carbon as a building block in carpet tiles is certainly an exciting step.
Image credit: Interface Inc.
Jen Boynton is the former Editor-in-Chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and has helped organizations including SAP, PwC and Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. She is based in San Diego, California. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA (court appointed special advocate) for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.