Can you tell us about the very beginning of your journey?
Our journey started back in 1994, when our founder Ray Anderson had what he has often called an epiphany. Our key global customers had asked him what Interface’s response to sustainability concerns and issues was. Ray knew that we were compliant with all the relevant legislation, but realised that the customers wanted to hear something deeper and more meaningful.
So he assembled a taskforce of engineers, policy makers and various other people from across the organization to address this concern. Shortly before he met with them he was given a book The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken, and as he read it he had a ‘spear in the chest’ moment and faced the realization of the waste legacy that industry was leaving to children – our children.
So he addressed that meeting in 1994 by saying that we can change, we can be an ecologically sound company that is profitable and that can make a difference. The journey we’ve taken since then is the direct result of Ray’s passion, belief, enthusiasm and leadership in this area.
Our Mission Zero pledge, which is to eliminate any negative impact we may have on the environment by 2020, was very audacious in those days. Our philosophy is that nothing should enter our factory that isn’t going to leave as value to the customer.
Could you give us an example of how innovation in product design has contributed to the corporate responsibility principles of your company and your customers?
In 1998 we developed a product called Entropy by going back to nature. Our head of design in the US, David Oakey, was responsible for that. Inspired by Janine Benyus’ book Biomimicry, he tasked our design team to consider how nature designs a floor. They visited the woods in Georgia, where our headquarters are based, and studied the leaves on the forest floor, the gravel in the river beds and so on to see how nature approaches floor design. They found that patterns were completely random and at first seemed chaotic, yet maintained a fundamental order when viewed as a whole. Taking this idea to the design table, we launched the world’s first random design carpet tiles. No two tiles are quite the same, and they feature a haphazard element of pattern or colour that allows them to be laid in any direction.
The clear sustainable benefit, of course, is being able to replace an individual tile rather than the entire floor – which also means less transportation and the significant reduction of waste during the installation process.
Entropy(tm) rapidly became our best-selling product, and continues to be a source of inspiration for architects, designers and other customers alike. The product has a unique quality and real personality. It led us to start talking about creating order from chaos, and customers suddenly didn’t just want tiles neatly arranged in the same colour or laid the same way. They realized that a floor could be much more dynamic and that they could create a unique space.
This is a perfect example of how innovation meets design and how together they embrace sustainability in a really effective way. We continue to push the boundaries with our random design tiles, and we’re proud of this just as we’re proud to have set the trend on sustainability. Many of our competitors are now also following the path we embarked on in 1994, and we’re happy to see this as it helps advance our industry.
How hard is it always to deliver on CR when you’ve played such a leading role?
Leading sustainability is a sweet burden and a challenge we’re happy to take on. Sustainability is embodied in our organization and we attract talented people who say they’d never have considered joining our industry if it weren’t for our Mission Zero goal. They are drawn by our leading position as global pioneers in sustainability.
Sensitizing stakeholders is also one of the seven main focus areas of Mission Zero. Our supplier and partner Aquafil is able to depolymerise recycled nylon. One of the sources of nylon they use are old industrial fishing nets, so we’ve been working with them to develop a business model whereby these fishing nets are collected from coastal communities in developing countries. This is done in such a way that the people’s livelihoods are improved and they are given access to services such as banking and micro-financing.
We’re now in the second phase of this pilot project in the Philippines on a barrier reef, working at a local level with NGOs and coordinating with the Zoological Society of London, a global marine conservation charity, setting up village savings loan associations. This includes gathering the nets and selling them to Aquafil. In this way we receive improved recycled content, Aquafil has an additional source of raw materials, and the villages are provided with an additional source of income.
So what are your next steps?
Once you’ve eliminated waste, you’re on top of your recycling programmes, so how do you move forward? The pilot project I mentioned is our way of continuing the legacy of being a restorative company, giving something back. It’s about redesigning the way we do business – creating a more sustainable future for everyone. We’ve spent the last fifteen years focusing on environmental sustainability – waste, energy, emissions, technical cycles. Parallel to that, in the last five years or so we’ve started to embrace social sustainability even more. Many organizations are only looking at traditional environmental issues in this respect.
The inclusive business model we’re now working with in the Philippines is an example of how we’re starting to address the huge global challenge of social sustainability. We’re leaders in our industry; we have the highest market share and are a billion-dollar company. We’re profitable, and we attract and retain great talent, which is a huge asset. We encourage people in our organization to learn about and understand sustainability through our internal ‘Ambassadors’ programme, and education on sustainability continues to expand outside our organization. For us sustainability is a huge differentiator. And with our new targets for social sustainability we continue to deliver on our founder’s dream of being a restorative company.