Interface

Interface has - by the global sustainability community - been recognized as a top five global sustainability leader for 18 consecutive years (1998-2020).* For their long-term and groundbreaking work on sustainability, the company has also been announced a UN Global Climate Action Award Winner (2020). But it does not stop there. They now have the ambition to become a fully regenerative company, and to lead the industrial re-revolution.

In pure facts and figures, Interface is a US-based worldwide leader in the design, production and sales of commercial flooring, such as carpet tiles, luxury vinyl tiles, rubber tiles and sheet products. They have been in business since the 1970s, are a listed company (Nasdaq), and have the commercial vision of becoming the most valuable interior products and services company in the world. Over the first twenty years, Interface grew to become a leading US-based company in the carpet tiling industry and made its founder, Ray Anderson, a wealthy man living the American dream. Their business model primarily targets architects and building contractors with design support and a direct selling approach. In 2019 they had about 4,000 employees and a revenue of US$1.34 billion (up 13.9 percent from 2018). Geographically, they today have a presence in 110 countries across the globe, even though most of their revenues still stem from the Americas (57 percent). So, what is so special about them?

 

Their journey

 

Let us go back to the mid-1990s to understand their journey. In 1994 one of Interface’s more important customers asked Ray Anderson (the founder, who was by then in his 60s but still their CEO): “What is your company doing for the environment?” Ray could not really answer the question, and the best he came up with was simply, “We comply with legislation.” As it was a large and important custom- er asking the questions, he soon set up an internal task force to ap- proach the question in a better way. In preparing a speech for the kick-off meeting of the same task force, he read the book The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken and was deeply moved. He suddenly saw the consequences of commerce and what his business was doing to the environment and future generations. In what can best be described as an epiphany, his perspectives on business and sustainability were completely changed. Deeply taken by this experience, he immediately started an internal crusade to change his company. He shook the foundations of the petroleum-intensive carpet manufacturing industry by declaring a Moonshot (an audacious corporate goal): Interface was committed to becoming the world’s first environmentally sustainable and, ultimately, restorative company.

Ray Anderson then went to Wall Street to share his newfound epiphany with analysts and investors. If this was well received? Not really. At first, his management team literally thought that the old man had gone mad. And Wall Street rewarded his awakened perspectives with a dramatic drop in share price. His deep conviction, however, soon spread good vibes internally, and the company decided to continue working on these challenges from the inside, rather than talking so much about it on the outside. And as they were a ‘bunch of engineers’, they started looking at how to approach the area in a structured and scientific way. For several years, they did not really talk openly about their journey but made tremendous progress.

What they did? As no one had really done something like this before, there was no McKinsey team standing ready to fly in and help out, or any benchmarks to draw from. Instead, their own engineering team got together and decided to tackle the challenge, which started by set- ting baselines on seven fronts. They did so with the support of what grew to become their ‘Eco Dream Team’: specialists, academics and thinkers from different fields, including the amazing author of the previously mentioned book, Paul Hawken, himself an American environmentalist, entrepreneur, author and activist. Hawken had by then already authored articles, peer-reviewed papers and several books. All certainly influenced the work of Interface.

 

No one had really done something like this before, there was no McKinsey team standing ready to fly in and help out, or any benchmarks to draw from.

 

Forming a high-profile dream team around the environment was not considered common practice for a carpet tile company in those days, and their approach was completely ground-breaking in the manufacturing sector. Together with ‘the Eco Dream Team’, they agreed to tackle seven fronts, where they set baselines to enable ongoing follow-up and measurements. And with this work, an ambitious programme called ‘Mission Zero’ unfolded. It aimed at zero negative impact on the planet by 2020 and aggressive zero targets in several areas: zero waste to landfill, zero fossil fuel energy use, zero process water use and zero greenhouse gas emissions. In this process, they looked at the material and energy flowing in and out of the company— what they took in and what they took out in the form of products and waste, including waste reduction, energy use, renewable energy, carbon emissions and water use. Much of the same things are still measured today, as several of the goals have been reached.

This was, of course, an extremely bold step for a carpet tile manufacturer that had never before given any thought to the environment. It was quite before anything of its time. We are still in 1994, by the way, the same year that Ray had his epiphany.

So, how did it go? Working in the background, the well-structured efforts of the engineering team laying the foundation not only proved to be good for the environment, but also soon saved the company hundreds of millions of dollars in costs. And people slowly started to realise that what they were doing made real sense. Their work also opened up new and sincere conversations with key customers, as well as new business. The late Ray Anderson, who became one of the first corporate sustainability evangelists in the US, was driven not only by doing good, but also by doing good business. In 2007, he said, “I always make the business case for sustainability. It’s so compelling. Our costs are down, not up. Our products are the best they have ever been. Our people are motivated by a shared higher purpose—esprit de corps to die for. And the goodwill in the marketplace—it’s just been astonishing.”

Even though some of their ambitious goals remain to be reached, they accomplished the most relevant by 2020 or even before. They for instance realized in 2019 that their net emissions of CO2 were extremely low and took the decision to offset the small remainder. This helped them reach their bold target of Zero Carbon one year before target.

 

 

 

To be continued… learn more in Better Business Better Future: Decode the Good Practices of Sustainability Trailblazers and Transform Your Corporate Business, by Elisabet Lagerstedt.

Find the book in online bookstores >>

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*the GlobeScan SustainAbility survey.