Twenty-five years ago, a customer asked Ray Anderson, "What's your company doing for the environment?"
Later describing this moment as a “spear in the chest,” the late founder of Interface Inc. credited his lack of an instantaneous response to this question as the moment that changed his perspective on business and its relationship with sustainability.
Today, Interface is a billion-dollar flooring company specializing in carbon neutral carpet tiles. Anderson’s drive to change his business practices in the early 1990s marked him as a corporate social responsibility (CSR) trailblazer. He proved that investing in more sustainable operations and producing more environmentally friendly products can lead to profitability as well as a competitive advantage.
Carpet manufacturing is a predominantly petroleum-intensive industry. And at times, the industry has come under fire over sustainability and health-related concerns. Issues include the release of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) during carpet installation and use of toxins like perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs or PFAS), applied to fibers as a stain repellent.
These concerns notwithstanding, the reality is that carpet is the most popular type of flooring sold in the United States. Carpet holds a 60 percent share of the market in the U.S., with 11 billion square feet sold per year. At the same time, 4 billion pounds of carpet enter the U.S.’s solid waste stream every year, with only 5 percent being recycled.
What is Interface doing to lessen its impact on the environment? The company has been changing industry practices by showing a better way forward.
In 1994, Anderson became motivated to eliminate Interface’s negative impact on the environment. What developed was the moonshot Mission Zero commitment, with the end goal of creating zero impact on the environment by 2020.
A year ahead of schedule, Interface just announced it achieved net-zero emissions.
One significant outcome of the initiative was the development of recycled nylon yarn. Instead of sourcing petroleum to produce nylon, Interface collaborated with its nylon supplier to develop a yarn made with recycled fibers. When the supplier began to sell this yarn to others, the outcome was a ripple effect across the entire industry. As a result, a more sustainable product established a foothold within the marketplace.
Another first achieved through Mission Zero happened when Interface partnered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and city of LaGrange, Georgia. Through the partnership, naturally occurring methane gas from a local landfill was converted into a sustainable energy source that replaced natural gas at Interface’s manufacturing plant. By turning waste into fuel to power the Interface manufacturing process, the company achieved 99 percent renewable energy use in its U.S. and European manufacturing sites. Other companies have since learned from this success.
Another disruption occurred in January 2019 when Interface reached a major milestone: Every flooring product that it sells— from carpet tile and LVT to rubber sheets and tiles—is now carbon neutral across its full lifecycle.
Along the path to meeting Mission Zero sustainability goals, Interface has disrupted the status quo—not only in carpet manufacturing, but across all of manufacturing. Anderson championed the notion of businesses doing well by doing good; hence Interface’s reputation as a leader in setting sustainability and corporate responsibility benchmarks for other manufacturing companies.
Guided by Anderson’s passion, Interface’s transformation was achieved by rethinking its factories, products and suppliers. In an industry where price and quality are the leading factors for consumers, Anderson wanted to do better. He was determined to reverse the negative environmental impacts manufacturing flooring created. For Anderson, doing business was not only about price, profit margins or personal gain—it was about doing what he knew to be right.
Anderson, who died from cancer in 2011, did not get to see Mission Zero come to complete fruition. But the positive ripple effects he inspired have transformed global standard operating practices, and the parts of the world he touched will be left better than they were found.
In continuing the company’s mission to champion environmental stewardship, Interface’s next moonshot goal is Climate Take Back. This initiative launched in 2016 with an aim to make Interface a carbon negative company by 2040 and inspire a movement to reverse global warming. By focusing on four key areas, the company said its Climate Take Back strategy can be implemented to “create a climate fit for life.”
For businesses and organizations taking action to address the effects of climate change, it behooves them to explore what Interface is doing—best practices are designed to be shared.
Image credit: Interface/Facebook
Based in the Midwest just north of Detroit, Sarah is passionate about sustainability, storytelling and bringing to light sustainability principles that can be threaded into business strategies and communications. Formerly an editor for CSRwire and freelance writer for many organizations forwarding the principles of corporate social responsibility and circularity, she is excited to be a contributor to TriplePundit. Connect with Sarah on LinkedIn and Twitter.